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Last year they awarded the major grant to Stefano De Luigi for a project title T.I.A, ‘This Is Africa’. If you get to the end of this (extended) post you’ll be able to read what a group of Kenyan photographers think of the judges choice but for those who don’t stay the distance here’s a glimpse:

‘Absolutely horrendous to say the least, i find it shocking that collective idiocy on the part of the judges who are apparently ill informed about our beautiful continent and the cradle of civilization’

‘I think the greatest crime that Stafano committed was to title the particular group of pictures in question as “This Is Africa”. That title is downright wrong and derogatory; maybe even silly.’

‘Why did they give this guy a grant again? The first thing that struck me about his work is the extreme negativity that his work portrays of a continent that is not all darkness and dredgery. It seemed to me to only be a means of propogating an ill-formed opinion he has made of the region and lacks originality in that its nothing we have not already seen in the papers or iCNN.

Sometime back I wrote on Nieman Storyboard about how Luigi and VII were selling a story on their website which stated that it had not rained in Kenya for several years. Although there was a very serious drought the notion that it had not rained was absurd as it was factually incorrect.

I was genuinely amazed that this inaccuracy was able to run off the front of the VII website for several months unchecked.  It was a reminder of how few of the photography crowd are aware of the facts behind the images.

If the work looks great, then it is great, right?

Aesthetics seem to be much more important then facts, because it’s aesthetic brilliance that get you noticed.

More and more photographers work is presented without any real text. All sorts of visual tricks are used to create the story they want the audience to see, but often it is far removed from reality.  A recent exchange with the Kenyan based photographer Sarah Elliot demonstrates this.

I was interested to know why her photographs of survivors of sexual violence in the Congo were presented in black and white when color is so important to the identity of those women? This was her response:

‘While spending time with these women, interviewing them and photographing them, their pain was evident, their innocence and dignity taken, some stated they no longer felt like a woman, black and white conveyed their sense of despair, their broken bodies and souls, and their enveloping anguish. Black and white stripped away elements that got in the way of trying to convey the sense of the very identity that they had lost, that had been brutally taken from them.’

Here’s a difficult question.  Do the women of the Congo who are survivors of sexual violence feel the way Elliot describes them, or is this how she/we want to see them?

You can’t tell a person has been raped by looking at them, and if a photographer is working without accompanying text they will feel the need to impose on the photography some sense of the aftermath of rape. That can lead to very staged photography that relies heavily on a visual style to carry meaning. But what if the photographers vision is inaccurate, misleading or damaging to how we perceive the people in the photos?

Elliot states that the innocence and the dignity of the women she photographed had been taken from them. This is something that she strived to capture.

I  recently interviewed, sat with and was laughed at by  a group of women in the same part of the DR Congo, a number of whom were also survivors of sexual violence.

I would argue strongly that when a man rapes a woman it is his dignity that is lost and not the woman’s.

I would also argue that the women who have grown up under the shadow of war are far less innocent then Elliot presents them. Many of these women are inspirational figures. That’s how Sam Perkins, a midwife who works in this field with MSF, described them to me. That as group the majority are not wracked by despair, neither their souls nor their bodies broken.

That is not to try and diminish the lingering effects of rape, which are of course profound, but different for everyone. What I am arguing is that the photographers response often tells us more about how they feel they might be affected by an event then the people in the pictures. The more dramatic, the darker, the more brutal, the better. But then we are moving into the realms of theatre.

When we serve people up as victims, ripe for our pity, without real context, without story, to make a point which is often lost anyway, then I believe somewhere along the line it is a little of our own dignity that is lost.

What has this to do with Getty Good For A Laugh?

The tagline for their award is YOUR VISION. REALIZED.

Its an open admission that it’s no longer enough to document, to tell peoples stories; we must forge our vision, however distorted, however incomplete, onto those whom were seemingly born for the pity of the lens. And if you look at who the judges are (Stephen Frailey, Jean-Francois Leroy, Eugene Richards, Kathy Ryan, Jamie Wellford) then it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the photography we often see published says more about the way they think about photography, then the way the people in the photos actually feel.

In the end documentary photography served up this way has eaten itself. It’s become consumed with the pursuit of the perfect frame based on the opinions of a tiny group of influential editors, as opposed to the pursuit of storytelling that will educate, entertain and inform a larger audience.

