“The Field of the ‘Photographable’” – Summary of the online Conference – 18/05/2021
“The Field of the ‘Photographable’”
From the Global North to the Global South and from the Global South to the Global North.
Visual Approaches, Appropriation and Flows in Africa
Summary of the Conference held online on 18 May 2021
By Chloé Josse-Durand and Constance Perrin-Joly
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and connectivity issues, the online conference bringing together French and African academics, photographers and students interested in conducting visual projects in social sciences on contemporary African realities, has been held on 18 May 2021. This conference is the first step of a wider project about visual approaches untitled ‘The Field of the Photographable’ led by Chloé Josse-Durand (Deputy Director, IFRA-Nairobi) and Constance Perrin-Joly (Assistant Professor at Sorbonne Paris North, Researcher at IRIS and Associate researcher, CFEE, Addis-Abeba). The launch of a photographic exhibition in Ethiopia, Kenya, Burundi and France about ‘African Workplaces’ (https://cfee.hypotheses.org/7798) and a call for a special issue in the journal Sources – ‘Photographing African Social Worlds: Production and Circulation of Visual Representations’ – are ongoing steps of the project (see below).
This conference aims to offer a platform to discuss how photographers and researchers make use of photography to account for social realities they are not part of, which is often the case when it comes to Africa. The first objective of this conference is to provide a space to discuss and study photographs of Africa, as well as the vision photographers, have of their work, to finally confront them to the vision of photographers and researchers who work on their own socio-cultural milieux. The second objective of this encounter is to account for the ways in which these photographs are received by the public in the locations where they were taken or in other locations – notably in spaces where their photographers originate from.
The conference was smartly introduced by Sylvaine Conord, photographer and assistant professor at Nanterre University in Paris, France. She reminded us that the socio-cultural and historical context of photographic images is a key factor in understanding and interpreting photography. She underlined the necessity of defining the “field of the photographable” and the “non-photographable”, i.e what is left outside the frame. Over time, academics have questioned visual approaches in different views in order to understand how people form an image of social life. They have all stressed how photography and the use of photographic materials requires a reflexive analysis, questioning the researcher’s relationship to the subject and to the Other. Photographing is also a question of time and timing, and she insisted on reflecting as well on the time or the moment of capturing pictures as well as the infinite possibilities offered by re-observing and preserving memories through photographs. This broad introduction paved the way for the first panel, entitled “Contributions and difficulties of the visual approach in social sciences in Africa”.
Contributions and difficulties of the visual approach in social sciences in Africa
Marie-Aude Fouéré, Director of IFRA-Nairobi (Kenya) introduced the panel, proposing three layers of discussion. First, she compared the three panellist’s professional backgrounds and uses of photography: Christine Deslaurier, a researcher at the IRD (the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development) for whom the use of photography proved disappointing; Constance Perrin-Joly, assistant professor at Sorbonne Paris North University, who use photography in a crossed approach with classical ethnography; and Oumarou Dembele, a professional photographer from Mali who had the opportunity to work with a French anthropologist. All three were requested to reflect on what the notion of “a good photograph” would mean to them, taking into account their familiarity with this tool and the different ways they use it in academic work. Secondly, Marie-Aude Fouéré questioned their intentions and objectives: what did they want to capture? What kind of knowledge do the photographs deliver, and how to display it? Thirdly, she shed light on how contexts can impact a photographic shooting, for example in an authoritarian country – such as Burundi where Christine Deslaurier conducts her fieldwork. She also mentioned the relationship between the model and the photographer as a crucial element of context, as well as the trust of the complicity they can engage in (or not).
