Dismantling the Colonial Gaze: Photography as a Means of Empowerment in Africa

By Katia Barricklow

As photography developed, many people saw images as a form of truth. Colonial photography, however, has contributed to gross misrepresentations of people in Africa. When Western nations colonized Africa, they used photography to exert control and domination, dehumanizing Africans. These photos were considered “documentary proof” that Africans needed to be saved from their own ways, a device now known as the colonial gaze. 

As African people started getting behind the lens, they began to dismantle the troubling gaze of colonialism. Photojournalists and visual arts publications played an essential role in overthrowing apartheid, and African photography has been significant in transforming cultural narratives and redefining images of self. Non-African photographers have started to reshape the narrative, too, by portraying African people in a more truthful way, holding themselves accountable for how they portray their subjects. Photography, once a tool to subjugate African people, has become an agent of change and a means of cultural reformation. Now, in a world with smartphones and social media, it is everywhere. 

For decades, photographic voyeurism has spread inaccurate information about African people and cultures. In On Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes: “This journalistic custom inherits the centuries-old practice of exhibiting exotic—that is, colonized—human beings: Africans…were displayed like zoo animals.” This trend of dehumanization has undoubtedly affected the self-image of many Africans. 

Figure 1 exemplifies Sontag’s idea of “exhibiting exotic” and showing Africans as “zoo animals” in colonial photography. The white man on the left holds his arm up to make fun of the African man’s stature. He seems amused; the African man seems angry. If you look closely at the image, there are wrinkles on the African man’s forehead as his eyebrows point downward in a scowl. Even his body language hints that he feels uncomfortable, with a stiff body and slumped shoulders. It seems like he is being forced to stand at attention in boot camp.

In figure 2, the young women are depicted as characterless bodies. Their solemn, embarrassed facial expressions and tense body language hints that they do not want their photo to be taken. One tries to cover her face with hair. All of them look miserable, many stare into the distance. Historically, colonial images of women that highlighted nudity, hairstyles, and “tribal” elements were used as propaganda to gather support for colonial ventures and justify colonial ideologies. 

Malick Sidibé, a photographer from Mali, focuses on showing the humanity in their subject, as demonstrated by Figure 3. At the bottom of this image, there is a handwritten phrase that reads: “je veux être seule” or “I want to be alone.” In response to this statement from the woman, Sidibé erased the man who had been standing next to her. Sidibé could have easily ignored his subject’s statement, but instead he empowers them, allowing this woman to have a say in her portrayal. This thoughtful image breaks free from the colonial gaze by highlighting the desires, autonomy, and hopefully future freedom of the woman in the photograph.

Figure 4 is another stark contrast to the controlling gaze of colonization. The woman in this image looks happy to be photographed. Whereas the colonial pictures above did not demonstrate any human traits of their subject, this woman looks relatable—she is approachable, fashionable, and indisputably human. She is not simply depicted as “other,” she is her own individual self. 

Undermining the colonial gaze can also have positive psychological and therapeutic impacts on Africans. A Case Study in Ghana demonstrates this idea. In this study, Laurian Bowles taught a group of female porters how to use a camera and conducted research by discussing their photographs with them. One woman named Kisu told the group: “We are so very hardworking and so strong, but they just don’t know. They should.” Since Kisu was the one behind the lens, she was able to portray herself the way she wanted to be seen. In her analysis on the impact of photography, Bowles wrote that “photographs proved useful to analyze how nonliterate people use images to tap into interior feelings and the significance they made that were similar in ways to writing.” Putting a camera in the hands of Africans is an effective way to empower them.

            Drum Magazine is another example of African photography as a means of liberation. Drum magazine began publishing in 1951 and quickly became a form of cultural expression for black South Africans. Drum published photojournalism mostly taken by black South African photographers during apartheid that revealed extreme violence, which was vital because it could “expose what the South Africa government tried to conceal.” These images could be shown domestically and internationally as concrete proof that human rights abuses were occurring under apartheid rule. Drum branded itself as a magazine with the goal of publicizing the African experience, a new idea at the time, and in a repressive apartheid society, it provided a platform for black South Africans to tell their side of the story and show the struggles their community faced. 

