Many people think of photography as the ultimate democratic mass medium. Anyone can take and upload a selfie to global platforms. Photos taken by ordinary people and shared on social media have contributed to political change, for example during the Egyptian revolution of 2011.
But in much of Africa, photography has a dark past and a chequered present. Namibia, for instance, was the scene of a genocide between 1904 and 1908. Up to 80% of the Herero ethnic group and large portions of other groups were wiped out by the German colonial military machine. Photography played a role in justifying these massacres and in what followed.
Namibia’s archives contain images of proud German troops standing to attention next to the hanged bodies of Herero prisoners. In the years that followed, colonial authorities tried to portray a gentler side of white rule. Images of black people fascinated by white technology – cameras, airplanes, cars – are not uncommon. The South African rulers who followed the Germans from 1915 to 1990 also used photography for propaganda purposes.
Even today, photography is misused in Namibia. During interviews I conducted for my recently submitted doctoral dissertation, indigenous San people described how, in various villages and on some development projects, the privilege of taking photographs of San people was traded for money and donations of food.
This reality threatens to limit how far photography can be emancipatory in the future. My research involved a number of Namibian organisations that have made photography part of their mission to empower marginalised people. I found that their work is often incredibly positive, challenging widely held Namibian social norms and portraying an urgent demand to be seen. But the devil is in the detail, and often that detail relates to ongoing patterns of privilege.
Different ways of seeing
The organisations I worked with seek to “take back” photography from its historical and present misuse. They aim to get marginalised Namibians involved in telling their own stories and documenting their own communities through photography.
I was embedded in some of these projects as an ethnographic researcher, along with some of my senior students from the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). We were all relatively privileged Namibians and had to take this into account when trying to help people empower themselves through images making without centring our own experiences, especially when acting as teachers and experts.
The role of the teacher and the role of the expert are both traditionally imbued with a degree of power. Such ways of thinking about knowledge are problematic because they imply that for every expert, there is a non-expert who needs to be “given” information. This implies a powerful, involved expert on one hand and a passive receiver of knowledge on the other.
As I’ve explained in a TEDx talk related to the project, this is a particularly pervasive danger when it comes to education concerning technology.
But research shows that people learn in a better and more empowering way when they are allowed to construct their own knowledge, and are the owners of a process that decides what knowledge is important and what is not.
Through my research, I was able to see what happens when traditional ways of thinking are put aside and power is given to students to photographically describe their own identity. The results can be interesting and unique.
One example was the involvement of members of Namibia’s San communities in photographic projects. San people are widely photographed. But their own pictures, which they take themselves, hardly ever show up in published or exhibited photographic work.
The main picture with this article was taken by Tertu Fernandu, one of the San members of a photographic project I work on. The woman in the picture, Kileni Fernando, is a member of one of Namibia’s San communities. She is active in several organisations that represent the San as a collective.
It’s interesting to note the advertising sign for a curio/tourist shop called “Bushman Art” behind her. Bushman is term imposed upon a variety of San ethnic groups by Westerners, and is sometimes seen as derogatory by the San themselves. Stylised representations of typical Namibian ancient rock paintings, as supposedly emblematic of San or “Bushman” culture, are visible as part of the sign and are also painted on the wall behind it.
In the difference between its subject and the background, then, the picture seems to suggest a disconnect between what San people were seen to be in the past and what they are now. It also shows the differences between representations of San people offered to foreign visitors and the characteristics of living Namibian San people in reality.
Some of the participants’ photographs also indicated the “in-between-ness” that many told me in interviews they felt regarding their national, regional, gendered, ethnic and other identities. They often used symbolism in photographs to illustrate these feelings.
This picture was taken though the window of a curio shop which sells artefacts supposedly representing Namibia, chiefly to tourists. A hand is seen in the reflection making the sign language symbol for Namibia. On the inside of the window a sculpture of a Himba woman and child wearing traditional dress can be seen, as well as what appear to be a necklace and a carved sculpture of an elephant.
The picture seems to suggest that there are many ways of being Namibian, and that the image presented to foreign visitors is only partially correct. It’s only part of the story.
These pictures seem to challenge, or at least question, societal power relationships in Namibia. My participants said in interviews that photography could be a challenge to power structures. They said it could, for example, show queer Namibians – who still face huge discrimination – as ordinary people with hopes and desires like anyone else. It was seen as a way for “the youth” to talk to and about each other via social media.
Photography in future
It is to be hoped that Namibians interested in photography continue to engage with the photographic record and ask how they can make their practice more humane.
This is happening to some extent. Feminist organisations like the Women’s Leadership Centre have led the way in publishing books of women’s photography and writing. A number of young urban black women are producing challenging photographic work within the genre of “afrofuturism”. However, more must be done to take this movement to rural areas.
In short, it is vitally important that marginalised Namibians are encouraged to take up cameras to document their lives – on their own terms.