The Baggage that Lives with You Forever
Photographer Nana Kofi Acquah on the ethics of imaging a pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to tens of thousands of deaths and drastically affected people’s everyday lives worldwide, wreaking unprecedented havoc on the healthcare sector, livelihoods, and economies in monumental ways. Numerous hard truths have become even more clear during this crisis, such as the complete lack of preparedness of many so-called wealthy, “developed,” and “modern” countries as well as massive social inequalities that continue to oppress marginalized people.
While the health, safety, and well-being of people is paramount, another disparity this pandemic has illuminated is how communities around the world are visually portrayed by mainstream media during times of crisis. Ghanaian photographer Nana Kofi Acquah, who is a long-time contributor to Everyday Africa, recently posted a poignant question to viewers about the imagery in the media of the dying or dead.
Danielle Villasana, a member of The Everyday Projects Community Team, speaks with Nana to further explore this question. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarification.
Danielle Villasana: In times like this, it’s really important to think about how the media is portraying these situations, so the question you raised on social media was welcome. And it has sparked a very interesting conversation online. I wanted to discuss more in-depth the context of your post and how this situation relates to media coverage, not only of Africa, but of other places worldwide, including Europe and the United States.
Nana Kofi Acquah: I was doing research on the impact of COVID-19 and I saw a story about 400 people dying in one day in Italy. By that tally, there were now around 3,000 deaths. I was shocked because we were all around when Ebola happened. And between Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone by the time the Ebola crisis had subsided, 11,000 people had died. And we saw the kinds of photos that were on the news wires everywhere of Ebola. So, it got me thinking, “This is three thousand people dead. Where are the pictures?”
That is not to say I want to see gory photos. Gory photos do nothing for me. I don’t want to see them. But it hit me that these photographers who will come to Africa to cover war and epidemics — the same people who live in Europe and America — where are their photos? It became obvious that the reason we are not seeing those gory, distasteful photographs is because people don’t make those kinds of photographs about themselves.
There’s been a lot of terrorist attacks in Europe and in America. Sometimes hundreds of people are killed in one incident, dozens die in one attack. And you never see photos of dismembered bodies. You never see photos of the dying. You don’t see them. Every single photograph of a disaster you see in Europe and America is dignified, and it doesn’t take away from the tragedy, but the suffering in those images is humanized. Why doesn’t that happen when it comes to African stories? Why must people be photographed at their worst and in ways that make them more pitiable? That is not right.
I felt this is a good time to ask this question. Now that Ghana has recorded cases and a number of African countries have recorded cases of COVID-19, this is a good time to start this conversation because very soon the big media houses may have journalists with cameras on the ground. And, I’m hoping that they photograph COVID-19 in Africa as they have in Europe.
DV: When I was reading through the comments of your post, some people commented about how authorities aren’t allowing photographers and journalists to go inside hospitals and they are not allowing them to photograph funerals. This made me realize, the point is not to photograph dead bodies of white people, too. Rather, the point is we need to rethink how we photograph tragedy. COVID-19 isn’t an isolated incident — there’s a long history of how the media covers Africa and other regions such as Latin America and Asia versus how they cover countries like the United States and Europe.
NKA: One of the photos from the 9/11 attack that became very famous is a photograph called “The Falling Man.” It’s from a very long distance, so you don’t see the person, you don’t see the point where they fall — you just see a person falling. But, that image upset so many Americans. If you want to upset any American politician, show them that photo. They hate it because that photo shows America in a moment of weakness. It shows an American falling. They don’t like it because representation is important.
My background is in advertising where they say perception is reality. The truth with life is that the truth itself often doesn’t matter. How we treat people, how we interact, how we deal with people, where we go, where we don’t go — a lot of this is just based on perception.
For example, one of my very best friends who is Ghanaian had to break up with his American girlfriend. When he went to meet her family in New York, he came back feeling that they all thought he was a gold digger. He overheard conversations where he said he probably just needed a green card or an American passport. As somebody who doesn’t need any of that, he was very offended, thinking that all they could see was a leech. Why would they think that he’s a leech? Why would they think this guy, who actually has a Master’s degree and is very, very qualified and very competent and has a good job and owns businesses, is a leech?
They think he is a leech because he’s coming from Africa. Because every image they have seen of Africa is devastation. If it isn’t war, it’s disease. If it isn’t disease, it’s child soldiers or it is rebels. It is always violence. And, if we don’t want to show something violent, we take you on a safari and we show you lions and zebras and cheetahs. And this is a baggage that lives with you forever.
Whatever the situation was, that aid agencies need that money and so they show gory images — whatever the excuse was — after Ebola is over, after the civil war is over, the world moves on. But the African never really gets to move on because you show up and people think you are less qualified. They think you are less intelligent. They think you are less able. They think you are a dimwit. The baggage of all these perceptions comes from how Africa has been consistently been photographed and portrayed in Western media. This is what we are fighting against.
So you can come and take your gory photo and win World Press or whatever award. Go and tell amazing stories of how you fought lions to get to the story and be a hero where you came from. But what happens to the people you left behind, the people who you came to photograph? In the mind of the world, we are stuck where we are.
The child you photographed naked with scars on her body running in war is no longer a child — you merely froze a second in her life. But to the world, she’s a poor child in a war-torn country, naked, and on fire. To the world, she eternally stays a victim. When you are negatively represented in photographs, it becomes extremely difficult to move on, it’s almost impossible, because to the world, that is who you are, that is where you are, that is your country. That’s what it is. You don’t change. You don’t grow.
That’s why in my post, I talked about respect and empathy, because I don’t think European and American photographers or white photographers don’t know these things. They just don’t think that the African, especially the African who finds themselves in a troubling situation, deserves the same kind of respect and empathy. Yeah, so you know, it’s Africa — the gorier, the better.
