Ambivalent. Photography and Visibility in African History

Hayes, Patricia; Minkley, Gary
New African Histories
Anzahl Seiten
351 S.
€ 28,99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Ana Carolina Schveitzer, Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

The intersection of history with photography is not new. During the last decades, historians have explored this medium and its usage over time, and in different places. Edited by Patricia Hayes and Gary Minkley, Ambivalent: Photography and Visibility in African History represents a new contribution to this topic. The structure of the anthology consists of two sections comprising eleven essays in total. The book results from the decade-long experience of its editors with the postgraduate module of Visual History that they had initiated in the Department of History at the University of the Western Cape. Additionally, two workshops promoted by the editors, in March of 2012 and 2014 respectively, have also contributed to creating this volume. Patricia Hayes has an extensive background in the history of photography in Africa, and her book The Colonising Camera is already a relevant reference for photography in Namibian history.1 Like Hayes, Gary Minkley has worked on the topic of visual culture and has also written about memory, oral culture, and South African history.

As the book title suggests, “ambivalence” serves a distinct function. It is presented here as a “conceptual port of call” to which authors are invited to explore the implications of photography within the African continent (p. 3). The diversity of approaches, perspectives, and methodologies in the book is noticeable, as is its prominent contribution to African history and the insights it offers into visual history. Diversity is itself also present by virtue of the region covered by the study. Even though the book does not encompass the entirety of the African continent, it still includes studies from the countries of southern, central, and western Africa. The list of authors is also representative thereof, with most of them currently working in African institutions. The body of essays includes contributions from historians, anthropologists, and curators with rich experiences in visual, public, and African history.

Considered in its entirety, the book’s primary goal is to rethink the history of photography in the African continent. The chapters take the form of independent, thematic essays, which are both informative and provocative, and by raising new questions and critically theorizing photography, the authors develop these features even further. As Patricia Hayes states in the book’s denouement, “the point, then, is not always to follow Roland Barthes” (p. 310). That does not mean, however, rejecting the renowned names within photography studies. The volume approaches the studies of many scholars of visual and art history, such as Georges Didi-Huberman, Walter Benjamin, Elizabeth Edwards, and Susan Sontag, while engaging in constructive dialogues with their body of work. Here, too, ambivalence is present, as each chapter invites the works of the aforementioned authors to dialogue, at times considering their bibliography in agreement, and at other times, exposing some of the limits of such a body of references.

The challenge the book presents to the reader is whether or not researching the visual history of Africa requires more than just applying frameworks and theories already validated in Europe. In order to understand the specificities of the issue of visibility in the African continent, it is imperative to expand and amplify the available theoretical framework regarding the study of images and photography. Identifying the limits of the visual history canon, therefore, is critical in such an endeavor, especially with regards to African studies (and even beyond it). Following the work of the most renowned scholars alone is often not enough to provide a comprehensive understanding of the plethora of African societies and the complex relations they establish with that which is seen.

Photography is at the core of the book, and although a visual archive permeates all of the essays, it is far from being the only documentary source mentioned or analyzed in the anthology. Drew Thompson, for instance, presents newspapers, official documentation, and interviews to delve into the influence of Chinese descendants on photography in Mozambique. Thompson, not unlike other authors in the volume, also makes use of oral sources. Napandulwe Shiweda, in the same way, examines interviews with photographers and other individuals whose expertise has helped him to identify places, objects, and individuals, hence interrogating and complicating notions of colonial photography. Every chapter contributes to expanding the theoretical framework beyond Eurocentric scholars in photography, by demonstrating the ways in which authors combine different sources and promote the dialogue between photography and visibility.

The volume includes analogue photography as much as it incorporates its digital materialization into the debate on visual history in Africa. There are two chapters dedicated to comprehending the uses of digital photography. By examining this tool, the authors question the popularity of digitally-manipulated photography, the cyber-based circulation of images, and a new mode of warfare in which images become strategic tools to either fight or perpetrate violence—for example, the digital photography of the Boko Haram in Nigeria outlined in George Emeka Agbo’s essay.

Historians working with photography usually share a common dilemma. Thick photographic documentation as well as the sheer volume of material—such as in a photographic series of the same event—often result in a great number of similar images. The categorization of photographic collections as tribal in the past and at present as ethnographic also poses complications. The eleven essays in this volume propose different approaches to tackle the aforementioned problem. Patricia Hayes, for instance, investigates the effects of this documentation becoming less memorable or the risk of turning it into “empty photographs”.

A few relevant topics regarding the analysis of visual sources are also illuminated by this book as it discusses different forms of visual representation, the idea of iconic photography, and the categorization and control of populations through visual elements. The volume presents a rich debate regarding the photographs in identification documents. Ingrid Masondo, for instance, analyses the assumptions and expectations of South Africa’s Apartheid government regarding the use of ID photographs as part of its Population Registration Act. Masondo’s argument is compelling, to say the least, inasmuch she proposes that the state should be recognized as a regime of seeing.

Finally, scholars interested in further understanding the ways in which photography can be used as a historical source will be inspired and motivated by the diversity of approaches within this book. While this volume is not necessarily a handbook for beginning scholars, its significance, nonetheless, lies in its critical approach and in the new questions it raises regarding the theorization of visibility, photography, and African History.

1 Patricia Hayes, Wolfram Hartmann, Jeremy Silvester (eds.), The Colonizing Camera. Photographs in the Making of Namibian History, Cape Town 1999; Out of Afrika; Windhoek 1998.

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