Klipspringer resting on a rock

One of my favorite animals since we first saw them in a zoo in the Netherlands. Klipspringer literally means ‘rock jumper’, and it is one of the things they do best. You can find them on rocky outcrops, although they are hard to spot because their coat blends in so well with the environment. Klipspringers are largely monogamous, and partners generally stay within five meters of each other. Females are generally a bit larger than the males, but only the males have short and spiky horns. Such a joy to find these in the wild!

Scrub hare grooming

An uncommon sighting of a scrub hare, grooming itself, during daytime. Usually, a hare will burrow a small hollow in the ground in which its body fits snugly. Lying flat, even predators cannot detect them because their color blends with the surroundings.

Black Rhinoceros

My first black rhino! The black rhino is actually not black in color, but brown or grey like its cousin the white rhino. One of the main differences between the black and the white rhino is the shape of its lips. The mouth of the black rhino has a slight V-shape, unlike the white rhino which has a straight mouth. This is why the species are also known as hook-lipped rhinoceros for the black, and square-lipped rhinoceros for the white.

The aesthetics of African diaspora

Lawson - Woman with child
Deana Lawson – Woman with child, 2017

An image of a woman holding a crying baby in her living room, while another child seems to be flitting in and out of the frame. The sparse interior, the cheap curtains and the slightly dirty walls speak of poverty. The woman, however, looks into the camera with a challenging expression, as if she wants to say ‘yes, this is my life, what of it?’.

Photographer Deana Lawson has been hailed as a champion of the unpacking of the complexities of race and identity. She has taken photographs of African women and men in their homes in the US, but also in Jamaica, the DRC and South Africa. A recent profile in The New Yorker rejoices in Lawson’s portraits, because they are, for a viewer in the African diaspora, so recognizable. “One of the things many people in the diaspora have shared – unavoidably – is the experience of poverty, but Lawson’s work suggests other, deeper vectors that may also connect us: certain gestures and interpersonal attitudes, strategies of escape, modes of defense or display, pleasures and fears, aesthetics, superstitions, and, perhaps most significant, shared fantasies.

How to portray people without turning them into stereotypes? For me, this is one of the greatest riddles of photography. Especially when it comes to photographs of black people, the story of the photographer often takes precedence over the stories of the people portrayed. In this blog I have discussed a number of these cases: National Geographic confessed that much of their photography in the history of the magazine has been tainted by racist or ethnocentric ideas. Other photographers, like Diane Arbus, have been criticized for fetishizing the otherness of her subjects. Even Apartheid photographer Omar Badsha can be said to use his photography to advance his own ideology instead of giving a true representation of the lives of his subjects.

On the other hand, giving that true representation may be an impossibility. Every photograph is at least two steps away from the lived experience of its subject. First, the photographer chooses a frame and in doing so a particular perspective on the person portrayed. Second, the viewer of the finished photograph sees it from their own context. The viewer gives meaning to the photograph from his or her own history and experiences. These layered interpretations give plenty of opportunities to shift away from the reality of the person portrayed in the photograph.

Deana Lawson’s photographs seem to portray life as it is. We see black people at home, in their own space, with their own mess and their own objects of beauty. An uninformed look at the photographs would lead the viewer to conclude that we are given an insight in these people’s world: the aesthetics of African diaspora, as Zadie Smith labels it in The New Yorker. Smith feels empowered by these photographs: “Outside a Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, just keeping your head above the water, struggling. But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen.” This is a great testimony to the strength of Lawson’s pictures. But reality, as always, is more complicated.

Lawson - Brother and Sister Soweto, 2017
Deana Lawson – Brother and Sister Soweto, 2017

A young man in a bedroom, looking fearlessly into the camera while making a sign with his hand. A young child is half hiding behind his back, looking away from the camera. Lawson is not bashful about the way her photographs came about. They are staged portraits, in which Lawson had control over everything the viewer of her photographs sees. About this photograph, taken in Soweto, she says: “I wanted to represent him claiming his space and holding up the West Side symbol, like brothers in California and New York. So I’m collapsing this distance of the young black man in Soweto, and his relationship to young black men in the U.S. This is his little sister and I wanted him to protect her in a way, but I also wanted her body and her face to almost refuse the camera, so I asked her to turn away — to create sort of a dynamic relationship between his forward confrontation with the camera, and her looking away.

The gesture of the young man and the posture of the girl are all prompted by Lawson. In other photographs she rearranges interiors. The baby in the photo at the top is not the woman’s child. So whose world are we seeing in Lawson’s photographs? Are the similarities between photos taken in different countries an expression of an African diaspora aesthetics, or are the similarities due to Lawson’s choices in what to include in the frame, and how to pose the subjects? What gesture would the young man from Soweto make in his daily life, hanging out with friends? Maybe it would have been this West Side symbol, maybe he wants to claim this global connection his brothers – but because the photograph is staged we will never know.

As a photographer, I’m also making choices to include or exclude certain things that make [this photo] appear like reality, but it’s not,” Lawson says. She doesn’t claim to give a true representation. The dissonance between real and staged is a central theme in her work. It is what makes Lawson an artist, and not an ethnographer of the African diaspora aesthetics.

Changing the world through photography

“Photography is not a photocopy of reality” my lecturer in photography said in our first class. A photo is not necessarily an accurate duplicate of the world, because it adds subjective feelings and opinions. Africa and Africans have been subjected to many othering discourses that add negative feelings and are based on unfavourable opinions. This is especially visible in the history of South Africa. Omar Badsha is a South African photographer who lived through the era of Apartheid. In a recent public debate at the University of Pretoria on occasion of the launch of his newest book Seedtimes, he explained how he uses photography to change the world.

Badsha is a self-taught photographer, who started out taking pictures of the work circumstances of chemistry workers to assist the advocacy of their trade union. He also photographed people in townships and protest actions against Apartheid. “I use photography like an author who uses words, or a painter who uses paint,” he says, “to express what happens in a community.” This does not mean showing only the problems and misery in the townships. “I photograph their everyday rituals. I use the camera to explore the space they create, and the dignity they have.”

The point of Badsha’s photography is not creating art, or purely documenting life. He uses photography to agitate for change. This change should happen not only in actual living circumstances, but also in the way people think. The people he captures in his photographs are the major actors in changing society, and in his photography, Badsha aims to empower them and change their mindset. Being black in Apartheid times meant being worth less than a white person, a notion that penetrates and diminishes the sense of self and personhood. The goals of Badsha’s photography is to tell a different story. “We are human, not just black”, Badsha says. “The central concern in our art was to articulate what it is to be a black person.” Photography is a strong tool to do this. Instead of portraying black people in a stereotyped way, as exotic individuals or as inferior beings, Badsha’s photography shows them as humans. “In the book you see relationships. You see a father and a son, a mother and a child. You see lovers. This is a different narrative than the stereotype.”

Photography should bring people together in a common humanity, instead of enforcing the stereotype of the exotic or inferior other. Seedtimes is a valuable retrospective on the work of an inspiring photographer who uses photography as political activism to change the world.