In a 2005 issue of Granta, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina satirizes common Western depictions of Africa in a piece called "How to Write about Africa":
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress. ...
Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. ...
Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West.
In the December issue of the journal City, Nazia Parvez of the Department of Geography at University College London extends Wainaina's point into the realm of photography. While most people expect the written word to collect a certain amount of bias during its journey from the brain to the hand, we tend to think of photographs as stark depictions of the truth. But whose truth, Parvez wants to know. That of the African people being photographed, or of the Westerners taking the photos?
Parvez has a particular locale in mind for her question: the Kroo Bay slum in Sierra Leone. Kroo Bay is located in the heart of Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, a country on the coast of West Africa. In a 2007 article the U.K. Independent described Kroo Bay as the worst place on Earth to be born, according to Parvez; in another, dated just last week, the neighborhood is called "one of the grimmest places" in the world. Kroo Bay attracts its share of legitimate goodwill groups, as well as an interest from Westerners that Parvez calls a kind of "poverty tourism."
But while she agrees that conditions there are dreadful and in need of improvement, she also believes the typical images of the slum fail to capture the true spirit of life there. Instead of showing the "resilience, resourcefulness, playfulness and quiet daily rituals," most photographs of Kroo Bay depict only evidence of its poverty, Parvez writes. As a result these images "reinforce existing narratives" and tug at the heart-strings — often so certain groups can attract donations. Instead of reflecting reality they offer but a "pseudo-reality that flickers and fades," Parvez concludes:
After the photo-ops, life inevitably goes on. People live and work, laugh and play, give birth and die—as everywhere. While outward appearances may point to the symptoms of poverty, they do not reveal the underlying ‘glue’ that holds these communities in place and keeps them functioning long after expensive marketing campaigns, the promise of funds, ill-conceived projects and fly-by visits, have faded from memory. ...
In the case of Kroo Bay, we may well ask: who do these photos serve?
Parvez knows her subject well. She moved to Sierra Leone in 2005 to work as a photographer, and in the process of freelancing her work quickly recognized which images would sell and which ones wouldn't. (She also produced a 2009 documentary about Freetown called "Lost Freetown.") Parvez took the following photos between October and December of 2006; but despite being on high alert for subjective Western images of Kroo Bay, she recognizes that even her own shots of the neighborhood are "filtered through my own set of attitudes and beliefs" and invites readers to evaluate them critically.
To that end she's graciously allowed Atlantic Cities to reproduce most of the images that accompanied her City article below. For more work by Parnez, visit her Flickr page.
All images courtesy of Nazia Parvez