African Photography Series: African Photography has always been International

by AiW Guest Jürg Schneider

Picture of unidentified woman by Augustus Washington [1855], from http://www.loc.gov/

Picture of unidentified woman by Augustus Washington [1855], from http://www.loc.gov/

Between October 26 and November 16 of 2013 the fourth edition of the international photography festival LagosPhoto opened its doors to the public. The month long festival which includes exhibitions, workshops, artistic presentations and discussions is one among several and similar events that have emerged on the continent in recent years. The development of events entirely dedicated to the art of photography such as the Bamako Photo Biennale, Addis Foto Fest or Rencontres Picha Biennale de Lubumbashi (DRC) occurred as part of a dynamic which gave impetus to the parallel creation of a number of privately initiated art institutions all over the African continent, as well as of a still ongoing integration of contemporary African photography into the global art market. The January 2012 “Symposium on Building Art Institutions in Africa” in Dakar which “addressed the changing role of art institutions and art initiatives [on the African continent] in relation to artistic urgencies and in relation to the society in its whole” and the first contemporary African Art Fair “1:54”, in London this year are both, in different although complementary ways, offspring of this development.[1]

The impression a casual observer might get of African photography and photographers being neglected by, invisible for, or even consciously secluded from public view until most recently is not entirely accurate and requires a more precise analysis. African photography has, in fact, always been international in the sense that photographs taken by African photographers have circulated quite early internationally, between continents, in different media and materialities, and over long periods of time. Indeed, photographic images and the veracity they represented according to general perception were too powerful as to be ignored by the forces working on imaginaries of Africa. It is therefore no wonder that photographs played an important role in colonization and missionary print culture. One of the earliest photographers in West Africa, Augustus Washington, an African American daguerreotypist who had moved from Hartford, Connecticut to Liberia in the early 1850s, produced a series of images which were subsequently used by the American Colonization Society (ACS) in their publications. The ACS, however, was only one of many European and US-American philanthropic and missionary societies active in Africa which used photography as a means of communication with their respective publics and stakeholders. The same is true for colonial administrations which also called on photographic images to document the achievements made and also, in some instances, to justify their costly presence on-the-spot.

River beach in Gabon, 1871 (circa) by Francis W. Joaque, from http://www.britishmuseum.org/

River beach in Gabon, 1871 (circa) by Francis W. Joaque, from http://www.britishmuseum.org/

In the mid-1870s, Francis W. Joaque, one of the earliest African photographers, took a series of 14 photographs in Santa Isabel, Fernando Po’s capital, on behalf of the Spanish governor Diego Santisteban in order to bear visual and hence truthful evidence of the Spanish possession’s wealth and its inhabitant’s interest in the economic development of the island. Some years earlier, John Parkes Decker had, commissioned by the British governor and the Colonial Office in London, documented buildings and places in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Copies of many of these images subsequently appeared in other collections, for instance in the Photo Specimen Book of the British Missionary Leaves Association or the albums of Carl Passavant, a Swiss medical doctor who had traveled in West and Central Africa in the 1880s buying photographs here and there from local photographers. Joaque’s photographs were also shown at colonial exhibitions in Gabon and Paris in 1887 and 1900 respectively. Furthermore, his photographs were reproduced in travelogues and illustrated newspapers which appeared in France, Spain, and Great Britain.

On the other hand, in the context of migratory movements of Africans, on the continent but also between Africa, Europe and the Americas which gained momentum in the second half of the 19th century resulting in deterritorialized social ties, photographs had an important role to play in what can be termed (referring to Anthony Giddens) as “facework between absentees”. Consequently, photo studios did not only keep in stock a variety of photographs for casual customers, such as explorers and travelers on their way further down the coast whose likes and dislikes they tried to anticipate, photographers also had to meet local customers’ orders for portraits which they wanted to send to friends and relatives abroad. “Card portraits”, wrote the Bostonian Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1863, “as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the sentimental ‘green-backs’ of civilization, within a very recent period.”

These privately and institutionally initiated or purchased photographs circulated widely in space and over long periods of time as prints and were reproduced in various media. They were at display in public exhibitions and private homes in Africa, Europe and the Americas. Today, these photographs make up a part of a huge although highly decentralized visual archive which is open-ended and still dynamically in the making.


[1] Kouoh, Koyo (ed.), Condition Report. Symposium on Building Art Institutions in Africa. Hatje Cantz Verlag: Ostfildern, 2013, page 9.

http://1-54.com/

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Jürg SchneiderJürg Schneider, PhD, is a historian and affiliated with the Centre for African Studies, University of Basel, Switzerland. He has organized and curated various exhibitions. His writing on historical and contemporary African photography and photography in Africa appears in various journals and books. He initiated the project http://www. africaphotography.org, a platform for historical photographs from Africa, as well as www.african-photography-initiatives.org, a non-profit organization involved in various projects with the common goal of promoting Africa’s rich photographic heritage.



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  1. African Photography has always been International, par Jürg Schneider | FOTOTA
  2. ‘Open Access’ images of Africa? « Africa in Words
  3. African Classics: Kristin Mann’s Marrying Well « Africa in Words

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