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100 years of photographic misrepresentation

Africa is on a quest to reclaim the continent from over 100 years of photographic misrepresentation. Local photographers are looking for balance on a continent so often portrayed by its extremes.



“Let me start of by saying that most photographic series, reports or documentaries about Africa are not truthful. They are either captured in a sensational way or depictions of partial, one-sided half-truths with a mostly political aim. It’s these misrepresentations that form the basis for subsequent viewpoints.”

Nigerian photographer Charles Okereke could write a whole essay about how his country and continent have been misrepresented by outside observers over the past century.

“These barometers have deeply dug their talons into the fabric of our nation as notions which have become rigidly accepted. There is no objective photographic examination which could call forth a fresher regeneration of a true concept of our continent.”

The experiences of foreign photographers is not the same as their African counterparts. To be situated in one’s own country is to be grounded in all happenings, being able to give firsthand reports and understand issues more fully. This situation is slowly shifting as many foreign photographers now settle on the continent, but that wasn’t the case in previous decades.

AIDS orphans in "rural East Africa". Photo credit: Trust For Africa's Orphans.

AIDS orphans in “rural East Africa”. Photo credit: Trust For Africa’s Orphans.

Western image

In James Michira’s 2002 paper Images of Africa in the Western Media he provides a crude seven-point summary of the prevailing western image of Africa:

  1. Africa as homogenous entity
  2. ‘The dark continent’
  3. ‘The wild jungle’
  4. Hunger, famine and starvation
  5. Endemic violence, conflict and civil war
  6. Political instability, flagrant corruption and incompetent leadership
  7. HIV/AIDS.

Reasons for this portrayal can be traced to by the general lack of knowledge about the continent, the fact that most commentators have never visited, and the most important factor: photographic misrepresentation.

“They possess these images courtesy of the Western media through it’s (mis)representation of Africa”, writes Michira. “The African continent is depicted as dependent, crisis-driven, hopeless or pitiable. Without exception, the images have been negative and then sensationalize the ‘dark’ side of Africa. Ever since colonial times, such images of Africa have persisted in the West and they still permeate the perspectives taken by the powerful Western media.”

Photography plays a big role is this, painting a biased, subjective presentation of inaccurate, fallacious images of propaganda about the continent.


While photographs like these are extremely disturbing, they tell only partial truths about the African continent. Malnutritioned girl in Nigeria during the Biafran War. Photo credit: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, USA via Wikimedia Commons.

Starvation in the jungle

As an example of Africa as the ‘Wild Jungle’, Michira asks the following question: when does a drought that threatens millions of lives make the front page of The New York Times? The answer: When animals die.

“In 1992, the New York Times, while covering the drought and starvation that ravaged multiple Southern African countries like Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa, published five substantial stories in eight days. Three of the stories were very prominently displayed. They were about the elephants, the rhino and other endangered species while the other two shorter ones appearing deep in the inside pages were on the African people themselves.”


Next to that is the fact that most Western media for years only published images of Africa featuring famine and starvation. Moving images of poor, emaciated and malnourished children who sorrily look stare into the camera. No matter which country they’re from, they tell the same story — no distinction in Africa as a homogenous entity.


Rebel soldiers in the Central African Republic. Photo credit: HDPT via Wikimedia Commons.


When not covering misery, photographers focused on various forms of violence, ranging from ‘tribal’ clashes, armed conflicts, and civil wars to genocide. Those images have a high premium in Western media and usually make headlines.

“While it may be difficult to achieve total objectivity in photography, it is not lost to many observers that reports in the Western media about war and conflicts in Africa are often crisis-driven in such a way as to imply that Africans are naturally savage, warlike, violent and steeped in primordial tribal feuds,” says Michira.

Just add a portion of political instability to that mix and photograph a few corrupt dictators, coups and military rulers to paint a completely disturbed image.


Livestock carcasses litter the ground in Somaliland during the 2011 Horn of Africa drought. Photo credit: Oxfam East Africa via Wikimedia Commons.


Is there a simple reason why photographic misrepresentation has been going on for so long?


“Misinformation about Africa has become a growth industry in the West”, Ama Biney, a lecturer in West African studies at Middlesex University and Birkbeck College, University of London, says. But why? As answers she lists commercialization, monopolies, foreign policy and schools.

In case of the first it’s because media corporations need to make profit for their shareholders, therefore commercializing the portrayal of Africa. Images of starving babies sell, just like violence and despair; not quality, professional, objective and balanced reporting. The second reason is explained by the fact that Western corporate giants own media outlets. They determine what is being reported.

“Foreign policy” means western interests in Africa. For example, writing in their book The News Media, Civil War and Humanitarian Action, authors Minear, Scott and Rienner argue that “pictures of starving children, not policy objectives, got us (the United States) into Somalia in 1992. Pictures of US casualties, not the completion of our objectives, led us to exit.”

Michira adds: “When terrorists attacked Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the US and Western media in general gave it abundant coverage because US interests abroad were targeted.”

Last but not least, schools. Michira explains: “Unlike the average African high school student who studies not just African but European history, American history, among other world histories, the average American student either is not exposed to the history and geography of Africa or is exposed to materials that contain inaccurate information.”

Container barber shop in Joe Slovo Park, Cape Town. Photo credit: Vgrigas for Wikimedia Commons.

Container barber shop in Joe Slovo Park, Cape Town. Photo credit: Vgrigas for Wikimedia Commons.

Proper representation

According to Okereke, the key limitation is a lack of opportunities. “It is noteworthy that in our environment many of the basic instruments of photography have been highly neglected, especially when it comes to representing our own continent. These are relegated as being unimportant or not viable commercially, but should be the guard which as complementary factors adds to a nation’s development and her presentation of visual history. There is an urgent need for the development of these aspects if Africa is to achieve a proper and fair photographic representation of itself.”

For Michira, it doesn’t matter if the photographic misrepresentation of the African continent is a result of biased, unbalanced and subjective reporting, or is a consequence of a new way of perceiving reality where few corporate giants are creating commercialized representations of the continent in order to maintain their own businesses and ideological agendas.

“The issue here, it seems, is that these representations are always focused on the negative, the awkward, the weird and the absurd, the wild and the exotic. The fact remains, however, that these images are not all that Africa is about and, moreover, some of those images are not unique to Africa.”

Both agree that all effort must be undertaken to change these misrepresentations. Photographers need to uphold the professional ethics of journalism that call for the highest possible level of objectivity, neutrality and balance in reporting, “even as they operate in the cut-throat atmosphere of Western competitive media.” And there is a chance for African photographers to show a different continent as well. Not depending on Western media, but to establish their own outlets. This way they can show their own image.

As Patrice Lumumba said: “Africa will write its own history, and it will be a history of glory and dignity”.