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African photo books

Blog post suggested by my dad, who'd asked for a few ideas for an book of African photos (not counting North Africa) to buy as a gift.

Top of my list were:

1. Facing Africa (John Kenny)

2. Afriques (Raymond Depardon)

Also in my collection, in no particular order:

3. Afrique(s) (Raymond Depardon)

4. Faces of Africa (Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher)

5. Surma, Faces and Bodies (Benoît Feron)

6. Quelques Afriques (Bernard Descamps)

7. Wilfred Thesiger in Africa (edited by Christopher Morton & Philip N. Grover)

8. Africaine (André Lejarre)

9. Dogon (Agnès Pataux)

10. Don McCullin in Africa (Don McCullin)

11. Lamb, Lutteurs du Sénégal (Denis Rouvre)

13. Land of Cush (Cédric Gerbehaye)

14. Africa (Sebastiao Salgado)

15. Sahel, The end of the road (Sebastiao Salgado)

16. Africa (Leni Riefenstahl)

17. Zanzibar (Josef Hoflehner)

18. Hommage à l'Afrique (Olivier Föllmi)

19. Le Fleuve des Sables (Jean-Luc Manaud)

Let's not forget some beautiful "animal books":

20. Sauvages (Bruno Calendini)

21. Nick Brandt's extraordinary trilogy: On this Earth / A Shadow falls / Across the Ravaged Land

More splendid photos of Africa in the following:

22. Genesis (Sebastiao Salgado)

23. Before they pass away (Jimmy Nelson)

24. Visions of a nomad (Wilfred Thesiger)

25. Inferno (James Nachtwey)

Since the point isn't to boast about my collection, do you notice anything ?

These photo books are nearly all by European photographers (none African), and overwhelmingly by photographers from former colonial powers (France, the UK, Belgium, Germany).

It's not a deliberate choice on my part: whether at my local book shop or on Amazon, I tend to snap up every book of African photos that I come accross or is recommended to me - apart from the cheesy, boring type (sure you know the one I mean).

I know for a fact there are a) really great African photograpers, and b) great books by African photographers (I came accross one, for what might have been the first time, at a specialized book store in Geneva yesterday: Photographies Bamako, Mali, by Seydou Keïta). The fact remains however that they remain quite few and far between.

This ties in partly to the stories you hear about how these photographers, and indeed musicians in similar circumstances, were (re)discovered only quite recently: a European visiting an African country stumbles by chance on a bunch of photos, realizes they are amazing, somehow seeks out the photographer, who turns out to be living in destitution having long since shelved his camera.

It may also be due to other cultures being less focused than others on visual arts in general, or photography in particular.

Whatever the case may be, it is certainly a pitty that African life, until very recently, apparently wasn't recorded quite as much by local photographers, with a point of view and sensitivity no doubt quite different to that of the photographers mentioned above, however talented and sensitive these may be.

Allow me a perhaps silly comparison between photography (street and portrait photography) and quantum physics: a tenet of quantum physics is that you can't observe a system or particle without altering it. Street or portrait photography is rather similar: people will likely react to someone barging in with a camera - and they likely won't react in the same way, whoever and wherever they may be, to one of them or to a foreigner.

I actually speak from first hand experience: walking by the lake in Geneva with my baby kids, it's happened more than once that a Chinese tourist stopped me asking to be photographed next to my kids, or with my kids and me. Chinese tourists seem to find western babies incredibly cute and absolutely irresistible. Every time I was asked, I was happy to oblige. But would I react the same way if a westerner made the same request ? Open question since it's never happened, but I'm not so sure.

However, digital photography being a great equlizer, no doubt we can look forward to many African photos taken by Africans finding their way to us on other continents. In fact, in a fairly recent issue of perhaps Polka Magazine or PHOTO there was an piece about a guy who showed up in a Lagos slum with a bunch of digital cameras and started a photo clinic, open to whoever was interested. The photos, published in the magazine, by those who got hooked were really amazing.

Incidentally, the same as above could be said of photos from Afghanistan, though I won't bore you with the list of Afghan photo books in my collection. On second thoughts, while I'm at it, here are my favourites (among many others):

1. The Photographer (photos by Didier Lefèvre, already mentioned in a previous blog post)

2. Afghanistan (Chris Steele-Perkins)

3. Afghanistan, Broken Promise (Moises Saman)

4. A l'ombre des montagnes (Steve McCurry)

5. photos by Zalmaï in the album published in 2009 by the Swiss branch of Reporters without borders

In case you're wondering, there's absolutely no connection between this blog post and the attached photo (taken today in Geneva).

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