Peffer and Cameron’s new edited collection brings together disparate accounts of photography in Africa, revising and developing what is, as they point out, still a relatively new field, despite the work of (for example) Paul Jenkins and Paul Landau that has sought to bring together and promote this possibility-filled area of historical study.
That it focuses on West Africa (with the exception of a chapter on Zambia and one centred in Mombasa) is for me a strength, given the opportunity it offers to compare photography across time and colonial regime. It also demonstrates the ways in which individual photographers themselves crossed the boundaries of state and colonial regime: such as Erika Nimis’ exploration of Yoruba networks in Niger and on throughout francophone West Africa. If Elizabeth Edwards has pointed to the advantages of the study of photography moving beyond biographical studies of photography, for me this focus on individuals and their agency works effectively in this collection. Schneider’s close reading of the life of F.W. Joaque highlights the fragments of a life in photographs that can be traced through collections across the Black Atlantic and in some cases, beyond. Intriguing stamped logos on the back of Joaque’s photographs enable Schneider to identify them definitively. For many other extant photographs, work remains anonymous. In contrast to this 19c focus, Elisabeth Cameron’s essay suggests the rich possibilities in interrogating more recent collections of photos from fieldworkers alongside professional photographers, in much the same way as scholars are now re-exploring the written texts of anthropologists, fortunately preserved in the archive.
Perhaps even more significant is the book’s physical appeal. It is lavishly illustrated and seems to draw readers: two members of my family have voluntarily picked up and read what resembles a coffee-table book.
I was trying to think about why this was, and remembered a conference I attended* where participants were asked to share a historical image, briefly discussing context, composition, and relationship to field. It was one of the most rewarding and participative sessions I have attended, as forced to be brief, key aspects of images were raised and discussed. Although beautiful, the print copy is not particularly portable – in digital format I could see this book sparking similar connections in teaching, acting as a key tool for a session on visual method, given the rich source material, from current street photographers to historical images documenting colonial history to family portraits in Victorian dress.
So if there is a criticism of this book it is that it fails to engage fully with the digital developments that certainly contributors Haney and Schneider are instrumental in developing online. Given the explosion of mobile technology ownership in Africa, there is real potential for scholarship that engages with the possibilities for ‘snapping’ rare and fragile historical photographs. Of course, this absence is more likely to reflect more the slower pace of book publishing than the authors or editors’ preferences.
Full disclosure: AiW received a complementary review copy of this book from IUP.
* History of Education Society, UK.