Not long after its invention in 1840, photography was taken up by practitioners throughout the African diaspora. From Africa to Cuba, in Europe and the United States, photographers of African backgrounds used the camera to document their surroundings both for official purposes and to create personalized portraits and artistic works. African diasporic photography, therefore, has an extensive history and forms an important and rich tradition within the practice of photography in general.
African Photography in the Nineteenth Century
One of the first photographers in West Africa was actually an African-American. Augustus Washington (1820/21–1875) was said to have worked in both the United States and Liberia. In 1857, the New Era, a newspaper in Sierra Leone, announced his arrival as a daguerreotypist new to Freetown, the capital. By the 1880s the Freetown newspapers were filled with advertisements for studio equipment and photographic supplies and services, as well as requests for photographers.
Alphonso Lisk-Carew (1887–1969) was another early photographer of the African Diaspora. Lisk-Carew was a Creole man who began his work in Sierra Leone in 1905. He established one of the most successful studios in Freetown and, together with the assistance of his younger brother Arthur, tailored his services to both the city's Creole and European communities. Lisk-Carew created a range of images in Freetown, including portraits of the city's established and more notable members of society. These images were often reminiscent of Victorian portraits from Europe, with their subjects appearing in stiff, frontal poses and pictured neatly positioned and seated in out-door settings such as porches and gardens. Lisk-Carew also took photographs at ceremonies and events and during his travels into the interior of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Many of these photographs were featured in picture postcards that were created for colonial markets and the tourist trade in Africa. Other early photographers of African backgrounds who worked in Africa include Gerhardt L. Lutterodt, who worked in Ghana; N. Walwin Holm (b. 1865), who founded a studio in Accra, Ghana in 1882; and George S.A. da Costa, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1853 and became a well-known professional photographers in that city in 1895.
Twentieth-Century African Photographers
By the early 1900s, many African photographers had established studios in cities throughout the continent. Unlike the early practitioners who preceded them, these photographers catered almost exclusively to local African customers. Meïssa Gaye (1892–1982) was a Guinean portrait photographer active in Dakar and St. Louis, Senegal. In 1945, Gaye opened and operated the Tropical Photo Studio in St. Louis. Salla Casset (1910–1974) was also a popular portrait photographer in Dakar during the 1940s and 1950s.
In Bamako, Mali, Seydou Keïta (1923–2001) operated a highly successful photography studio from approximately 1949 up until he retired in 1977. Keïta won renown for his elaborate portraits, which featured his fashionable patrons seated before richly patterned textiles that framed the images and toned down the sense of three-dimensional space behind the sitter. Patrons worked together with Keïta to create portraits that best reflected how they saw themselves. Accordingly, they often appeared holding or leaning on props—such as a car, a musical instrument, or a sewing machine—alluding to a certain profession or signaling a desire to attain a specific status. Keïta's portraits were often viewed and appreciated by his patrons within their homes. The Malian photographer Malick Sidibé (b. 1936) established Studio Malick in 1962. Many of his photographs focus on the young people of Bamako. Throughout his career, Sidibé attended social gatherings such as parties, weddings, and dances, taking photographs of people
participating in a variety of leisure activities in public spaces.
In the eastern region of the African continent, photographers of South Asian descent—who were by this time second- and third-generation Kenyans and Tanzanians—had also established studios. One of these photographers, Narayandas Vithaldas Parekh, operated the popular Parekh Studio in Mombasa, Kenya, from the late 1940s up until 1982. Parekh worked with African clients from a range of ethnic and social backgrounds to create portraits that incorporate elements of Hinduism, international fashion, European photo manual techniques, and the lighting and poses of Indian film.
During the 1950s and 1960s, photography also played a critical role in journalism in Africa. Both before and after many countries had attained independence, staff writers and photographers at various newspapers in cities such as Nairobi, Lagos, and particularly Johannesburg, began to use photography as a way of documenting rapidly changing cultural and political situations. In the 1950s, black photojournalists in South Africa such as Robert "Bob" Gosani (1934–1972) and Peter Magubane (b. 1932) gained greater access to photography. These photographers were integral in documenting daily life and events in South Africa for local newspapers and popular publications such as the black urban magazine, Drum. They produced extensive visual accounts of South Africa's changing political climate and the country's long fight against apartheid.
Photography Throughout the African Diaspora
Across the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil and Cuba—countries with sizeable African populations—the practice of photography developed along its own trajectory. In late-nineteenth-century Brazil, most of the early photographers (and the viewers of photography) were of European origin. Individual and group portraits of wealthy European residents were common at this time. However, by the early 1900s, with growing urbanization and a developing middle class in Brazilian cities such as São Paulo, the audience for photography broadened. A range of illustrated magazines, such as Revista da Semana (1900) and Illustração Brasileira (1901), began to feature photographs. Over a decade later, in the 1920s, the photo club movement began in Rio with a growing and largely middle-class membership of amateur photographers. By the 1940s this movement had spread to São Paulo. In the early 1950s, Brazil also saw the rise of photojournalism, particularly as the photography magazine O Cruzeiro (launched in 1928) experienced tremendous growth, reaching a circulation of over 700,000 by the end of the decade. Over the next several decades, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the profile of photography and photographers became more visible with the emergence of several additional publications and public exhibitions. The interest of art museums, scholars, and critics also turned to photography, including the first inclusion of Brazilian photography in the International Biennale of São Paulo.