Christine Deslaurier (“‘It could have made a good picture!’ Reflections on the failure of a visual approach in a multidisciplinary research in Burundi”, https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/353712) took Marie-Aude’s questions as an opportunity to remind her experience of photography in the context of collective research in Burundi. This project, entitled SUBURBU (“Urban Subsistence and Labour Mobilisations in Burundi”) and led by Christine Deslaurier, questions categories, representations and labour mobilizations in different employment sectors or activities in urban settings – from domestic workers – “boys” and “nannies” – and bicycle and motorbike taxis to community work and urban agriculture). Her conclusion about the few photos taken during the surveys in Bujumbura or during the collective surveys conducted in other cities was clear: their attempts to put in place a visual approach had failed. Neither the quantity nor the technical or heuristic quality of the shots met the objectives they had set in their initial project. In her video presentation, she provided a basis for understanding what she considered a failure. First, she explained that the methodological expectations of the rapprochement between social sciences and photography were not clarified beforehand in the SUBURBU research Project. The image remained there as mere illustrations and was not considered as an investigative technique nor a process of knowledge. Moreover, cultural barriers and discipline obstacles also hampered the visual approach they had put in place. In a context where the photos taken were primarily family-oriented and in a tense political and social atmosphere in Burundi, the posture of the ‘photographer’ often seemed to hinder the investigation. It seemed that the generation gap, as well as the disciplinary culture of the researchers involved in SUBURBU (7 Burundians, one Frenchwoman), have caused a lack of interest in photography, or even a rejection of it by the fifty-year-old team members, who had little interest in taking photographs. According to them, the value of research lies in the production of publishable academic texts. Finally, she mentioned last the deficient technical skills of the SUBURBU researchers, who never benefited from any training in photography. Christine Deslaurier’s video presentation: https://vimeo.com/551354092/b3652604c8
Oumarou Dembele (“Art photography for ethnography”, https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/357462) reacted to Marie-Aude Fouéré’s reflection on what a good photograph is by comparing aesthetic and ethnographic approaches. He explained the context of his collaboration with the French researcher Laure Carbonnel in his video presentation. In 2019, they had the first opportunity to collaborate in Segou, Mali, but it did not come to fruition. Oumarou Dembele then gave details about his background: he comes from a family of self-taught photographers and studied to become a nature conservation technician before moving into art photography. 2019 was the year he could exhibit his work in several exhibitions. Laure Carbonnel completed her thesis in the Segou region before she could return for fieldwork that was part of her post-doctoral research on the city as a cultural capital. She wanted her own research to be inspired by the aesthetics of a photographer’s images. In the end, their discussions led to a confrontation between art photography and photography in research. Oumarou Dembele’s video presentation: https://vimeo.com/548510331/dde971ea33
Finally, Constance Perrin-Joly (“Photographable, Showable and Acceptable. Representations of Work in Ethiopia”, https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/353296) answered Marie-Aude Fouéré’s questions by going back to her ethnographic approach and her experience of exhibiting photographs. She studied labour in Ethiopia and compared the reactions of different actors to her photographs. She considered that the interplay between the photographer – here, a European woman – and the subject – male and female Ethiopian workers – could be interpreted to understand the relationship of the various protagonists to work. Thus, she analyzed how the audience’s reactions to the exhibitions revealed the spectators’ representations of work. The second exhibition she described (“Industrial Work Dynamics’ https://www.facebook.com/Industrial-Work-Dynamics-421408548658902/) was held in various workplaces and a questionnaire was used to invite the audience to write down their reactions to it. It allows us to confront the models – i.e Ethiopian workers and especially their fellow workers – with pictures of themselves.
In the discussion, she underlined how difficult the analysis of these questionnaires was, and how these exhibitions and the reactions they provoked changed the way she was taking photos on her fieldwork. Constance Perrin-Joly’s video presentation: https://vimeo.com/548456453
As Marie-Aude Fouéré pointed out, the panellists – and participants – different experiences echoed each other and launched debates that were crucial to the rest of the day: how does the visual approach allow the researcher to open up new questions, how can photographs trigger reactions – from models or viewers–, and how can we articulate these different gazes?
Tools for Photographic Research and their Uses
Despite internet disruptions, Marie Bridonneau – the current Director of the French Center for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE) and a geographer specialized in space issues –, proposed a stimulating introduction for the second panel. The panel gathered 4 presentations: Chloé Buire, a researcher from the French Research Institute in South Africa (IFAS) (“Narrating oneself through digital storytelling. Breaches in the ethics of co-production”); Jackson Kago, a PhD Candidate from University of Bordeaux and Kenyatta University (“Mobility patterns in small and intermediate towns and its implication on urban-rural linkages. A focus on the milk value chain”); Tabibou Ali Tabibou, an expert from the Centre National de Documentation et de Recherche Scientifique of Comoros (“Photographs: a corpus from the collections of the National Museum of Comoros”, https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/357451); and Guillaume Lecoque, an independent photographer who gave us a glimpse of his exhibition untitled “Zanzibar – Michenzani Trains, a neighbourhood on the lookout”.
