Battling The Pervasiveness of Visual Cliches – Jean Depara’s Images of Kinshasa in 1950s-1970s
What is the first image your mind conjures up when thinking of sub-Sahara Africa? It can go two ways really. You are either dreaming up a picture of children starving and gruesome war atrocities, or of noble tribesmen posing against a backdrop of astonishingly beautiful nature reserves. Pervasive images, yet revealing only a small, static and limited view on sub-Sahara Africa. From my anthropology training I know that there is much, much more to the continent than these images. I have friends who researched, worked and travelled in sub-Sahara Africa. I have seen images by excellent African photographers such as Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keita, Samuel Fosso, Guy Tillim, Mikhael Subotzky, Pieter Hugo, David Goldblatt, Hasan & Hussein, Jodi Bieber, Jo Ractcliffe, and Nontsikelelo Veleko. Interesting photographers, and diverse in what they depict and how. And yet, knowing all this at the back of my mind, when thinking of sub-Sahara Africa the cliches spring to mind first.
The causes are obvious. All too often traditional media outlets, western photographers and NGOs are equally culpable in continuing this visual narrative as was excellently pointed out by Max Houghton:
“While the media are a sitting target for criticism, accused frequently – and rightfully – of oversimplification, reinforcing stereotypes, and generally held to be responsible for misrepresentation of “the other”, the fact is that an enormous amount of images that appear in the press, in newspaper features and magazines in particular […] were commissioned, or at least facilitated, in the first instance by NGOs.” ¹
Galleries, museums, and other related photography institutions have only woken up recently to the photographic wealth coming from these parts of the world. Not only is it important for these institutions to pay attention to up and coming African photographers, showing a contemporary Africa differing vastly from the cliches mentioned above, but also to fill the photographic gap in African history. The small exhibition currently at the Maison Revue Noire in Paris tries to do exactly that. On show is the work by Jean Depara, who photographed Kinshasa and its inhabitants between 1950 – 1975.
Not only is Depara an excellent photographer adept at combining the qualities of street and portrait photography in his work, his images show an exciting and optimistic Kinshasa. We see people going out for drinks in bars, going out dancing in nightclubs. We see musicians playing in bands. We see athletes lounging at swimming pools without a care in the world. We see sportsmen working out, and adolescents dating and driving cars. Often enough the people portrayed followed similar whims of fashion as in the western world during those years. At first sight, the photographs could have been taken anywhere. But they were taken in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country more known in recent history for its brutal civil war. Hopefully this lovely exhibition, and future dissemination of similar pictures will help to dispel the visual cliches, and help to build a more nuanced and detailed view of the continent.
¹ Ei8ht Photojournalism, 2005, Vol. 4. Nr. 3. Pp. 34-37.