Photographer Lou Jones describes an ambitious project to create a contemporary, visual portrait of modern Africa.
Folded under me, my knees were about to explode. My heavy camera bag was in my lap. The compass pointed due north to my destination in Ghana — a clinic in the epicenter of Asante territory, 250 kilometers from Accra. For two days I had bumped over red clay dirt roads, stuffed into the rumble seat of an American vintage pickup truck. My body was no longer capable of absorbing this kind of abuse. So began my ambitious quest to photograph the continent of Africa…country by country.
A number of years before, I read a newspaper article that reported the African Union was contemplating censoring western access to the continent because of their negative, biased coverage of only poverty, pestilence or conflict. At first I was appalled at such a kneejerk reaction, but eventually I came around to their way of thinking. In an effort to stem this craven indifference, I contemplated how my profession might help ameliorate the problem by depicting Africa in a realistic, yet more positive way.
My career as a freelance photographer and Road WaRRioR (a long-term project sharing my experiences as a social documentary photographer) prepared me for the rigors of travel. While on assignment, I have visited 55 countries, 48 of 50 United States, covered 13 Olympic Games, published books on 27 death row inmates, been captured by guerilla rebels, visited opium dens in southeast Asia, acquired a lot of frequent flyer miles, and born witness to many of the globe’s flora and fauna. Africa is the latest in a long list of my travel obsessions.
The idea to photograph every African country has been percolating in my mind ever since I first went to Africa in the 1970s. Since then, I’ve been dreaming and conceptualizing, meeting and calling people to develop the concept. I explored several potential strategies, but all were rejected. It was not until social media and crowdsourcing matured that the full scope of my vision became a reality in August 2013 with the creation of the panAFRICAproject — a contemporary, visual portrait of modern Africa.
Photography is a universal language — one especially well suited for this kind of almanac.
Although approximately 2000 languages are spoken in Africa, photography is the premier means of communication the world over. One does not have to be able to understand the lingua franca. In newspapers, magazines, the Internet, social media, stories can be told best when people experience the evidence in pictures. We can transmit the vast landscapes, deserts, jungles and sunsets across the Atlantic, as well as colors, textures, weather, mores, parent’s love for their children, and hate for one’s neighbors in the cradle of civilization.
The panAFRICAproject is designed to dispel the myriad misconceptions that plague the minds of people who have never been to Africa. Despite the problems of colonialism and exploitation lasting so many generations, Africa is lockstep with the advances being played out on every other continent. Besides progress in economy, agriculture, natural resources and technology, many countries are consciously trying to preserve the ancient, traditional ways of life that make their history unique.
Ghana was our first destination. Since then, my team and I have been to nine African countries and are working to go to number ten at the time of this writing. My studio conducts extensive research before choosing which country to visit. The algorithm is complex. It takes into account weather, location, accessibility, time of year, and the country’s relative “position” on the pecking order of nations. We utilize all types of modern analysis, but the most important technique is “six degrees of separation” (i.e., a friend tells us about a friend or relative who has an associate in a country who puts us in contact with an organization or individual who has close ties to something indigenous). Grassroots relationships are key.
There are a billion people on the continent of Africa who go to work everyday, raise their children, get educations, preserve cultural traditions, conduct business, and mastermind brilliant innovations.
To expose a more realistic portrait of the continent, we point our camera towards contemporary, modern subjects that inhabit towering high rises and multi-story industrial buildings that silhouette new skylines that make Africa the fastest growing continent in the world.
Over 600,000 tourists visit Ngorongoro Crater annually, considered to be one of the last footholds of majestic wildlife on earth. There, one can see lions, giraffes, elephants, wildebeests, and hyenas in abundance. Scores of foreigners purchase safaris to experience firsthand this ecological phenomenon. Coexisting right beside these animals is a tribe called Maasai. They are a proud nomadic culture that dates back hundreds of years. Split by a colonial border between present-day Tanzania and Kenya, they are being pressured to uproot their homelands to accommodate the growing tourist trade. Animals pay well — better than people.
How a culture cares for its citizens is a good indicator of how deeply concerned it is in other endeavors. For this project, we delved into all types of medical/healthcare aspects: hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and elderly care. Refreshingly, many people hold fast to their upbringing and still prefer traditional healers, rather than more modern advances. We have spent time on both sides of the subject. There is much to be gained from each.
In Lesotho, we photographed a woman whose mysterious practices baffle doctors and nurses, but her holistic approach gets results. Up north in Tanzania, after extensive negotiations, I photographed a female who had been burned over 30 percent of her body. In a state-of-the-art operating room, the patient was in excruciating pain. I felt a tremendous ambivalence about the graphic nature of the scene and invasion of privacy, but the medical staff understood the importance of my mission as well as theirs.
Historians concede that much modern music originated in Africa. It came over with the slave trade, was distilled, refined and now has been reabsorbed back into the homeland. Gospel, blues, and jazz have all been rooted in the African diaspora. So much culture, whether it is ancient tribal rhythms or the latest rock and roll, is being produced in the towns and villages. It spawns a whole new dynamic where Africans have never ceased expressing their joys, rituals, and lifestyles through performances, the radio, CDs, videos and mobile devices. Sound abounds.
