11 August 2006

Images of Chad & the Perils of "Afro-Pessimism"

The African nation of Chad attained independence from France 47 years ago (1960) yesterday. As a way of marking the anniversary Slate posted a series of photographs by Raymond Depardon including this one:

N'DJAMENA, Chad—Refugees cross the Chari River, 1980.
© Raymond Depardon / Magnum Photos.

This is the sort of image that I suspect curator Okwui Enwezor has in mind when he speaks of "Afro-pessimism" (see my post from a couple of days ago). Here is the assessment he offers in a recent interview: "It's already a given that Africa is represented in the news, however it's very difficult for the news about Africa and images of Africa to go beyond the already established contentions and clichés of the continent. The conventions through which Africa is imaged always express incredible deficiency. We're presented a place that is always in the midst of disintegration and chaos, almost at the edge of disappearing. So we tend to approach Africa with a sense of pity. In reality, there is much more going on. . . . I'm not condemning [photo-journalists], but these are conventions that have become a pathology, and this pathology is at the heart of Afro-pessimism."

Two points. First, Enwezor surely is condemning photojournalists and the conventions they sustain. The show he curated quite intentionally is meant to stand in contrast to photojournalistic representations of Africa. Second, Enwesor does not make the absurd claim that there "is no deprivation or depravity in contemporary Africa." How then might such hardships be represented? It surely will not do to ignore them especially since we in the West and North are in many instances culpable politically.

One approach would be to place the large-scale difficulties we encounter in Africa in a broader context. That way Africa does not represent the "abnormal," but rather another instance of the devastating things humans do to one another. So we might pair the picture posted above (and others like it) not only with images from non-African contexts but with texts. Here I have in mind, for instance, this poem by Adam Zagajewski, from his Without End: New & Selected Poems (2002):


Bent under burdens which sometimes
can be seen and sometimes can't,
they trudge through mud or desert sands,
hunched, hungry,

silent men in heavy jackets,
dressed for all four seasons,
old women with crumpled faces,
clutching something - a child, the family
lamp, the last loaf of bread?

It could be Bosnia today,
Poland in September '39, France
eight months later, Germany in '45,
Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt.

There's always a wagon or at least a wheelbarrow
full of treasures (a quilt, a silver cup,
the fading scent of home),
a car out of gas marooned in a ditch,
a horse (soon left behind), snow, a lot of snow,
too much snow, too much sun, too much rain,

and always that special slouch
as if leaning towards another, better planet,
with less ambitious generals,
less snow, less wind, fewer cannons,
less History (alas, there's no
such planet, just that slouch).

Shuffling their feet,
they move slowly, very slowly
toward the country of nowhere,
and the city of no one
on the river of never.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Alternatively (or additionally) one might use this poem by Wislawa Szymborska from her Poems, New & Collected 1957-1997 (1998):


Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.

They abandon something close to all they've got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.

What happens quietly: someone's dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone's bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.

Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across an oddly reddish river.
Around them, some gunshots, now nearer,
now farther away,
Above them a plane seems to circle.

Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.

Something else will happen, only where and what,
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.
If he has a choice,
maybe he won't be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh & Stanilaw Baranczak

Such texts would both generalize and sharpen the sorts of photographs that Enwezor finds objectionable. This approach might "normalize" Africa by suggesting just how common, say, forced displacement caused by war, famine or other man-made disaster actually is across the globe. It might actually complement Enwezor's own efforts in interesting ways. But it would, in any case, require exploring the connections between images and texts and how we might combine them to good effect.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great post, thanks. It makes me understand more fully how we might combine text and pictures to draw wider connections/implications from images the way you have described in previous posts. Initially when I read the post I thought of an earlier one on the genre of war photography, and the photogaphs actually taken in times peace. The images of Africa that we often are exposed to seem to have the same generic predictable qualities. However, reading the poems you posted took my mind off that and I think that might be your point and intention.

12 August, 2006 08:55  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness. Thank you for this amazing post! These photos and poems are fantastic.

12 August, 2006 10:34  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks to you both for the remarks. I think Enwezor's complaints are precisely about the "genre" of pictures of Africa and the milits of that genre. I think he is in many ways correct. The trouble is how to breach the conventional approach.

13 August, 2006 00:25  

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