No-one could have illustrated this better than Stefano De Luigi in his winning submission to Getty last year titled, with no hint of irony, ‘This Is Africa’. You can read it below, and then following that the response of a group of Kenyans who belong to a photography club in Nairobi, and a more considered response by the South African photo editor Thato Mogotsi.

Project Title: “TIA – This is Africa”

“Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.

Justice the founder of my fabric mov’d:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.

Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here.”
– Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, Inferno

She’s like a descent to netherworld, a series of circles that follow one after the other, alternating and overlapping. Every human tragedy here is well represented. Internal fights, as well as religious and tribal conflicts, frauds and prostitution, hunger and water shortage, betrayal and any kind of affection’s relativity. And yet, as the Phoenix, life always prevails, revives and goes on.

I’ve chosen Africa, not as a single story but through different tales, several years and many travels. I want to describe part of the mysterious, darken and multi-form puzzle that this continent is. It’s often impossible not to hate her, and yet she goes straight into your heart, red cells and soul like one of the incurable and fulminating viruses that are typical of these lands. Africa blues like malaria.

My project has already covered issues in several countries and regions in Africa. I have documented the devastating effects from the worst drought in the last decade in Kenya and Burkina Fasco, Ethiopia’s current food crisis and the famine that killed over one million people in Southern Somalia. I’ve covered the aftermath of an 18 year civil war and the emerging community of former children soldiers in Liberia. I have also documented the increasing child prostitution problem in Ivory Coast and the remains of the Kimberley diamond mines in South Africa.

Additional chapters of my project are due to be done. The Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography will enable me to take next steps which will include Sudan, Chad and Darfur. I will document refugees’ lives in one of the worst civil wars of the whole continent and to document the birth (hopefully) of a new modern state. Next year in southern Sudan a referendum of this zone’s independence will be held and it will reflect the consequences of radical religion the country’s life. Tragic and gorgeous events, vicissitudes standing at the humanity’s border, in which humanity really represent the keystone.

T.I.A. This is Africa.


The following are responses from a photography group based in Nairobi:

‘I think the greatest crime that Stafano committed was to title the particular group of pictures in question as “This Is Africa”. That title is downright wrong and derogatory; maybe even silly.’

‘Hello Everybody,

It is not a crime to depict and portray ugliness and horror (and Africa like ALL continents s rich of those), but it is indeed dishonest if not a crime to continue indulging always and only in negative aspects. What I see as a crime though is to disinform the viewers and the audience with a title such as This Is Africa. This Is Offensive indeed. Then the idea of telling different stories, different tales under one only umbrella called “Africa” is also absurd. It seems after that old colonialists that divided the continent setting artificial borders are now followed by new colonialists eager to reunite it under a uniqueness that it doesn’t exist if not in the stereotyped perspective of the viewer, be him or her a photographer, a writer, a film maker etc..

I always find extremely irritating sentences like This Is…..whatever it is supposed to be, because nothing, not even an individual is only one thing. We always are a rough summary of a chaotic multiplicity. But reducing an entire continent to only one image, or only one story is really outrageous. Both if the story were a negative or a positive one.

Going back to the award, what is clear though by this particular awarding is that the negative stereotype about Africa is still alive and kicking, but honestly, what shocks me is that those photos were even nothing special at all. Stereotyped shots of a stereotyped view. This Is Sad indeed.’

What I find disturbing is not so much that he chose to highlight our negativity (I think it is up to us as Africans to show the world our beauty) but that his shots have stripped the subject of all their dignity.

For example,iImage 13 of the tribes-people…look like they were tossed into a pit like a mass grave except of living people.

‘Absolutely horrendous to say the least, i find it shocking that collective idiocy on the part of the judges who are apparently ill informed about our beautiful continent and the cradle of civilization…that`s all i can say for now, but i find it very annoying that he won the grant…’

‘Why did they give this guy a grant again? The first thing that struck me about his work is the extreme negativity that his work portrays of a continent that is not all darkness and dredgery. It seemed to me to only be a means of propogating an ill-formed opinion he has made of the region and lacks originality in that its nothing we have not already seen in the papers or iCNN.

