Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, wrote in 1960: “The day will come when history will speak… Africa will write its own history” – and although it is not through written words, a new generation of African photographers is showing the real issues that affect their people: from gentrification and sexuality, to evolving gender roles and globalisation. In this way, they are controlling the African narrative themselves.
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In the past few years, within the creative industry, social media is transforming perceptions. In particular, local photographers across the continent – from countries such as Zimbabwe, Morocco, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana – are using their phones and their cameras to capture the diversity and energy, documenting a continent that is changing at breakneck speed.
Zash and Chiedza Chinhara are a Zimbabwean creative duo who work together to create high-fashion and street-style shoots in Harare. Zash, the photographer, and Chiezda, the stylist and muse, use their social media handles @diaryofsmurfdinkie and @zashcraft to highlight the beauty of Harare. Their shoot locations are often at old, run-down parts of the city, in which they photograph models posing in vibrant and modern clothing and textiles. The striking images that flood their Instagram accounts all seem to have one thing in common: Harare is as much a character in their content, not just the models and clothes.
Chiedza and Zash use their social media platforms to dispel traditional norms of Zimbabawe, where women are expected to wear certain clothing that is considered formal and proper. Chiedza herself – adorned with piercings, big hair and crop tops – believes that through her images young women can express freedom of style and sexuality without being afraid. “Because of the way Zimbabwe is in general, that mentality of women should wear specific clothing – a skirt, a blouse or heels, or whatever – basically, I then show people [that] you can literally wear clothes like that but it doesn’t have to be so rigid. You can add a little bit of… ‘spice’ to it,” she says. “It is still a lot to teach people and it is hard because there is a lot of staring and there is a lot of judging that comes with it. But I think Zimbabwe is going to get there eventually. I think there are more people like me pushing the agenda that you can dress the way you feel or dress the way you want to.”
Zash believes it is important for young, modern Africans to tell their own stories as sometimes the cultural context could be misleading. “There are a lot of very impressive photographers in the world that would come here to Zimbabwe and would not be able to take pictures with the same love that I have, nor with the context that I am able to give,” he says. “Someone could come and see children in the streets playing with stones and think ‘Oh my gosh, that is so sad, they can’t afford toys’ whereas someone from here would look and know immediately that the kids are playing a local game called pada, we all know what that is.”
We do not need to discount the bad things that are going on; but we need to paint a fuller picture of Africa – Zash Chinhara
The danger, Zash goes on to explain, is that a person taking the picture of the children playing with stones without understanding what the game is or its meaning can then produce an image with an undertone of pity. “Africa is a very complex place. The struggle aspect has been captured by many people over the years. We do not need to discount the bad things that are going on; however, there is a life and a vibrancy here. We need to paint a fuller picture of what Africa is.”
In Ghana, contemporary photographers like Nana Kofi Acquah, Francis Kokoroko and Prince Gyasi have mastered the use of digital platforms to showcase their works and images to audiences far and wide. Nana Kofi Acquah (@africashowboy) has 94.9k followers on his Instagram account, Francis Kokoroko has 16.2k and Prince Gyasi (@princejyesi) has 79.2k. Each takes images of the places they grew up in and their local communities – showing parts of Ghana that many have not seen, such as the thriving fishing communities, major cities, hillside forests and the beaches along the Atlantic.
Nana Kofi Acquah is a regular contributor to Everyday Africa (@everdayafrica), an extremely popular Instagram feed with more than 400k followers which captures a side of Africa the world doesn’t see. The feed has spawned a movement of similar ‘everyday’ projects in different parts of the world that seek to challenge stereotypes of their cities, as well as a book. A popular image of Acquah’s, shown on the Everyday Africa feed, is a photo of his children playing on a digital tablet. The comments and reception of that particular picture show that it is still deemed surprising today that African children could own such modern electronics, especially children in a fishing community in Ghana. “There were more fundamental questions that people had on their minds,” he says. “If we are not willing to start conversations, no proper changes are ever going to happen. I feel that as a photographer, my core job is to trigger conversations.”