While many of the recognized practitioners of Brazilian photography were still of European origin and middle-class backgrounds, by the 1970s the subject matter of photographic images began to diversify. In 1978, in Bahia (a northern state of Brazil with the country's largest population of African descent), a photographer named Artistides Alves presented the exhibition Fotobahia, which eventually led to the informal establishment of Grupo de Fotógrafos da Bahia. This organization was established to present the work of contemporary photographers and provide opportunities for emerging photographers in the region. One of their strategies was to mount exhibitions on the beaches and streets. After gaining official recognition from the Cultural Foundation of the State of Bahia, the group elected Maria Sampaio and Célia Aguiar as its coordinators and changed its name to Nucleus of Photography in 1987. Working to train young photographers and provide technical support and exhibition venues, Nucleus of Photography tried to open up the arena of photography for wider participation by diverse peoples by gaining access to what had previously been more elite and widely inaccessible institutions.
Since the 1990s, greater attention has been allotted to Brazilian photographers from African backgrounds. One such important photographer is Bauer Sá (b. 1950) who has explored the relationship of black people in his native Salvador, Brazil, to African-based religions of the region. Other Afro-Brazilian photographers receiving international attention include Walter Firmo (b. 1937); Denise Camargo (b. 1964), editor-in-chief of the photography magazine Iris, and Carla Osório (b. 1972), whose exhibition Black People in Espirito Santo garnered critical acclaim during the first National Black Arts Festival in 1995.
Photographers of the African diaspora in Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States continue to use traditional photographic conventions while also experimenting with other approaches in order to produce more artistic works. Many of these photographers have found themselves uprooted. They have migrated, been displaced, were born overseas, or have chosen to train and work outside of their native countries, and they have often looked to photography as a creative means to address, question, and explore issues of identity, self-definition, and memory. David Damoison (b. 1963), whose mother is French and whose father is from Martinique, has focused his photographic work on documenting black life throughout the Caribbean. The Afro-Cuban photographer René Peña Gonzales (b. 1957) has spent his career creating surrealistic images of daily scenes in his native Cuba. The Jamaican photographer Rose-Ann Marie Bailey (b. 1971) has drawn upon her intense interest in light and texture to create photographs that explore the culture and history of her people.
From the 1990s onward, photography of the African diaspora has received widespread attention within both institutional and commercial contexts in the United States and Europe. Since the first image by Seydou Keïta was displayed in 1990 at New York's Museum for African Art (attributed to an "unknown photographer"), interest in photography by African peoples and people of African descent has increased steadily. In 1995 and 1996, the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor mounted In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City—the first exhibition ever of African photographers in the United States. Several related exhibitions followed, including a solo show of portrait photographs by Seydou Keïta at the National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C. In 1991 the Paris-based organization Éditions Revue Noire began producing literature on African and African diasporic photography. The organization continues to serve as an invaluable archive and resource of images, original documents, and other important information on the topic. University scholars and museum curators have also begun to generate more indepth research on individual photographers.
Since the mid-1990s, galleries throughout Europe and the United States have also displayed the work of African photographers within a commercial context. Gallery exhibitions include the presentation of works by Keïta and Sidibé of Mali, Zwelethu Mthethwa (b. 1965) of South Africa, and Samuel Fosso (b. 1962) of the Central African Republic. Prominent photographers of the diaspora who have received critical attention since 1990 also include the Nigerian Rotimi Fani-Kayodé (1955–1989) who worked in London and was one of the founding members of Autograph, the Association of Black English Photographers, as well as several Brazilian photographers, including Charles Silva Duarte (b. 1965) and Eustáquio Neves (b. 1955). The public attention received by these artists has been central in bringing about a greater awareness of the important and varied tradition of photography as it is practiced throughout the African diaspora.
Bell, Clare, Okwui Enwezor, et al. In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present. Exhibition Catalogue. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1995.
Carvalho, Maria Luiza Melo, comp. Novas Travessias: Contemporary Brazilian Photography. New York: Verso, 1996.
Éditions Revue Noire. Anthology of African and Indian Ocean Photography. Paris: Éditions Revue Noire, 1999.
Jenkins, Gareth, ed. Havana in My Heart: 75 Years of Cuban Photography. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2002.
Magnin, André. Seydou Keïta. Zurich and New York: Scalo, 1997.
Magnin, André. Malick Sidibé. Zurich and New York: Scalo, 1998.
Miessgang, Thomas, and Barbara Schroder. Flash Afrique: Photography from West Africa. Vienna: Kunsthalle, 2002.
Ward, Viditz Vera. "Alfonso Lisk-Carew: Creole Photographer." African Arts 19, no. 1 (November 1985): 46–51, 88.
isolde brielmaier (2005)