DV: What’s particularly fascinating about the pandemic that we’re facing now is that it affects everyone. When you go to a foreign country, there’s a distance between you and whatever it is that you’re covering — the situation doesn’t affect you on the same level as the people you’re documenting. Of course it affects you on some level because you have to physically be there, but there’s a safety net in knowing that it’s not your community, it’s not “your problem.” Even if you don’t have anyone in your life who’s been affected negatively healthwise by COVID-19, you know it’s affecting your community and that it could potentially be you or someone you love. I hope that this situation makes people think about how they cover other crises around the world.
NKA: It helps to go to the roots of what we are actually dealing with. Normally when I think of photography, I think more in terms of how images are formed. Because I started as a writer, I think the most dominant images are actually not photographs. The most dominant images are words. And if you look at the words of politicians, for example, “The China virus! The Mexicans!”, you realize we live in a time when all that used to be said in secret is now openly said by politicians, is normalized.
So, the photographer who points their camera in a dispassionate and condescending way towards Africa, and the president who spews such rubbish about Mexicans and the Chinese and “shit hole” countries, they are one in the same. This comes from a part of human history of how European civilization became so strong. Because of the inhumane ways they went about colonizing other people, they had to design rhetoric that justified the inhumanity. The easiest way to justify your inhumanity is to make yourself believe the other person is not human enough.
DV: Exactly, it definitely goes back to power structures and colonialism. And how people are perpetrating that viewpoint today through modern day colonialism.
NKA: Maybe it’s good that the powerful, the so-called “superior,” are just as afraid of COVID-19. We need to get to that place where we learn to respect humanity and see ourselves in the other and genuinely show respect. When I wrote that post, somebody might foolishly think, “Oh, Nana Kofi is one of those racist photographers who doesn’t like white people working in Africa.” Anybody who knows me, knows that that is not me at all. And that’s not how I think at all.
I’m part of Everyday Africa, which is a group that was started by two white guys. I didn’t have a problem joining them. I have never had a problem being a part of the group. Why? Because I know what they stand for. It is not the color of the skin. In fact, if you look at what made them start Everyday Africa, it was because they were not willing to conform to the stereotypical perceptions. That is what led to the birth of Everyday Africa.
I’m an African, but I’m also often a stranger in many African communities. This is a continent with over 1,000 languages. I speak only three of them. So, when I drive a few kilometers from my community, I am just as useless as the next white person who flew here, because we all don’t understand the language. But, what tends to be the main difference between me and some other person is that I respect people in that community. I go knowing that I don’t understand the culture. I go with the attitude of seeking first to understand. I don’t go thinking, “Yeah, these other people, this is what they think, this is what they need, and this is what I must do.” No, I go with respect, humbly seeking knowledge, seeking to understand. That’s the main difference. Anybody who can come to Africa with that posture is more than qualified to work anywhere in the continent.
DV: Another interesting aspect of COVID-19 is that it has flipped the world upside down. One way being that, isn’t it ironic to see countries in Africa and Latin America and Asia now closing its borders to people from Europe and the United States? And to see people in the United States and Europe — countries that are generally not affected in the same way by crises such as the one that we’re going through — panic and do anything in the world to get that toilet paper roll?
It makes me wonder, now do people understand what it feels like to be scared about the fact that you are in danger and understand the lengths you will go to protect yourself and your family? Do you understand now what that feels like and why people flee war and seek asylum in other countries and cross undocumented from one country to the next, because that’s their only option? Do you now understand, on some level, how that feels? I hope that by flipping the world upside down, people will reconsider their viewpoints.
Much of our conversation has been about the dark side of photography and how it can be used as a tool to keep certain people in power as well as portray people and issues in a particular way — photography is, in fact, about making choices. But, you haven’t given up photography, so you must also feel hopeful that in the same way it can cause damage, it can also be a way to change the narrative.
NKA: I think photography is powerful, that’s why I became a photographer. Once you see a strong image, it stays with you forever. My passion from when I became a photographer years ago was just to show Africa and to show my world in a very honest way. Not so much positive or negative, but just honest. It’s amazing how many people get surprised to see my world.
For example, if I get into conversations with people, and they ask me, “So, did you study in Africa? Did you school in Africa? You speak English quite well!” And I tell them I’m not exceptional, there are many, many, many people where I come from who are like me. How do I get the world to see that I am not exceptional? That there are many, many kids in Africa who have iPads, who attend schools that are just as good or better than the ones in Europe and America, who have access to three square meals a day? How do I show that yes, Africa has its extremes, but that’s not all of it? And the easiest way is through photographs. Photography is a huge blessing.
Because photography was not an African invention, we’ve been late at getting to the game. We’ve been late at getting to this place where we use photographs to compellingly tell our stories. One of my favorite quotes is that the word “authority” first begins with the word “author.” So, whoever writes the story owns the power. It’s about time that Africa started telling her own stories, that we take ownership of our stories, and that we tell them in very compelling and eloquent ways. The world won’t have a choice but to change how they think about and see us. Photography is a critical part of our future and that excites me.
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.
Danielle Villasana is an independent photojournalist based in Istanbul focusing on human rights, women, identity, and health around the world. She’s a member of The Everyday Projects Community Team, co-founder of We, Women, board member of the Authority Collective, and member of Women Photograph and Diversify Photo. Follow Danielle on Instagram.
The Everyday Projects published a guide for visual journalists documenting the Covid-19 pandemic, which was written by Jenell Stewart, DO, MPH, Infectious Diseases physician-scientist at University of Washington. More general information can be found at covid-101.org, a trusted website with content created by medical professionals and experts. For additional resources related to this crisis, including Emergency Fund support, check out a list compiled by the Authority Collective on their website.
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