Expanding Africa’s story through photojournalism
The Uganda Press Photo Award (UPPA) ceremony, held November 8th, gave a unique platform to tell a multitude of stories through photographs, in doing so changing the role of photojournalism to both viewers and participants. Serubiri Moses reviews the exhibition and writes about the practice of photojournalism.
By Serubiri Moses
Walking through the city of Kampala can sometimes be disturbing—just as any modern city—due to traffic hours, congestion and crime, but what one realizes is that the people of Kampala are quite sociable and agreeable.
Unfortunately, this is not the most prevalent angle told by international media who are more interested in human rights abuse, the anti-gay issue, riots, children dying of poverty, and young mothers dying in labor.
The international press has more or less defined our country like this to the world: Uganda is a place where hundreds of gays are killed every year, and where the average Ugandan does not have any human rights, especially not during riots. Photographs depict us crying with tear gas, caned by the Kiboko squad, or as lesbians who are excluded from the outside world with plans of going into exile.
One must always ask the question: Is this the only story available?
Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian writer and winner of Orange Broadband Prize for Half of a Yellow Sun, notably spoke out against the dangers of a single story.
The premise of much of the photojournalism in Uganda is to enumerate a story that has already been told thousands of times: Ugandans are very chaotic people. Which may be true to an extent, but it is one-tenth of the entire spectrum.
Contrary to this assertion, Uganda is actually a country of breathtaking landscapes, such as were captured in the Rwenzori Mountains photography exhibition at MishMash last month. These images showed beautiful vistas in the so-called “Mountains of the Moon”, landscapes that seemed too exotic and serene to be in this country, but this is once again another uncommon story.
Why doesn’t the international media for example focus on the part nationwide celebration of the month of imbalu, the season of manhood, where Kampala, Mbale, Jinja, Mukono and Kamuli people go out on the streets to support these young men’s journey of initiation into manhood; a spiritual and colorfully vibrant celebration.
These are after all the important stories to not only individuals but to entire communities. Stories like that occasionally make the national news, but they also sometimes arrive on the wrong programs, like Eco-talk, a feature series on NTV about the environment.
Simpler, fresher stories
I found working as a feature photographer for the New Vision very tiring. Mainly because all the contrived feature stories blocked out any other simpler, fresher stories that were not deemed necessary to be alloted print space, either by design or political environment, within the media house.
Luckily, such simpler, fresher stories ended up in the Uganda Press Photo exhibition at the Makerere Gallery.
I realized while looking at the entries that there seemed to be a general lack of neutrality. Many of the photographs were the extreme types, which you can find on the front cover of a major newspaper in Uganda. And some others were salient and restrained even, except in specific instances where the photojournalist was probably overwhelmed by the scene, choosing to stay faithful to representing it as he had seen it.
One such photograph was the winning image by Daniel Edyegu Enwaku, a New Vision stringer based in Mbale. The image is about the much talked about landslides in Bududa earlier this year as a result of heavy rains. It shows a woman moaning over a heap of earth, which we assume are buried family members. Enwaku, like any other watcher at the scene, is overwhelmed by the woman’s helplessness.
Another photographic essay showed the riot police releasing teargas on a football field, with the players lying on the ground crying, others rushing to collect water nearby. Also here, it showed that the photographer was simply overwhelmed, and chose to capture this hilarious moment, just like anyone else would. In this series, however, we fail to see a precise moment out of all this madness that truly captures the story, you fail to see the photojournalist’s eye for details.
Same old story
Going back to my previous argument of the single story, it seemed to me looking at the various entries into this competition that they had been influenced in someway to tell the same story over and over again. They had been tragically pulled into the cycle of thinking that there was only one story to tell: The shocking story that you can sell readily to a buyer like the photo editor at the Red Pepper.
Photojournalists must make a living, and they do this by giving in to the demands of the media houses who are all about sensationalizing events, creating fiction and thereby losing a position of neutrality.
“The true mark of a photojournalist is neutrality in storytelling.”
– AFP Chief Photographer and judge, Carl De Souza.
In my opinion, the taste for the extreme in Ugandan photojournalism is notable, as there is a sense of nothing in between sensationalism and banality. The images churned out of the Red Pepper every other day are extremely vague and trite images that are superimposed with outrageous captions to captivate the tabloid market.
A few months ago, the New Vision and NTV distributed an equally trite image showing FDC Women’s League leader Ingrid Turinawe being grappled on the breast by the riot police. Many people on social media took to making jokes about the police’s act of grabbing the leader’s breast.
Such photographs have the ability to ruin the seriousness of photojournalism, which is the ability to make statements using journalistic and photographic techniques. The act of storytelling, is turned into something contrived, misleading and untrustworthy.
