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My Photography

The philosophy of a normal distribution

I was a child of modernism, by education and upbringing, missing the late colonial period, and later of structuralism. This means I liked Beethoven and the romantics, and I had to follow rules. However, later, I lived in the times of postmodernism and I was never any good at following rules anyway. In fact, my wife likes to call me a maverick, which I find embarrassing, but I was certainly rebellious at school. My mother is an artist and my father was structuralist by training, a pilot from WWII, also loving Beethoven, but later Bruckner, Mahler, John Field and less common music, and always photography.

By the time I came to be working in Africa, predominantly, it was no longer pink and recently independent. I worked mostly in Nigeria and Zambia for the early international development organisations like the World Bank, FAO and UNDP, even before the neo-imperialists moved in, the colonially dispossessed Germans, GTZ, and the Scandinavians, Sida, Norad and Finnida, who had little knowledge and experience of the developing world but plenty of opinion. This usually entailed trying to convince governments that their uneducated and inexperienced women should be running the country while continuing to be raped and abused by the equally uneducated and inexperienced men. At least in this, everyone was equal and continues to be. Does it matter as the great empires fall into destitution and new ones emerge?

Actually, the culture has been around for a long time and has interesting foibles that address the inequalities in often amusing ways. In my sixties, I have never believed that woman have been very oppressed by their men - more usually by political power - and certainly not the women I know. It is notable that successful men and women of the world never ask anyone's permission, while the rest beg to be noticed.

I have not been paid to take photographs for many years and I am not likely to start now. While I have taken plenty of aesthetically pretty photographs in the past, I am now less inclined to do so. I have lived and worked mostly in rural Africa – mostly now in Zambia – usually in agricultural development and I have some experience about rural sociology. I have no more sympathy for their situation than they have, and feeling sorry for people is never helpful anyway. If you really want to find poverty and misery, you are more likely to find it in urban areas, and very probably in yours.

What I photograph is ordinary working people from a normal distribution of the population, which means, on average, they are not dying of disease, war or starvation. It is also not helpful for philosophy to contend that documentary photography can be misinterpreted by the misguided. So what? If nobody documents the social situation in Zambia now, or elsewhere in Africa, there will be no (social) history and nothing in the museums but news photographs of war and death in obscure places, which would lead to retrospective misrepresentation just by simple numbers. These concepts may be surprising for the West’s simulacrum.

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Peter Langmead