In Swaziland I was able to photograph a minuscule popup recording studio where wannabe hip-hop artists are expressing their rebellion against today’s inequities.
Between the Sahara Desert and Cape of Good Hope is the highest concentration of religions in the world, from mainstream to little worships passed orally from father to son and mother to daughter. Despite its most recent difficulties, the antiquarian Ethiopia boasts of how well Christianity, Islam and Judaism coexist amicably side-by-side. On Sunday in Swaziland, the entire country dons primary colored robes and parades to their respective churches. We were welcomed into a small church that practices a unique form of Zionism. They prayed, spoke in tongues, danced, chanted and hallucinated for hours in front of my cameras.
Namibia offered some of the most extreme contrasts — the rural areas are an anthropologist’s dream. An intrepid traveler falls through the looking glass of time. Herero, Himba and San tribes exist unchanged for millennia and at the same time, in the cosmopolitan cities, urban life vies for space next to bare-breasted women, plying their trades and suckling their infants on the streets and in the department stores.
It took several days to gain permission to photograph a native airline pilot in the cockpit of his huge, passenger Boeing 737, flown between major cities in southern Africa. I also had the unbelievable opportunity to photograph the pressroom of the major newspaper. The publisher had been exiled for activities during the revolution. Now he was shaping political policy and opinions. They were printing the 25th anniversary of independence issue and used some of my photographs in the commemorative centerfold.
The good tourist photography that comes out of Africa is mainly of things that are otherworldly to western eyes and alien to our own environments.
It is only natural that the exotic differences in life be documented, but since the bigger-than-life panoramas are so enticing and compelling, these images are largely of exterior spaces, photographed outside in nature. The interiors of homes, commerce and politics are still mysterious. We attempt to take the neophyte inside and reveal the inner sanctums of Africa as well.
The algorithm we use to select each new country is designed to take us to diverse extremes within the continent so there is little homogeneity. In Ghana, the citizenry are very leery of you taking their picture; Namibia, not so much. In Swaziland there is a widespread paranoia about all sorts of dealings, whereas Ethiopia is very open about their history and contemporary machinations. Tanzania emphasizes their animal background because it attracts tourists and revenue, but there is little tourism in Lesotho, so your presence is a curiosity.
When you get off the plane you have to decipher a lot of the personalities. In some urban areas, it is important to be cognizant of the military/police presence. Corruption is rampant and obvious in some places, but extremely quiet in others. The challenge is to figure out each area’s unique protocol and what is possible to photograph on the street. In some places, street photography is okay and in others, it is very hard. Making the mistake can cost dearly in many ways.
Gaining access to the interiors is another problem. Even though we have had good success into manufacturing, hospitals and some industry, people want to be paid. In health care, there are confidentiality problems. The reason I undertook this project was because, in my career, I have encountered all of these situations. Usually not all at once, but we have the skills to organize from afar, insinuate ourselves into different organizations, quell and negotiate difficult situations when there are ‘boots on the ground’.
We navigate diverse cultures and think on our feet to convince a large company owner that his establishment is of interest to the rest to the world and the next day argue politics in the bars with downtown locals. This makes the four+ weeks of each trip extremely labor intensive and exhausting; however overall, we have discovered that Africans are generous, accommodating and really understand how they are being maligned in western press. They also realize how important our project and tasks are.
My team and I have traveled tens of thousands of miles. We have slept in dung huts, under tents, and in nameless motels. We have eaten unidentifiable foods, enjoyed the hospitality of smokestack industries and hapless individuals who see the value in displaying their wares as a metaphor for a whole way of life.
For the first few visits, my advertising and corporate photography paid for my indulgences. More recently, we mounted a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise the money to continue. It has afforded us the opportunity to expand our outreach, research and most importantly, the ability to more widely move around and investigate the many facets of each country. We utilize social media to promote each visit to our precious constituency. Facebook and Twitter allow our ‘friends’ to travel right along with us through our daily postings of photographs and diaries of our exploits.
I find that I miss being there. I have been seduced by Africa. ALL my senses, skills and talents are coaxed while I am there, solving the complexities as to why we became photographers. Not only do we have to solve visual problems, but cultural ones as well. That is exciting, but the aggregate of all the photographs is intended to give any interested party a more realistic view inside a part of the world we hardly ever see in the correct light. School kids, researchers, teachers, and entrepreneurs can potentially use the imagery. We have also been exhibiting. We are small, but we are trying to lay a foundation to expand the project exponentially, to publish an almanac of images that reach far beyond our ambitions.
From the beginning of this ambitious undertaking, savvy curators have been paying attention. We have been asked to exhibit the work in galleries, schools and publications. In March 2017, Mount Ida College in Newton, MA is hosting a huge show of hundreds of panAFRICAproject pieces. Concerned franchises have also asked me to lecture about my experiences.
At no point in my wildest imagination could I have envisioned where we are today. In fact, that’s the whole point. We cannot possibly foresee the vast picture that is Africa.
This project is far from over. Actually, we are just beginning.
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