Though African photography is important, it is inevitable that non-Africans will take images of people on the continent. If outsiders are respectful and take accountability for their actions, they too can contradict harmful Western stereotypes through photography. To move past the colonial gaze, modern photographers must engage with their subjects and analyze their responsibility as a storyteller. After all, the purpose of photography is not to reflect stereotypes, but to tell a truthful story.

Many photographers tend to shy away from the nuances of their images when they should be thinking about how they portray their subjects every time they hit the shutter button. Afrapix, a South African photographer’s collective established during apartheid, is an important example of individuals who sought to highlight the importance of accountability in image-making. The goal of this collective was to unveil the atrocities of apartheid and analyze the relationship between photography and politics, aiming to question “photographers for not engaging with the complex relationship of how people in a racially fractured society were portrayed or the limitations placed on Black photographers.” Every decision that the photographer makes changes the way their subject is portrayed, especially in photojournalism, where one party is generally seen as innocent while the other is vilified. 

The Bang Bang Club, a group of four white photojournalists who took pictures of South Africa under apartheid, shows that outsiders can take thoughtful, useful images of African communities. These photographers were viewed as outsiders in black South African communities. As outsiders, the members of the Bang Bang Club had to deal with very sensitive and often violent subjects, but throughout this time, they kept their goal in mind, prioritizing telling the story of those who were oppressed under apartheid. The often graphic and violent images taken by these photographers were publicized in order to gain support for the oppressed majority of South Africans. The Bang Bang Club did not shy away from their duties as storytellers. Although they did not experience discrimination based on race themselves because of their privilege as whites, they were receptive and respectful. They watched the violence around them and accepted the responsibility of using their cameras to fight for a cause.

As technology becomes more accessible, it’s becoming easier to find ways to dismantle the colonial gaze. Everyday Africa, an Instagram account with over 395,000 followers, is a collective of photographers who are trying to contradict common stereotypes about Africa and Africans by posting everyday scenes. This account was founded by Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill to question mainstream ideas of storytelling. In the process of seeking Western stereotypes of Africa, photographers overlook many of the scenes that are actually unfolding in front of them. “The inaccuracy comes with the incompleteness of the stories being told. There are elephants in Africa; there are child soldiers. It’s the things that you don’t see that means people aren’t getting a complete image of a place,” says Merill. Images on the Everyday Africa Instagram account include many pictures that capture the beauty of everyday moments. This image, posted on the account, shows two women dressed in colorful gowns taking selfies. Photographers play a huge role in what we, as viewers, end up seeing, and Everyday Africa is one example of how modern photographers can help reframe the narrative by challenging themselves to capture and show audiences what’s actually in front of them.

The colonial gaze left behind many destructive stereotypes of African people and cultures, but it’s clear that new images which highlight the African perspective can be part of a brighter future. As photography lifts the veil of colonialism’s harmful legacy, Africa is shown in a completely different light. New images of scenes throughout the continent highlight fashion, family, friends and uniquely human emotions. As more accurate stories about African people and their cultures are told, photographers are able to realize the real goal of this art form, which is storytelling—and at the end of the day, the most powerful stories are the ones that reveal the truth. 


Works Cited

Bowles, Laurian R. “Doing the Snap: Storytelling and Participatory Photography with Women Porters in Ghana.” Visual Anthropology Review, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 13 Nov. 2017, anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/var.12129.

Gottschalk, Molly. “This Viral Instagram Account Is Changing Western Perceptions of Africa.” Artsy, 31 May 2017, www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-viral-instagram-account-changing-western-perceptions-africa.

McKinley, Catherine, and Layla Barrayn. Aunty! African Women in the Frame. United Photo Industries Gallery. Primary Source-Pamphlet from exhibit

Odhiambo, Tom. “Inventing Africa in the Twentieth Century: Cultural Imagination, 

Politics and Transnationalism in Drum Magazine.” African Studies, vol. 65, no. 2, 

Dec. 2006, pp. 157–174. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00020180601035625.

 “Afrapix.” South African History Online, 11 Dec. 2018, http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/afrapix.

“Photography and the Liberation Struggle in South Africa.” South African History Online, 27 July 2017, http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/photography-and-liberation-struggle-south-africa.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. 1st ed., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

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