COVID-19 and African Photography: "We must own our Stories"

The photographer Nana Kofi Acquah argues that Africa’s Liberation lies with the press – but only if African journalists are no longer puppets, but puppeteers.


Bild: von Nana Kofi Acquah A shopper wearing a mask at the Game supermarket in Accra.

FES: You were interviewed about the “Ethics of imaging the pandemic” on April 1st of this year after publishing your now-famous Instagram post. For people who are not yet familiar with this discourse could you briefly summarise your position?

Nana Kofi Acquah (NKA): I was reading BBC news when I saw a story about Italy losing approximately 3,000 people to Covid-19 as at that time. I was shocked at the news. I knew they were having challenges but I wasn’t expecting to hear that so many people had died, especially when the most trending stories coming out of Italy were people singing sopranos or playing violins or falling in love on their balconies. As someone who’d covered Ebola, and still dealing with some of the shocking images published across the world from that crisis, I couldn’t get pass the hypocrisy, the sloppy journalism, and the over-censorship of media in democratic Italy. A lot of the photojournalists who had covered Ebola, and the organisations they work for, mostly come from Europe and America, and to think that a European nation had lost 3,000 people and there were no photos - especially no graphic ones - that capture the enormity of the pandemic was quite telling. 

What role do you see photography playing in the evolving relationship between Africa and the rest of the world, now in the times of COVID and beyond?

NKA: Africa is the victim of bad press, and Africa’s liberation lies with the press. As part of colonial rhetoric to justify the exploitation of the continent, the camera became the ultimate weapon of choice for colonialists. The attitude where Western journalists bypass all of the continent’s positive stories and find that one malnourished child being harassed by houseflies, didn’t start today. Overtime, the constant negative representation burdened the African with the weight of consistently needing to prove that we’re as human and as capable as everyone else. What COVID-19 has exposed is the fact that Western photojournalists are actually capable of photographing pandemics and suffering with empathy and respect for victims. With most of them unable to access the continent, African photographers are now at the forefront of telling Africa’s stories, and the difference in how they photograph us and how we photograph ourselves is night and day. Hopefully, when this pandemic is over, we’ll have a world where the most dominant images coming out of Africa, will be ones made by Africans, and Western photographers will be held to the same standards of decorum and empathy, with which they photographed COVID-19 in their respective countries.

Do you think that the pandemic has changed the relationship of the Global North to the representation of tragedy? What lessons can they learn from Africa’s ongoing debate about how the media pictures the suffering of others?

NKA: As someone who’s always fought for the freedom of the press and access, these words feel funny coming out of my mouth, but Africa must limit the access it grants to Western photojournalists. Especially the ones who have record of only seeing the negatives on this beautiful continent. As we speak, American police are shooting photojournalists in the eye, refusing to allow them to freely photograph the riots and demonstrations happening over the unnecessary murder of black people. When I made my original post questioning why there were no pictures coming out of Italy, many colleagues reached out to let me know the Italian government wasn't giving them access. I think African countries must learn from Italy and America, especially in how much access they give to the foreign press. What the pandemic has revealed is that white people don’t like seeing dead bodies of white people being desecrated. The pursue dignity, even for their dead. Why do Africans deserve less? What about our suffering gets them excited?

Will the restrictions on international travel have a lasting effect on Africa’s representation globally? With prominent European and American photographers not being able to travel to Africa, is this good news for the industry here on the continent?

NKA: As long as media houses are willing to commission African photographers and pay them the same amount they pay European and American photographers, the ban on travel is good news. I don’t know how many African photographers are getting a boom in commissions though. The biggest challenge African photographers have, has nothing to do with the West. The biggest challenge we have is that there’s very little local consumption of good African photography. How many of the wires, agencies and organisations that commission photographers are based in Africa, owned by Africans or are interested in Africa. As we speak, there is no African alternative to Getty Images, The New York Times or Reuters. If we can change that, the world will stop seeing Africa through western eyes. We must own our stories.

Recently we have seen many organisations and individuals campaigning to hire more black photographers. Do you think that the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and beyond will result in lasting change towards a greater diversity of views in newsrooms and media organisations?

NKA: Tokenism disgusts me. I got an email from one such organisation offering me a $1000 to shoot an assignment for them as part of their support for Black Lives Matter. They had the audacity in the email, to tell me they’re an all-white-owned organisation, didn’t need the pictures but wanted to give away about $10,000 to black photographers. Now, why do I want to shoot for someone who doesn’t need the pictures? I didn’t think their email even deserved my acknowledgement so I didn’t reply. I think it’s a good idea that more black and brown people take seats in newsrooms and in media organisations but the next step is to own the media. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune. When you work in the media for a long time, you come to understand the newsroom is made up of very smart puppets who get their way often but when it truly matters, the puppeteer shows up. We need to become puppeteers not just smart, opinionated puppets. 

Nana Kofi Acquah, who is a contributor to Everyday Africa, photographs, films and writes across Africa for clients such as Oxfam GB, The Global Fund, Americares, Nike, BBC, The Financial Times, BASF, Novartis Foundation, ActionAid, WaterAid, Facebook, Hershey’s, AfDB, and Standard Bank. Nana is also an assignment photographer for Getty Images and was a 2019 World Press Photo Competition Jury Member. His Instagram account was listed by Shutterstock as one of the best 100 to follow. Follow Nana on Instagram.

The interview was conducted for FES by Anna Kucma, founder and director of Uganda Press Photo Award, a partner of FES-Uganda Office.


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