Opening our eyes
Francis Kokoroko echoes similar sentiments. When he began as a photographer, browsing through images on the internet revealed photos of Europeans shot in dignified poses – but he struggled to find similar images of Ghanaians. Disappointed, he began to post an image a day of Ghanaians he encountered in similar poses using his phone camera, tagging each image as #Ghana. From that, he continued to take photos of a fast-developing Accra, as the capital city spawned a growing middle class that came with new aspirations, lifestyle changes and gentrification. “Photography has a way of making you present and aware of what is happening around you,” he says. “For me, that is the beauty of photography. It affects you, and it changes you and you begin to see things that you may not have paid attention to. It is important that we have photographers churning out images and documenting our country.”
Prince Gyasi, who also started off posting images of Jamestown, the heart of Accra, and its local fishermen on Instagram, is now represented by a gallery in Paris. He is also active in the community through his charity Boxed Kids, and believes that he holds a responsibility to tell the stories of the people from his home. “For me to show that I am a Ghanaian, I have to make sure the stories here are told,” he says, pointing to how the country’s first Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah argued that his fellow Ghanaians should tell their own stories and not let people tell them on their behalf. “To be able to get the truth out there, I have to do it myself. I am not going to wait for someone to tell me that this is how the story goes. It’s been done before, and we need to correct that. It is important for us to use our art to tell the truth.”
Photographers such as Hassan Hajjaj, Lakin Ogunbanwo and Omar Victor Diop are now showing in high-fashion Western publications or institutions, and African fairs and festivals including Lagos Photo, Addis Foto Fest, Joburg Art Fair, ART X Lagos and the Dakar Biennale are beginning to feature many more photographers from the continent. Yet the whole notion of non-commercial photography as a legitimate skill is still new across the continent, as Gyasi told the BBC in March 2019. “If you are from Ghana, being an artist or a creative is hard, because people are usually giving respect to the commercial photographers.”
The advent of new mobile technologies and digital platforms have provided innovative ways to capture images that were not possible before. For many countries within the continent where cameras and equipment are very expensive, the options of using mobile phones to take photos has lowered barriers of entry and distribution. Social media is what’s really allowing photographers on the continent to not only reach audiences they could never reach before, but to also change how Africa is seen in the rest of the world, by taking photos of real African people on the streets and posting them online: so that when a person searches #Africa they don’t just see famine or poverty.
In Addis Ababa, female photographer Eyerusalem Jiregna (@eyerusalem_a_jiregna) is a rare gem. There are no schools for photography where she is, and many women do not pick up a camera due to society’s strict gender roles and expectations. Because of this, she tends to document women in non-traditional roles such as female construction workers. “The way the country is going sometimes you can’t choose your job and you need to do whatever you find because there are many people struggling out here. I want to tell the stories of people doing whatever it takes to survive.”
Eyerusalem’s most popular images are of the local women of Harar, a Muslim city in the Eastern part of a predominately Christian Ethiopia. The women in Harar wear colourful and eye-catching traditional clothing and fabrics, a stark contrast to how Muslim women are often shown, in black or dark-coloured hijabs and burqas. The city itself is technicoloured with turquoise walls, fuchsia doors and yellow windowpanes adorning streets with Coca Cola-branded red walls.
“People were surprised to see black Muslim women wearing colourful scarves,” she says. “Our country is majority Christian so many people did not expect to see Muslim women from Ethiopia. Many people took to these pictures and would message to know more about the place so that they could visit and see for themselves. The response was really great.”
Like many other African photographers, Eyerusalem also maintains that social media has been a positive tool in her storytelling as a way to break down connotations about her country in particular. “There are many other stories that have been told about my country that are just about famine and diseases but there are other things happening here that are beautiful and progressive, and I want other people to appreciate the processes that we are going through. To see the beauty in them.”
The growth of these contemporary storytellers on the continent is a positive movement. It means fewer stereotypes and more knowledge of the world we live in. These photographers are showing the African continent in all its complexity and diversity, its energy and creativity, to a growing global audience. This is the real Africa that the world is yet to know.
The Cultural Frontline: The street photographers reframing Africa is broadcast on BBC World Service from 01:30 GMT on Saturday 19 October 2019.
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