Work on post-war African photographies over the last several years has attempted definitively to leave behind blunt understandings of the medium and practice as only an instrument of colonial control. Instead, scholars have shown the active role that photography and its institutions played in reimagining political citizenship and possibility in the waning colonial and newly independent African states, even as the continent was subjected to the wider geopolitical machinations of the Cold War. In this online session, we shall consider some of the most recent work on photography in Africa, and reflect on methodological issues and prospects in its study.
Drew Thompson, Darren Newbury, and Jennifer Bajorek are featured speakers, followed by a discussion.
Drew Thompson (Bard Graduate Center) – “Decolonization in Africa and Photography“
This story begins in Maputo and takes you to Cambridge (Massachusetts) via Johannesburg. I will start in April of 1974, when a coup toppled the Portuguese regime and initiated the end of colonial rule in Mozambique. Settlers left behind the photography business they started. To establish order the independent state nationalized the entire photography industry. Almost 8,000 miles away, Black American workers at the Polaroid Corporation’s U.S. headquarters protested the company’s business in South Africa. How then does the end of colonial rule in Mozambique connect to boycotts over Polaroid’s South African business? To answer this question, I highlight how the Polaroid worker protests conflicted with certain material realities and the protests unfolding in South(-ern) Africa. Decolonization in Southern Africa was anything but unified and straightforward, partially because of photography’s own disruptive nature.
Darren Newbury (University of Brighton) – “‘Don’t Touch Those Windows’: United States Information Service Exhibits in Africa“
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the emergence of newly independent African nations on the world stage precipitated a contest for influence on the continent by the Cold War superpowers. One response of the US government was to mount a campaign of ‘photographic diplomacy’. This presentation considers the forms in which photographs were brought to audiences across Africa through United States Information Service (USIS) field posts. USIS offices provided the network of distribution points for photographs arriving from the US either as specific field requests or in regular packets, and many had windows facing onto the street that were used to curate a changing series of exhibitions and displays. The monthly reports, frequent memos and occasional photographs that record these activities enable a kind of historical ethnography of photographic practice. They provide insights into the work that the photographs were being asked to perform, how the task was understood by those on the ground and the impact of local circumstances.
Jennifer Bajorek (Hampshire College/VIAD Research Centre, University of Johannesburg) – “What we thought we knew“
We remain in a frenzy of activity thinking, rethinking, and reframing the nexus of photography and decolonization, perhaps particularly, but not exclusively, in Africa. How have the hypotheses and presuppositions that may once have sparked our research/art practice on this question been transformed by more recent work? What are the consequences of these transformations for how we understand both photography and decolonization? I am particularly interested in the persistent tensions between documentary or evidentiary and imaginative or poetic functions of the photographic image, or those between the grain of the voice (in oral history or testimony) and the grain of the image. I will touch on my own and others’ research and/or art practice.
Hosted by Birkbeck’s History and Theory of Photography Research Centre
Decolonization and Photography in Africa: Drew Thompson, Darren Newbury, and Jennifer Bajorek
Friday, 10 June, 16:00 – 18:00 (BST) | 17:00-19:00 (CET)
Online, via Microsoft Teams
Please register in advance through the registration website.