The various backgrounds and experiences of the speakers as well as of their uses of photographs largely contributed to the richness of the discussion. Marie Bridonneau started by questioning the diverse uses and statuses of photographs in research investigations. Photographs can indeed be used as primary sources, such as archives for example. This was notably the case for the National Museum of Comoros photographic collection that Tabibou Ali Tabibou presented. These photographs were used as witnesses of the past, an element of heritage to preserve. Displaying parts of this collection and promoting interdisciplinarity built a relationship between the photographs and the public of the Museum. In that sense, the photographs became mediation tools between history, the past, narratives and people – especially young people. To learn more about Tabibou Ali Tabibou’s work in the National Museum of Comoros, one can have a look at his video presentation (https://vimeo.com/548774654/5a462b8c1c).
Photographs can also be useful to illustrate a research investigation. Jackson Kago for example combined two kinds of photographs – his own photographs taken during fieldwork and google street view captures. While his own photos allowed him to capture images of his research object in order to illustrate it, to support his analysis and to communicate about it to a broader audience, the use of google street views was more innovative. They were acting as primary sources and as such, giving information that was more difficult to collect while on the field. By using google street view, Jackson was able to depict the movements relating to the milk value chain from the production to the collection, processing, and distribution of milk. It allowed him to provide an exploratory overview of the various activities that were taking place along the transect he studied – a transect of 47 km between Ruiru town, located 25 km away from Nairobi, to Uplands village centre. For a more detailed explanation, one can consult his PowerPoint presentation (https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/353950).
Photographing can also be a research production and co-production. Marie Bridonneau pointed out the participatory dimension in visual approaches in social science, of which Chloé Buire’s experiment provides an interesting example (https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/353374). Her experience rested on two ‘Digital Stories’ produced in 2014-2015 by Tyrone and Ashwin during a participatory research project she had led in Cape Town. These two young South African men were members of an NGO that used technology and innovation to empower disenfranchised communities from the Cape Flats. As Chloé witnessed, editing a digital story implied clarifying the technical choices made by her and the two youth. Distinct narrative tactics were made explicit through this process. In that sense, visual co-writing highlighted the various gazes that come into play in an ethnographic project. It also questioned their legitimacy in different contexts and made power conflicts visible. She also addressed the question of the reception: the screening of the stories to the participants and their peers suddenly gave another meaning to what they had produced. The stories triggered emotional reactions that revealed their political dimension in the context of these former townships of Cape Town, an environment of exacerbated racial, economic and social domination. For a more detailed version of her experience: https://vimeo.com/548501904/1c5c063f38
Co-production also relies on many forms of collaborations that require an exchange of artistic and scientific points of view, as shown by the exhibition presented by Guillaume Lecoque (https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/356595). The photographic installation “Zanzibar – Michenzani Trains, a neighbourhood on the lookout” was held from the 8th to the 14th of October 2013 at the Maison de l’architecture de Picardie, France. It was the result of a multidisciplinary and collective work combining photography, architecture, and narrative. The discussions about this exhibition gave us the opportunity to cross many geographic borders as well as disciplinary boundaries and created a link between Amiens (France) and Zanzibar (Tanzania) through the urban ‘reconstruction’. It also showed the forgotten urbanistic realities of Zanzibar – the blocks of flats on the edge of the historic old town of Stone Town in particular. These representations of the island are even more important as most European visitors have their own fantasy of Zanzibar, which acts as a perfect example of exoticism, to an extent that some of the visitors were convinced that they smelled the scent of spices during the exhibition, even though no scent had been released at all.
Photographic Approaches on Work in Africa
The conference concluded with a third panel focusing on photographing work introduced by Constance Perrin-Joly. The first presentations came from two researchers who are part of a research project on workers in the Kenyan tea plantations. Faith Rutto from Moi University presented the results of her master’s research on the impact of working conditions on the workers’ health in the tea estates of Nandi Hills. Her PowerPoint presentation can be viewed here: https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/353511. Chloé Josse-Durand, a Researcher in political science and the Deputy Director of the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA) based in Nairobi, and Tom Durand, a French filmmaker and camera assistant, then presented their collaborative experience (https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/357492). Their common goal was to capture labour dynamics on Kenyan plantations through filmed interviews and photography, they talk about the challenges of their collaboration on the field in this video: https://vimeo.com/549617718/78c9579e72.
The other two presentations were related to the SUBURBU project. Pacifique Bukuru and Keith Rodriguez Ntwari are Burundian photographers based in Burundi. Pacifique Bukuru captured the story of a nanny, originally from a rural area, working in her sister’s home in Bujumbura where she has to care for her niece under very harsh working conditions. One can read his abstract presentation here: https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/357891. Keith Rodriguez Ntwari gave us a glimpse into Jean-Marie’s story, who is selling meatballs in the streets of Bujumbura https://addisvisual.sciencesconf.org/357892. Keith Rodriguez Ntwari gives some insights about his visual approach in this video: https://vimeo.com/551351270/b12d5cba2a.
To summarize, two labour situations were compared in this panel. The workers of the tea plantations are permanent or casual workers, in a cash crop industry introduced to Kenya during colonial times. This industry exports mainly to the Global North but its workers are invisible in the process. The second situation tackled urban employment in Burundi in the so-called “informal sector” – the main sector of employment in Burundian cities as well as in many African cities. The debate initiated by these contrasting situations, however, revealed that they have much in common in terms of photographic use.
The first point of the debate was about photographs when used as evidence and their scientific validity. If Faith asserted that photographs are accurate to show reality as they are without manipulation, most participants emphasized the need of objectivation as both photographs and observations are full of bias. As Chloé reminded it, this was not a problem if we analyze them. These biases can even prove its relevance as a research tool ‘on which’ or ‘with which’ researchers can work, as Constance reminded us in her introduction.
The second point allowed participants to deepen their reflection on the participatory aspects of research. Faith Rutto employed photography to bring out the visual realities of the harsh working conditions faced by the tea workers because images capture the reader’s attention. In this perspective, photography can be seen as a system of communication between research data, researchers, and the research community. It contains very rich and clear data that could not have been obtained through words only.
Thirdly, as the panellists’ reflections suggested, photographing work goes hand in hand with personal commitment and ethics. Tom Durand and Chloé Josse-Durand were sensitive to the social, racial and gendered relations of domination that drive the photographic interaction. How to document the living conditions of a lower (African) social class when you represent a (white) privileged, educated, richer individual? In a broader sense, has a filmmaker – as well as a photographer – always has a “bourgeois” bias in his/her approach? The questioning of their legitimacy was also broader. As they attempted to combine art and science, the question of the legitimacy of visual approaches was discussed further by the participants from academia as well as by the visual professionals.
Pacifique Bukuru’s experience was also an interesting entry point to illustrate the gender dynamics at play in photography and the personal involvement of the photographer as well as the model in the process. Pacifique was able to take pictures of a female domestic worker and to enter her intimacy even though he is a man. His photographs allowed us to picture an invisible worker and her invisible work since most of her domestic duties are happening inside a house. The framing of the photograph was very close to the model so that the viewer could feel what the nanny felt, especially the hardness of her work. The nanny accepted to share her intimacy because she wanted to provide a testimony of her social and working conditions to sensitize the public. Photography acts as a mediator in this case.
This last example incites us to wonder about the reception of images: to whom is the photograph addressed? Between whom does it bridge the gap? This was the fourth point proposed for discussion by Constance Perrin-Joly from the panellists’ presentations. For example, Faith wanted to raise awareness from political leaders about working conditions on tea plantations. On his side, Keith Rodriguez Ntwari wanted to highlight Jean-Marie’s professional commitment to motivate Burundian youth.
This last panel also gave the opportunity to the participants to pursue the discussion about topics mentioned previously, notably about the shooting conditions and their impact on image composition. While narrating how he met Jean-Marie, Keith Rodriguez Ntwari also recalled the particular conditions of his shootings in the continuity of the debate launched by Christine Deslaurier and Marie-Aude Fouéré about authoritarian contexts. He had to think in advance about how to frame the activity in order to be ready to take pictures very quickly and to ensure that Jean-Marie’s customers were not identifiable on them. The visibility of visual equipment – in particular the video camera in Tom Durand’s case – has to be taken into account to better understand the nature and limits of the interaction. As Chloé Josse-Durand and Tom Durand pointed out, the challenge to describe social realities and routines is high when one disrupts them by her/his mere presence and questions, so what about an imposing camera?
At the end of the conference, there were no doubts that all participants were enthusiasts and stimulated as it gave us a lot of food for thought. It provided a fruitful entry point for further discussions about scientific work using a visual approach in Africa. A special issue of the journal ‘Sources’ (https://www.sources-journal.org/521) – for which an open call for paper has been launched and meant to be published in the course of 2023 –, will be an opportunity to update the debates launched during this one-day seminar and complete the reflection. To be continued.
Heading picture © Tom Durand