I personally found it insulting being anAfrican who has seen some of these atrocities in so called ‘developed countries’.If he were highlighting the plight of the refugee or some other point of interest it would be more clear what his mission is but as it stands, he just wants to highlight the ‘ugliness’ of the continent…..

I’ve chosen Africa, not as a single story but through different tales, several years and many travels. I want to describe part of the mysterious, darken and multi-form puzzle that this continent is. It’s often impossible not to hate her, and yet she goes straight into your heart, red cells and soul like one of the incurable and fulminating viruses that are typical of these lands. Africa blues like malaria.

Some of his pictures I must say, are beautifully composed, but his mission is wanting…nd his attitude a complete put-off. The images he has taken cannot and should not be summed up as “THIS IS AFRICA!!!!”‘

‘Wow!

With statement like “and yet she goes straight into your heart, red cells and soul like one of the incurable and fulminating viruses that are typical of these lands. Africa blues like malaria.”

I think he’s playing for words aiming for being poetic about ‘Africa’ only with the end result emphasizing the cliche, TIA. Because although he says his next work will include “Tragic and gorgeous events, vicissitudes standing at the humanity’s border, in which humanity really represent the keystone.” His proposal doesn’t bring in to fore some of those gorgeous events.

Well one will argue that the things he writes about happen in Africa and they’d be right but there are many Africans… infact a very big percentage who’ve never witnessed a war of any kind, seen people die of hunger or ever suffered “the incurable and fulminating viruses that are typical of these lands”. Except for through media. So what he ends up doing by mocking the phrase “This Is Africa” is just validating it by the examples he chooses.

The things he mentions, happen in Africa but it would be misleading to imply they represent Africa. But hey Africa can do with all the ‘saviors’ it can get.’


‘My greatest contestation with Stefan de Luigi’s winning proposal would obviously be his reference to an extract from Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth-century epic poem Divine Comedy.

His particular choice of quotation from the first part of the Italian poet’s theological literature, Inferno, ironically speaks volumes of the photographer’s intentions in documenting his chosen subject – the continent of Africa.

Given the theological context of Dante’s canonized writings, juxtaposed so boldly beside De Luigi’s scenes of nameless, faceless, sickly human figures in generic landscapes, it’s easy for one to assume that the photographer might suffer delusions of grandeur when it comes his role as documenter.

While Dante’s Inferno tells of the poet’s journey through a medieval, allegorical concept of Hell, in his introduction the photographer chooses to use a disjointed key of language to create comparisons between his own relationship with his subject and the poet’s exalted role in his tale of divine justice in the eyes of a punishing God. De Luigi goes on to audaciously describe Africa as a “mysterious, darken and multi-form puzzle.”

How the esteemed judges failed to consider this interplay is perplexing. How it is assumed that any sharp reader may not pick up on it is simply astounding. Is it really the role of an editorial photographer to brand his subject in such a superfluous manner? I direct this question specifically to the judges, whose final decision cannot even begin to be justified by the images produced by the grant candidate.

But then again, I am reading de Luigi’s proposal from my perspective as an African – a position I’m starting to believe is one of privilege rather than despair.

I also concede that as a result of my background in newsroom photo-editorship and my current work as a picture researcher with a well-known South African photography school, I am likely to find most Western depictions of people who look like me to be moot rather than offensive.

So it is in my, arguably cynical, view that de Luigi’s chosen title fails to redeem any agency – from either photographer or subject – that he may argue in his proposal for the Getty Images grant. He’s statement is simply: ‘This is Africa.’

T.I.A. How very catchy. It might as well be a tagline for a designer sports clothing label advertisement

Who does not know of the suffering Africa? Who has not seen it in mainstream media broadcast across the world?

De Luigi’s images all have one dire characteristic in common; they show the anonymous representation of the people and communities he encountered on his ‘many travels’ through Africa.

I recognize in de Luigi’s images a movement toward a globally accepted notion of a generic Africa. One country. One we can all easily recognize because we all fear to scrutinize it. © Thato Mogotsi’

More Reading/Thinking:

John Edwin Mason: How to Photograph Africa, a Satire by Getty Images & Stefano de Luigi

David Campbell: Looking for agents not victims in the Congo

Aric Mayer: Photography And Sexual Violence

Besieged

 

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

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