Thoughts about pictures
by Nadine Lorenz
People think about cities in different ways. They are rather fascinating to me, whereas other people feel uneasy about them and are not able to cope with large cities. The experiences we gain in unfamiliar surroundings are often affected by individual expectations and personal attitudes – so called preconceptions – about the country to visit. By taking pictures we often try to safe those expectations and consider them as existing realities. Most of the time, this happens unintentionally. Yet we cannot exclude either that those people watching the pictures later on reproduce exactly the same preconceptions, thus creating a cycle.
When we talk about countries in Africa, the aforementioned preconceptions are often associated with terms like post-colonial and deficient. If I take a picture in an African country, it may happen that I choose a subject (wittingly or unwittingly) which corresponds to my preconceptions, and then a stereotypical image of Africa will be created and reproduced. Most of the pictures show poverty, for example, whereas urban sceneries were left out. Usually, unexpected things first become visible when we concentrate on them and do not focus on confirming stereotypical preconceptions.
The pictures are of private matter, reflecting visited places and people, but they might still cause assumptions about the ‘real life’ from a distance. It is therefore quite necessary to reflect on the pictures we took and consider what we photographed for which reason and in which way. This reflection is also useful in order to question personal views and value judgements. Which situations did I want to record? What did I intend to show with them? How come I did not take pictures in other situations? An approach to personal preconceptions and value judgements becomes possible here and might also propose a discussion.
It was hard for me to give up on expectations and attitudes when I arrived in Nairobi. The knowledge about the challenges described above seemed to be almost paralysing. I often asked myself: What do I photograph now for which reason and how do people rate those pictures later on?
I did neither intend to continue stereotypical prejudices with my pictures, nor create some kind of ‘reality’ that avoided categories like ‘poverty’ and ‘social injustice’, and substitutes them by urban sceneries. If I focused on Nairobi merely as a young and creative city in order to replace backward stereotypes in Germany, it would certainly conceal the actual situation. Besides an emerging middle class, Central Business District, and fancy cafés on the one hand, there is of course abject poverty that continues to be prevalent in Nairobi. Wondering which pictures I would present to my family and friends, I was also concerned about what they would think about them – especially knowing that the illustrated place is far away from everyday life of most people in Germany. Consequently, most of them would get a first impression of Nairobi 'through my eyes' and my descriptions would pre-formulate their impression of the city.
Each representation of experiences and encounters in a global context carries a certain risk. Concepts of pretended reality of life abroad are created by means of the specific representation and influence the viewers – wittingly or unwittingly. These processes are usually initiated when talking about places and countries other people did not visit before. It is quite rarely though that they are as relevant as this.
What is special for many countries in Africa is the fact that they are usually beyond our perception, and along with it, there is poor and undifferentiated reporting. In the media, negative aspects like civil wars, catastrophic famines, and diseases are often overemphasised. Instead of providing recipients a comprehensive approach to different issues, they are often faced with generalised and stereotypical messages. Wittingly or not, medial presentations shape our preconceptions about those countries, but at the same time they leave huge gaps behind.
I do not think individual travel reports might fill those gaps, but this is why I think it is worth to reflect on what we represent how and why in such a context.
“Nairobi is a great city. It's one of those few cities in the world where it can be raining and there's sun at the same time.” (Khoisan Hassan, 2013)