Photos that work
Unlike the blatantly shocking image of the riot police grappling Turinawe, the public got to see some more subtle images at the ‘Art at Work’ pavilion curated by Simon Njami this past September. These were so straight to the point that the Monitor printed an article which declared that this exhibition told the story of Africa.
The exhibition put some seriousness back into the act of picture making, photojournalism as well as visual art. Through image after image the exhibition showed decent, statement-making photographs which kept the viewer engaged, and which were not biased by media politics.
Simon Njami, novelist and international art critic, challenged Ugandan art practitioners to escape their small boxes and to awaken to the greater dialogue of modern contemporary art in Africa and the world.
Many were hesitant to heed his words. Many accused him of being a fake. But wasn’t a “fake” really ‘telling the story of Africa’ as the newspaper had said?
Perhaps because the Ugandan fine artists found the exhibition too simplistic in its approach to the fine arts, as well as its sense of journalism. They probably believed that Njami was misleading them to think that fine art could be equated with journalism; a similar debate happened in the conference attached to the exhibition, in which artists complained about how architects look down on painters.
“The relationship between art and photojournalism is difficult.”
– Carl De Souza.
Fusing fine arts and photojournalism
In the end, those who succeed in fusing fine art and photojournalism are always the most original practitioners of photojournalism. Their photographs make more of an impact on the greater audience, simply because their stories are told with such profound artistic techniques.
In the UPPA exhibition, Joel Nsadha, who won first place in the portrait category, had attended and graduated from Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art, an institution which stresses the skills of classical portraiture. Much as this was a strength, it became a weakness in that Joel compromised storytelling for his fine art background to create visually stimulating but boring photographs.
At the other end of the spectrum were photographers who submitted underexposed images, poorly cropped and with bad contrast lacking any artistic merit; in these cases the editing skills of the judges were absolutely necessary, turning sometimes mediocre images into outstanding shots.
An intimacy between the photographer and the subject
I discovered that Ishmael, the subject of the photograph by Santu Mofokeng (exhibited in Art at Work) was actually his own brother, preparing to deliver newspapers to white neighborhoods in winter time.
In an interview from 2004, Santu talks about another image of Ishmael that had made his children cry, which even as it showed very little of the subject revealed much more of the struggle his brother faced dying from HIV. It started to occur to me that Santu’s photographs were about a specific intimacy with his subject.
“I don’t usually subscribe to taking pictures of misery.” – Santu Mofokeng.
Here, Santu talks about some of the images which he highly protested against in the 80s; of the Somalia famine, with children with their rib cages showing, as well as the Biafra civil war in Nigeria.
These images aimed to shock the viewer into accepting the reality that the photojournalist created, which unfortunately cemented the history of photojournalism in Africa in depictions of AIDS victims, rioting against governments, endless civil wars and famines.
Santu’s photographs tell the same story of Africa as other international photojournalists he has protested against in the 1980s, whose images generalize Africa in Somalia’s famine as well as the effects of Biafra in Nigeria. But the major difference is in focusing on the intimacy between himself and his subject, in order to tell a unique and powerful story.
Stories with a twist make powerful photographs
Because of this lack of artistic maturity in the submissions for the UPPA, the judges could not base their selections on artistic merit. Instead, they chose photographs that could tell some important stories.
An intriguing story was in the photo essay on street theatre, which provided a twist by showing strangely dressed actors—a rare sight—out on the streets of Kampala. Actors walked and performed on the sidewalks and beside Pioneer buses to a stunned audience.
The huge flock of migrating birds that covered the majority of a winning environment shot was extraordinary in its approach to detail. Birds; chickens, turkeys and marabou stalks are often seen in Ugandan newspapers, but the twist in this was the huge mass of them migrating; their collective color shimmered off the print.
The winning environment photo, showed a man seated underneath a tree. It was such a universal image, but the fact that the tree was dried up with sandbags and sheets of cloth in place of leaves for shelter was an interesting twist. The semi-arid environment seemed to be alas bearable and relatable.
Stories with a twist make powerful photographs; like the freaks by Diane Arbus in the 1950s and 1960s New York, which created a stir in the world of photography for the unconventional depictions of happy midgets at parties. Her work also utilizes very skilled artistic techniques and the relationship between object and surrounding. In doing so, her photographs not only make statements about New York, but the greater world and a life little known exists.
And the winners are…
The winning images, Edyegu Enwaku in 1st and 2nd place and Simon Naulele in 3rd, were contrasts of one another.
Whereas one depicted a crying woman hugging the earth after a landslide that buried her home and family, another showed a disabled man riding to first place in a tricycle competition.
In showing a variety in the stories available about Africa, these contrasts are what create the power of photojournalism.
The competition will open again next year in August.
Serubiri Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.
To see all the winners, please visit Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Uganda. All photos by courtesy of FCAU. A special thanks to Anna Kucma, organiser of UPPA.
More from the same author
Serubiri Moses writes regularly for startjournal.org. Read also some of his recent articles: