How do we confront the theme of identity in an area – the African continent – where loyalty to traditional values and the pull towards a global sense of belonging give rise to such deep and apparent contradictions? Which prism do photographers use when recognizing the cracks produced by the stereotypical depiction of apparent otherness?
Traveling through the continent, I am confronted with the enormous task of portraying this, together with the multiple interpretations arising and added with every encounter. Everything is there, always, there in front of me, laid bare, exposed. I always ask the same question: “What do I make of this?”
News images are self-contained stories; the urgency of what we do forces our gaze to concentrate the information rather than dilute it into the multiple images of a storyline: every frame must contain all the nuances, all the details. Information as depicted for viewers is laden with meaning: the evocative power of each frame allows a distant observer to either understand it or create yet another barrier, yet another inexplicable riddle for distant, distracted, uninvolved spectators.
To say that Africa is not a monolith, not a single place designated by a southward wave of the hand, is stating a simple truth, but a hard one to spell out. How do we recognize diversity set against such a complex environment, against the many and varied forms of human experience? The continent is at a crossroads: while its diverse economy is growing stronger, its citizens subscribe to a shared need for political change to complement economic, cultural and social developments. At the core of such developments are individuals, and at the forefront of their demands are individual acts of defiance, of resistance, and of progress.
Through a maze of events, of life-changing events or of minor stories with no apparent consequences, the act of deciding where to focus attention leaves me with an ever greater interest in what is left out of the frame rather than what is included in it. There cannot be exhaustive accounts. I am battling against the vastness of the land, against distance, and sometimes against mundane obstacles such as borders and visas.
At every encounter, photographers and viewers alike are left with movements, gestures or signs: what is seen in events defines the persons living through the occurrences. In a single multi-layered image, an entire catalogue of experiences is compiled in the brief space of a news photograph. It creates an identity: the sum total of shared responsibility, shared between the act of the single player and the single testimony of the photographer. It is not an easy feat.
Presenting a person’s identity is an act that includes all the moments that have led that particular individual to that pivotal point in time, whether in the arena of an internationally recognized event or in the very private space of a home. Photographers are there, at that moment: the singular identity of a movement, of its presence in a given space and at a given time is offered for us to see, and will be conveyed to an audience. In the current state of the news-gathering industry, being part of a photograph means – unequivocally – being presented and seen somewhere else through that photograph.
The act of taking a photograph incurs responsibility. In the crowded space of events on the African continent, photographers are required to carry out acts of great authenticity. It is seldom a solitary exercise, although it was for me in Gabon where I ended up being the only photographer working for the international media at the time of a disputed election. But shared responsibility requires a deeper understanding of the events we are covering. And a deeper understanding requires a more complex depiction of reality, one that cannot be reduced to a simplistic account.
Johannesburg, April 23, 2017
Marco Longari is the Africa Chief Photographer for Agence France Presse based in Johannesburg, South Africa.