New technologies are bringing new ways to look at the world
Published in Everyday Africa, Kehrer Verlag, 2017
In a world so full of inconsistencies and incongruities it’s maybe only a minor oddity to find an Instagram feed on the pages of a printed book. We see so many photographs in print what’s to question about these pages and the authors’ choice to freeze the dynamic flow of images and comments that is Everyday Africa, now rendered as dry ink on paper? But odd it is, along with several features of the online stream that quietly yet insistently subvert expectations of what is noteworthy and remarkable about Africa and indeed the very nature of photography and how we’re used to seeing the world through the lens of a camera. In this book the everyday is bound and made collectible in a process that imbues the most ordinary events and images with significance that may not yet be visible but which to these same eyes in twenty years will look completely different. It’s a rare opportunity for our future selves to look back at a way of seeing that will have disappeared as online platforms evolve into new forms or succumb to pressures that force them dark.
What will we see with these eyes of the future, as we look back at the casual observations gathered here from the cities, towns and villages of early 21st Century Africa? The beauty of the images will survive and that will suffice to satisfy many; for that alone this book will have a justified place in history. For the more curious who delve into the comments pulled from the live Instagram experience, there may be astonishment that an iPad in the hands of a Ghana schoolchild could cause such surprise or that three women carrying produce through a Kigali street could lead to a discussion of truth versus reality. These are everyday circumstances that in the context of their original publication reflected the co-existence of traditional and modern practices across the continent and simultaneously exposed prejudices and sensitivities fostered by decades of postcolonial media. Historians opening this book will see in this evidence of how the mobile phone camera changed popular understanding of the world, shaping knowledge and attitudes in ways that weren’t immediately obvious as the changes were happening. Everyday Africa brings all these phenomena to the fore and the book exposes them like a flare that illuminates a brief moment allowing scrutiny even as the online feed fades into darkness.
Think, for example, how visual information came to be understood very differently across the first fifteen years of the new Millennium as photography developed a new significance with cameras routinely implanted in the handheld carried-everywhere devices of the day. Just as the printing press birthed the mass literacy that led to discussion and the formation of radical new perspectives, so the mobile phone turned photography into a vernacular language of the world, transforming the photograph from an immutable document of witness and memory into a conversational medium used to exchange minutiae of personal experience. This has one level of meaning when shared between individuals in printed albums or private emails, but it becomes culturally transformative when multitudes of personal experiences are displayed online and these individual moments of sub-historic experience are aggregated to deliver a wholly new perspective on the world. The Internet has become a compound eye that delivers multiple visual fragments that are received and consolidated by the viewer who reconstructs the world in a perspective that is at once distant and abstracted, yet assembled from details of extraordinary and authentic intimacy. This is a new perspective that was invisible to the 20th Century and its sudden arrival in the 21st has caused some confusion as people struggle to make sense of what they see using the old principle that expected every image to carry a wider significance, representing meaning beyond the precise details of each individual frame. This was the conceptual approach made popular by Henri Cartier Bresson whose “decisive moment” was the perfect alignment of random elements brought together in a split second to represent a larger situation. Everyday Africa veers sharply in the opposite direction, embracing the new, alternative perspective that uses Instagram to deliver a flow of tiny self-contained moments of little significance, which viewed collectively across time accumulate to deliver a very different form of truth.
Of course the photographic traditions of the 20th Century retain their value not only as a symbolic representation of larger situations, but also as evidence and witness to distant events that must be seen and remembered in forensic detail. But this familiar function has been expanded to include wider, even more profound values that inform a deeper, maybe more realistic understanding of the world and our place in it. The very casualness of the incidental observations made on mobile phones releases the viewer from the constraints of a story that has been self-consciously sculpted by a photojournalist to fit a preconceived version of reality. Think of the 20th Century photojournalist as a sculptor who removes stone to reveal a figure that is preconceived in their mind; in the same way the traditional photographer removes extraneous information from a scene to expose their vision of a situation. The deliberate decision to be in a particular place at a particular time, the choice of lens, angle and light source all represent decisions not to include other perspectives; exclusion is a necessary part of the process. A strange inversion occurs with the casual style of observation typically made on a mobile phone: what’s excluded is the searched-for event (that brick in the wall of a preconceived narrative) and what’s included is all the random information that was previously excluded in the careful composition of a professional’s viewfinder. The mobile phone has become the instrument for a different approach to image making, expressing a reactive delight in unexpected discoveries, maybe more like grazing than the purposeful hunting of 20th Century photography. Eventually as these scattered observations accumulate, a profound truth emerges which although comprised of individually insignificant moments aggregate to deliver a raw and unfiltered perspective, the antithesis of the carefully composed, self-consciously significant and highly selective edit that is the world of photojournalism.
