Postcards from Zambia (4)
6. Globalism, technology and social change
Despite the Polaroid camera being sufficiently developed to take positive colour photographs in 1964, the world’s press recorded Kenneth Kaunda taking Zambia to independence in October that year in black and white. Although this is where the Zambian colonial project ended for Britian, it is where the globalisation project started, a positive feature of a changing world for some, the domination of the Third World by the First World for others (Ashcroft, 101).
In the same year, the Photographer’s Eye was an influential photographic exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a collection of admired photographs curated by John Szarkowski, the museum’s director emeritus of the Department of Photography. A year earlier, in 1963, former Drum photographer Peter Magubane became the first black photographer in apartheid South Africa to exhibit his work, in Johannesburg, before being arrested and imprisoned for two years in 1969, and then banned from taking photographs for a further five years (Haney, 109). Drum is an important South African magazine that started in the 1950s, gathering professional African photographers and a readership of erudite Africans, often ANC members. Another ex-Drum photographer, Ernest Cole, eventually managed to publish House of Bondage (1967) in New York, which was the first published photographic account of apartheid in South Africa by a black South African. He died unhappily in exile in New York on the day of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison (111).
Hippo on the Lower Zambezi, Zambia.
The world was in turmoil in the late 1960s; it was the apartheid era in South Africa, the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and of America’s war in Vietnam where war photographers Don McCullin and Larry Barrows made their names. There were civil rights movements about race and equality for women in the USA and, in France, students rioted. This was Structuralism, when society focused on structures and rules. For photography, it meant incorporating the concepts of semiotics, which became the foundation of ‘reading’ photographs.
Extended from linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857-1913) earlier work on semiotics, the image of a dog signifies ‘a dog’; it is the signifier that is ‘read’ as a dog. The actual dog was ‘signified’ but it does not exist anymore. Together they represent a sign. De Saussure importantly recognised that a sign is not necessarily the same in all languages. It is easy to see that this can be extended to creed, race or political disposition, or indeed, the ‘West’, ‘colonialist’, or ‘neo-imperialist’.
Structuralism evolved into post-structuralism through the incorporation of psychoanalysis and deconstruction. There was much political disruption at this time and there were profound effects on a range of disciplines, including photography. Yet, despite this period of unrest, of all countries, Zambia was an example of a non-warring state and, despite the ‘grave handicaps of its colonial heritage’ (Roberts, 250), remained a free country.
Influential books started to be published a little later: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) and On Photography (1977) by Susan Sontag were and still are important. It was around this time that the West’s neo-imperialist project of aid and development spread its wings across Africa, often facilitating despots who disrupted much development, willingly destroyed their own economies and oppressed and murdered their people. Photographers focused on this social misery; people like Sebastião Salgado in the 1980s, who was born in Brazil, in the global south, and has become one of the world’s great documentary photographers.
The 1980s saw another batch of books, with Roland Barthes’ often erroneously cited Camera Lucida (1981Fr/84En) - actually about phenomenology and not semiotics - and Victor Burgin’s (Ed.) Thinking Photography (1982), in which Umberto Eco defines photographic codes of perspective and focus as means of relevance and relative importance. Facial expressions are the most complex body language and lighting also codes an image, and both are culturally significant. These photographic codes can be organised into rhetorical arguments and often define a ‘good photograph’ (Bate, 36).
So from the 1960s to 1980s, photography theory wrestled with traditional realism: the latter insisting that there is no difference between signifier and signified, and the former highlighting the distinctions and subjectivity inherent in semiotics. There are advocates of both theories but ‘by the end of the 1980s, photography finally began to be absorbed into art institutions […] as a dominant modern art form’ (Bate, 29) and some governments ‘acknowledge how powerful photographic images can be’ (30) by controlling advertising images and muzzling the press.
Such control was no more acute than during the states of emergency in South Africa between 1985 and 1990; yet, despite oppressive behaviour towards photographers by the South African government, there were opportunities for many photographers. One of those was Gideon Mendel, a South African photojournalist who now works from London documenting social issues, particularly in Africa, and who won the Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography in 1996; Eugene Smith himself was a noted documentary photographer. In comparison with South Africa, Zambia has never had the stark subject matter that deep oppression incurs, but it has a need to record social change for posterity, which is a continuum that remains largely undocumented in the country’s museums.
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