The Zambians (4): Mobiles and Captions

The mobile phone

Where are these photographs of Africa that are described by the normal distribution but are seemingly absent from the worlds’ museums and exhibitions? Critics of photography focus on war, and poverty and starvation in Africa. If photographs of Africa from the Western press are collected and exhibited, they would illustrate the West’s illusion of a continent of suffering.

There is another world that tells a brighter story, a massive collection of normal photographs, taken by ordinary people, all around the world, with their mobile phones and compact cameras. It can be expected that these represent normal humanity, probably mostly of wives and children, and of friends and events. Ordinary people do not photograph wars, disease and death. These are the photographs that explain more than four standard deviations of the normal population of human condition, 97.5 per cent, leaving the misery of war, starvation and disease to the 2.5 per cent at the left end, which is a more reasonable estimate of the proportion of photography that is explained by misery, and very small.

The tragedy of this story is that these ordinary photographs will likely never be printed and will never be seen in public as a representation of social history. In terms of pure volume of photographs, these outweigh the number of transient panoptic photographs used by the press, donors and visitors to justify their neo-imperialist beliefs that Africa is starving and dying by any other means. The reality is that there are many photographs on mobile phones that will remain invisible forever but demonstrate Africa is normal.

And to leave a thought; those wonderful, modern and artistic documentary photographs by Sebastião Salgado of cattle in Sudan: the cattle are worth many fortunes more than nearly every generous individual is worth in the West.

Talktime in Choma, ZambiaTalktime in Choma.


To return to Robert Frank’s book, The Americans; the captions of the photographs are very brief. This can be interpreted to mean that nobody is interested in the subject of the picture or that readers already understand everything about the photographs, perhaps implicitly or arrogantly. Or, of course, that the reader can interpret the image in any way her education, experience and knowledge allows. By the absurd evolution of the West’s simulacrum, of gross national suffering in Africa, it is clear that more information must be provided with documentary photographs to limit this misinterpretation, at least to a less misleading level.

The media may not be providing meaningful information, or are wilfully misleading their readers. Freedom to interpret images without guidance licenses communication failure; ensures the reader misinterprets the picture within the constraints of his education, knowledge and experience, and the persuasive persistence of the media-driven simulacrum; and it fails to give the photographer credit for having intent to communicate a message. When photographs matter, the result may be dysfunctional decision-making found in much donor, development and aid activity. Although including captions with photographs potentially helps overcome this communication failure, captions can be used in misleading and ambiguous ways, for example raising money for development and aid projects in Africa with photographs of fly-ridden and sick-looking children.

In a country with as few households as Zambia, everyone knows everyone else, somehow. At an exhibition of photographs from Postcards from Zambia, it was evident that viewers wanted more information, like, ‘where exactly on the Itezhi-Tezhi road is that bit of forest (pp36-37). So in this, I will not be following The Americans, or nearly every other contemporary book on photography besides, because I prefer John Szarkowski’s rendering of provenance in Looking at Photographs (1973), which I consider to be more intellectual and interesting. And the issue is now less about the photograph and more about the photographed.

Postcards from Zambia, The Americans and Looking at Photographs are black and white or duotone. This analogy to The Americans is in colour. Black and white remains popular in serious photography and many ask why. Barthes’ analogy is loosely that it is photographs without clothes on. This is not far from the truth and the reason is quite simple: colours have emotional character; blue and green are cool, red and orange are warm, so a colour image can lead to ambiguity, or conflicting and disruptive emotional interpretation, thus confusing the message. Colours also control the way in which the eye views the image.


The conclusion then is that, despite all the potential for a photograph to deliver a truthful impression of the scene in front of the camera, the subject may be constructed to be misleading, and often is in commercial photography, the caption or text can misplace the image, and the colouring in a photograph can communicate an inappropriate emotional context. This combination of characteristics in these photographs reflects quite well mankind’s disruptive and dysfunctional behaviour.

38-second slideshow

Cover of the photobook The Zambians The gala Mike trading The bus driver The oxen cart Palm fruits The roadside Another roadside The reality Make believe KK The band Imports and exports Urban diversity Timber resources The industrial area Brothers and sisters The dump truck The catapultist

Peter Langmead

Lusaka, June 2013

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