I present to you two bodies of work from Africa! Taken, in both cases, by white Africans. Obviously white people can be Africans, that's not my point at all. I think it's pretty likely that I share more cultural touchstones with these artists than I do with, say, Peter Magubane, with whom in turn I suspect I share more than I do with many other African photographers.
Both bodies of work are the sort of thing which, I regret to say, we see too goddamned much of from Africa, especially from white artists. Both are pieces of the "Africa is so poor and screwed up" narrative, and neither one offers any solutions. That said, I like one of them, and I dislike the other. This might be simple prejudice on my part, or perhaps I can make a case. Let's see!
First up we have the Greylingstad series from John Barrow, who shared the link in a comment a few items back. Thanks, John! It's a pretty effective body of work, essentially documentary but with some real visual appeal. John provides us with a lot of background, without thrusting a large bolus of words upon us. We always know what we're looking at; we're never swamped in text.
It is a familiar story to us in the USA, the small town passed by and slowly sliding back into the earth. It is a familiar story, but with a decidedly not-USA flavor. Notably, there are photographs of what appeared to me to be distinctly derelict businesses, a shoe repair shop that was obviously long defunct. And then, weirdly, another one. But no, they're the same one, with a paint job and an expansion between photos. At the time the photos were taken the shop was very much a going concern.
What to me were clear "tells" of a long-closed shop were in fact merely the indications of a business being run on a very small budget. Africa versus the USA. Without the text, I wouldn't have noticed this.
The second body of work appeared on PetaPixel, here or you can find what I think is identical material (less one picture, I think, but with the artist's statement more clearly demarcated) on the artist's web site here.
This is a substantially more enigmatic collection. Much smaller, for one thing, and much more "obvious" in the sense that photographing hard-luck cases is a well mined out area of photography. We're looking at street kids, 13 (14 on Petapixel) photographs, giving some depth. We see kids having fun, kids of various ages. We see what it presumably a pile of trash of the sort the kids pick through, we see light through trees for no reason I can discern (is the foreground fog coming off a trash pile?). We see a few pictures of kids looking impoverished, but weirdly enough the kids seem to be surprisingly well dressed. Their clothes, while neither sterile nor new, often appear fairly clean and in decent repair. My kids are often dressed more shabbily.
While the artist's text paints a grim, and no doubt accurate, picture, I find her photographs to almost contradict the text. There are three or four pictures in which the kids look particularly impoverished, at best. In some of those they could simply be sleepy.
While I applaud Jern's desire to show us depth, to show us that these children are more than miserable cases for charity, I'm not sure she's succeeded even in that. The collection is too sparse, too open to question.
Where do these kids come from? Are they orphans? Kicked out of the house? Runaways? Where do they go when they grow up? Why do these particular children all look essentially healthy, is that an illusion, or are they in fact oddly healthy and neatly dressed?
The question I have to ask myself here is Is there something inherently African, inherently Kenyan, which I am missing and which would unlock this puzzle? Or is this just a kind of lousy little portfolio?
Without the text, I would assume that most of these pictures were not of homeless kids. I would assume that there were a few pictures of homeless kids, a few pictures of children who were substantially better off, and a picture of some attractive trees with the sun piercing the leaves.
More importantly, though, I think that Jern is explicitly political and yet offers no guidance to the viewer. This is a terrible state of affairs she seems to say, but while she implicitly demands that I take note, she gives me no guidance as to what I might do. In contrast, Barrow is not trying to make any political statement, as far as I can see. He seems to be saying that Greylingstad is simply something that happens and, while sad, there's not much to be done about it.
If I am prejudiced against Jern, and I probably am, it is because I am sick to death of having my consciousness raised and then left to dangle. Educating me, or really anyone, on the point of the world has some terrible things in it is beside the point these days. How many more times must I be told this before someone gives me a tactic I can use to actually do something to make the world less terrible? Or is it hopeless? If it's hopeless, why don't we just say so, rather than willfully trying to stimulate my in-built guilt to no apparent purpose?