Approaching Everyday Africa with misaligned expectations is disconcerting, much like looking through a telescope from the objective lens instead of the eyepiece. “Where did everything go? Where is the Africa I know from every other photograph I’ve seen?” There is a real danger in this frustrated expectation which is revealed in the anguished comments of Instagram viewers seeking to impose old world order on new world imagery. A child bathing in a puddle must represent poverty and can’t only be seen as a specific child’s enjoyment as they play in water (which understood as a detail of individual experience is common to rich and poor around the world). Our perspective has been so distorted by decades of strictly formatted media reporting on Africa that sometimes we can no longer see what we’re looking at. The use of stereotype to tell the story of many by telling the story of a single symbolic figure has bred a blindness to the individual, and the legacy of this media trope is a confused tangle of conflicting perceptions. Individuals are obscured as they are seen to represent the lives of others, and significant social issues can be overlooked because the expected symbols of stress and distress may not be immediately obvious in the routine activities of an individual who’s been stripped of symbolic cues. It takes careful study to find refugees in these pages, or the distress of unemployment, or the impact of HIV, homelessness or homophobia, but it’s all here amidst the wedding anniversaries, shopping lines and bathers. Stress and distress mingle with joy and fulfillment because they are embodied in the same people. The limitation of traditional reporting has been to assign a single role to each individual, whereas in life as we live it we know many roles.
Everyday Africa lives on the Internet as an Instagram feed with all these experiences living side by side in a curiously confused yet coherent narrative with neither beginning nor end, looking much like life itself. And like life it’s full of contradictions, straddling inconsistencies and incongruities, sometimes confusing us and frustrating our expectations while also amusing us with whimsical twists and exuberant shenanigans. Delighting in the moment, each online image defies memory, existing instead only in the present as part of the endlessly rolling river of Instagram impressions. Each new post is carried down the river, soon out of sight and out of mind, an unusually titillating flotsam that stays with us only long enough for a quick “Like” or hashtag before the next provocation arrives in sight.
In this new form of reporting, the truth isn’t told in a single image and what we learn isn’t stored in memory in the form of an isolated icon, but instead we feed our understanding with a continuous scroll of updates. Maybe none of these images will live in our memory but over time each one will add a little understanding, contributing to a more fluid and responsive form of knowledge that evolves with changing circumstances. The power of the iconic image to fix information in our memory is both its strength and its weakness. At best a single symbolic photograph can only be an incomplete interpretation of experience that over time will take its place in memory, substituting experience with a fragmented splinter. A photograph is like a frozen fountain that “remembers” a moment of fluid ambiguity as a hard and certain fact and as such is necessarily a distortion. By releasing a photograph from this role as a document of memory and instead letting it flow downstream to obscurity we retain an ever-evolving awareness even as specific factual details diminish.
Our future eyes, looking at this book and remembering how things used to be will see something else being played out in the images and comments scattered across the African continent. We will see the early stages of a transition to a new form of journalism. The surprise and the irritation in many of the comments left by viewers reflect an audience that is moving out of its comfort zone. They’re sufficiently curious to look at the Everyday Africa feed online and in the context of Instagram’s universe of hip, cool lifestyles it’s to be expected that some viewers will be disconcerted by an unfamiliar perspective. Alongside and intermingled with these voices are the comments of another group moving into a new space: the photographers and other participants in the everyday life of Africa. The tone here is partly of patient education, offering insights to confused commentators, and partly of alert curiosity as they exchange information about regional variations in the name given to second hand clothing. The thread of curiosity runs through everything and binds all viewers from all backgrounds in a shared exercise that reaches beyond the continental coast and touches the delicate but determined pulse of new journalism, a new way of understanding the world. Information can be shared and discussed instead of being imparted from on high; information can be contradictory because little in life remains fixed for any period of time; and most importantly information changes as we change perspective.
With all of this wrapped between the covers of this book, Everyday Africa makes a simple but emphatic statement: the truth is rarely pure and never simple, and we do ourselves a disservice by allowing others to distill complicated reality into easy summaries. It is our responsibility to look, think and learn. Hopefully our future eyes will look at this with new wisdom and consider this to be a pure and simple truth.