The Zambians (1): Reality and Art
This is the second book on Zambia by Peter Langmead in which he continues to argue that the preservation of the nation’s social history is more important for Zambians and for global heritage than the persistence of Western post-modern indecisiveness about whether documentary photography is important or to be trusted.
Like Postcards from Zambia, The Zambians is an independent view of Zambia from a foreign perspective, perhaps more correctly from the view of a foreign but resident ‘development consultant’, as derisory as that title may be. Certainly this book is not, and can never be, the view of a Zambian. It can even be argued that a Zambian photographer would be biased himself, self-censoring images he does not believe Zambians want to see, as much as foreign photographers may be biased in showing what they believe foreigners want to see, which may result in dysfunctional donor decisions.
Dr Langmead’s photographs are different because he was not paid to document Zambia and he is personally driven to show images of the people of Zambia within a normal distribution of humanity, and not as Africa is erroneously captured and published by Western media, as a war-torn, disease-ridden, starving continent. The text follows.
The most iconic book in documentary photography is Robert Frank’s The Americans, published in 1958 at the dawn of the ‘bigness’ of the American dream. This book The Zambians is intended to be analogous: Zambia in the flower of its development. The Americans, by its title, cannot have been photographed by an American, and it was not: Robert Frank was a 24-year-old Swiss émigré.
Proposed by Walker Evans, now a legend of American photography, Robert Frank was awarded a Guggenheim scholarship to take photographs of American life at a time when the American Dream was considered by some to be at the height of its ‘scope’, and specifically not of the poor, and not an extension of the documentation of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) that ended in 1943. I imagine that the perpetuated misery of the FSA era in the United States was not entirely different from the American and European simulacra projected onto Africa today. Rather than adopting these simulacra, Zambia is moving into its age of spectacle and wealth, and so the title The Zambians is appropriate.
It is more important now to understand photographs and interpret them. In the beginning there was light, and Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Fox Talbot worked out how to capture it, simultaneously creating the first issue of photography: whether it produced a realistic copy of an object. Here is the anomaly: Brian Walski, a photojournalist, manipulated an image that was published on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on 2 April 2003; he was summarily dismissed. In 1982, National Geographic had done something similar, moving a pyramid to improve the design, and rearranging camels, for the cover page. This is about ethics and shows that photographs can be less than truthful. Some notable publications, The Economist for example, argue in favour of such manipulation, with an accompanying admission of fakery.
Beyond tweaking colour, contrast and clarity, manipulation can be extended to completely faking images, famously ‘The Loch Ness Monster’. But do amateurs, or professional photographers, on average, fake images? If they are photographers, they are out taking photographs. I do not believe a statistically significant number of photographers are adjusting photographs beyond superficially. And then, can they publish them meaningfully in newspapers with aware and alert editors, where they can do intentional damage? I do not think so; on balance, I believe what I see in ordinary photographs because statistics says I should, while being aware that a few percent may have been changed significantly.
An accident in a fuel station in Lusaka.
Philosophers have been arguing about the depiction of truth and reality, and have no conclusion. They also argue about whether photography is art. Ironically, a photograph is considered more artistic if the photographer adapts the mechanical-chemical image in some way, perhaps as a montage or through the digital manipulation so scorned by many in the press. Ironically as well, the public considers that to be cheating, in addition to disrupting claims of honesty and truthfulness.
When the photograph was taken, whatever physical subject is in the photograph was there in front of the camera, whatever the date, the season, wherever the place. Some people think of the image as a window through to that vista or scene. Others erroneously get themselves confused about the process between taking the photograph with the camera and the finished print. The fact is, as Kendal L. Walton points out in Transparent Pictures, a drunken photographer still gets the photograph of the dinosaur, while the drunken artist fails, and no amount of imagination can create a fictitious image in a camera, only in front of it, like the Loch Ness monster. The practical story is this vista or scene is printed on paper or electronically. Where the paper came from, and how the image was printed on paper or seen on the monitor, is irrelevant to the analysis of the image, which continues to be an image of that physical vista or scene, or person, or dinosaur, at that time of the photograph.
Lusaka, June 2013