From the Archives: Photography’s role in shaping African identity

“Front view of Bolugun House, Lagos.”
Photographer unknown, c. 1877-1895
West African Photographic Album
EEPA 1995-170002
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

In Earth Matters, an enigmatic photograph, dated 1898, is featured: attributed to the unknown “O. Vincenti,” and labeled “M’Suguma—Tänzer,” the silver-gelatin print depicts two men, probably Sukuma, based on their dress, stiffly posed and likely arranged by the photographer. They stand before a painted backdrop that is not only clearly artificial but its “jungle” theme appears to be at clear odds with the dry, dusty dirt below the feet of the two men.

This photography works to deliver a “factual” record of these two men that would be extrapolated to the Sukuma people as whole. Through the framing and background, the photographer has created a falsified image that appears, nonetheless, seamless and truthful.  In this way, the work brings up questions about the way that photography has worked to shape our understanding of the African people and landscape.

However, in this remarkable photograph from the Eliot Elisofon archives that dates c. 1877-1898, we see a more complete picture of the photographic process, not just the composed or constructed final product. A portable darkroom is visible in front of the building and to the left.  Such darkrooms were necessary for early photography, when wet, non-fixed plates would be exposed and preparation and development of the wet plates had to be done on-site. A crowd of people appears to rest, taking a break from the photographic process. A large camera would have been concealed within the black box. The umbrella lying in front of the crowd seems to indicate the use of a rudimentary flash.

Despite these clues, we can still only speculate as to what was going on in this scene, which was taken in Lagos, Nigeria – thousands of miles across the African continent from Tanzania. But the standing woman, second in from left, is distinctive in her dress and hairstyle, which has been identified as Ghanaian.  Perhaps the group was in the middle of a posed photography session, similar to that in O. Vincenti’s photograph of the Sukuma men in Earth Matters. No matter what event this photograph depicts, what becomes clear is the role that photography has played in creating and affirming our knowledge of faraway places or people, and sometimes perpetuating misconceptions or stereotypes. (For more information on photography in Africa, check out this post on stereoscopes’ role in shaping the international understanding of mining in South Africa).

Further, it is obvious that this history extends back much farther than we typically acknowledge, far beyond what may typically call the “modern” era for the arts of Africa. This camera’s presence challenges our notion of the “primitive” nature of 19th century Africa, and is a reminder that photographs, no matter where, when, or by whom they were taken, document choices and negotiations between the photographer and their subjects, rather than “facts.”



From the Archives: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro


Most people are aware that Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa, but fewer are aware of its other unique ecological distinctions: at over 19,000 feet high, it is the tallest freestanding volcanic mountain in the world, as well as a truly one-of-kind self-contained ecosystem that contains every known ecological zone on earth: arid plains, savannah, mountain rainforest and heath, alpine desert, and glacial snow and ice. This is evident in these truly fantastic photographs taken by Eliot Elisofon on his way up the mountain, taken in 1966, of his Tanzanian guides.

fffThese photos reveal just how diverse the ecosystem of Kilimanjaro really is. In one photo, the guides carry heavy packs through what appears to be a tropical forest, complete with palms and carpet of green. Then the group moves through what appears to be a moon-like desert landscape, bundled up as a cold fog moves in.  In another, a pair of guides sit smiling on a steep, rocky incline, again free of vegetation. In the background, a snow-covered summit can be spotted. The journey to the top of Kilimanjaro is not just one of skill and endurance.  It also illuminates earth’s extraordinary diversity, bounty, and delicate ecological balance.


South African mixed-media artist Georgia Papageorge (b. 1941, South Africa) has found inspiration in this mountain, at the same time that she uses her work to draw attention to the forces that endanger it.  She sees in Kilimanjaro a reflection of one of today’s most pressing issues. Because of the distinct ecosystem of the mountain, it seemed to Papageorge a place from which to track and fully comprehend climate change. After first visiting in 1996, Papageorge has repeatedly returned to the mountain, and since 2005 it has been a focus of her artistic work and activism.

The product of Papageorge’s diligent and prodigious work and research on the mountain is seen in her work in Earth Matters, Kilimanjaro/Cold Fire (2010), a dual projection video that documents dramatically Kilimanjaro’s melting glacier and central Africa’s extensive charcoal trade that if continued in an unsustainable manner will lead to the deforestation of vast tracks of Africa’s landscape. Her work begs the question: how much longer will the ecosystems Elisofon documented remain? How soon before this awe-inspiring diversity of nature disappears? And what will we be left with when it is gone? Share your thoughts below.


Earth Matters Around the Web

2010 Mocambique and MalawiAn aerial photograph of Malawi, recently named one of the countries leading the charge on tackling hunger and undernourishment (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Our earth gives us water, food, minerals –  but how do we respect the earth and its resources while also striving for economic development and prosperity for all? Earth Matters strives to show these issues we all face, through the lens of Africa. Recently, stories of innovation and governmental commitment to answering these questions successfully have been front and center:

Maasai_TribeMasaai peoples gather in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (photo via Wikimedia Commons)