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Africa’s photojournalists: The wars are not over

Africa’s photojournalists: The wars are not over

Hollywood would have you believe photojournalism is glamorous, action-packed, full of glory. Nowhere is this less true than in Africa, where a few brave individuals have taken on the continent’s most dangerous and insidious wars. By GREG MARINOVICH.

War photographers are either sleazy and glamorous, or noble and glamorous. At least this is what you will think if you believe the various literary or big screen adaptions of photojournalists over the years.

The first famous camp-follower’s tale was Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, set in the fictitious Ishmaelia (read Ethiopia/Abyssinia) in the 1930’s. The latest film adaption of a book on photojournalists is The Bang Bang Club, very loosely based on Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich’s book of the same name about South Africa’s bloody transition to democracy.

One might think that there would be a flowering of photojournalism in the continent that inspired those two books, albeit without the quarter-ton of luggage required by the correspondents of old. There is, after all, no shortage of conflict, famine and war on the continent to provide numerous scoops.

Yet when conflict photographers gather in hotspots to rekindle camaraderies in dimly-lit hotels to the accompaniment of throbbing generators, few Africans are among them. The glaring exception is South Africans. With all the conflicts in Africa, one would expect more than the few war photographers who have emerged.

Why? If the causes are not compelling enough to warrant the risk and commitment, then surely the lure of hard currency, excitement, booze on expense accounts and sex-and-drugs-and-rock-’n-roll are reason enough; if one is to believe the rather crass filmic fantasies of the lives of photojournalists.

Rwandan journalist Shyaka Kanuma writes about Africa’s journalistic environment: “In many parts of Africa, those who set out to become journalists with the independent press [had] better be prepared to work with media organisations whose operations are hobbled in various ways… these news organisations operate in an environment in which active hostility from government and others is the norm.”

Kanuma regards much African press to be state- or business-friendly, propaganda arms for their masters, or, if maintaining independence, then likely to face extreme danger: “Many of the continent’s regimes are highly undemocratic; a good number of them are led by people who shot their way to power after ruinous rebel wars. Others “inherited” power and, occasionally, a leader might legitimately win an election. What almost all of these leaders have in common is that once they are in power they entrench themselves at the expense of everything else. They rig elections, and they divert the constitution or rewrite it to contain provisions for a lifetime presidency. They deal with political opponents or dissidents by locking them up indefinitely in degrading conditions. They also legislate draconian press laws to muzzle the inquisitive, critical elements of the press.”

The hurdles for photojournalists or war photographers working in Africa are even greater – the person with the camera is so easily to identify, either to target or to prevent them working.

Despite this, there are some scenarios across the continent where war photography has played a role in determining how society and history view a conflict, perhaps even how that conflict has played out. More recently, there is a case to be made for the definition of conflict photography to be extended to include documenting a war of ideas playing itself out across the continent.

* * *

In the Horn of Africa, rather near to where Scoop was set yet a lifetime later, another war took place. From the 1960’s, Eritrean guerrillas fought a protracted war of independence, to be free of Ethiopian misrule; first from the divine and brutal reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, and then from the Red Terror of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime. On paper, it seems unlikely that the Eritreans could ever defeat the militarily – and numerically – superior Ethiopians, who were initially supported by the USA and then the Soviet Union.

Uniquely, the Eritreans decided to document their liberation – they wanted to be in a position to write their own history, and not have their epic struggle distorted by the outside world’s capricious attention span. More prosaically, they needed to ensure a steady stream of appropriate imagery to keep alive funding from the Eritrean diaspora.

Some of the fighters, both male and female combatants, were assigned as photographers. Their brief was to be both soldier and reporter, and to use their discretion when to shoot with the camera, or the gun.

Photo: Eritrean reporter tapes an interview with his Kalashnikov on his shoulder. (Siver Halide martyrs)

Russom Fesahaye recounts how it began. “At first we were all guerrillas in the field. All I wanted to do was to fight. But later it was realised that we had to document the battles. I had worked in a photo lab in Asmara before I joined up. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Force gave me a Zenith (a Soviet Union-made camera). Gun in one hand, camera in the other. With a gun you can hide, not with a camera. You have to be right on the front line with the small ammunition.”

It was also clear that one of the main reasons, perhaps the main reason, for documenting the liberation struggle was to fulfil the needs of propaganda and agitation – Agitprop. The war of ideas, the need to unite disparate Eritreans behind the EPLF. The Eritrean warrior-photographers were portraying their own conflict – does one really expect them to have adhered to the ‘objective’ standards of journalism taught at Western schools?

While this does not exactly fit the image of the neutral war photographer, nor adhere to the accepted practice of journalism, the fact is that the efforts of these warrior photographers left an archive that is unparalleled in African history. Three decades of war reportage from 1963 to 1991 has left a legacy of half a million black-and-white negatives.

Trawling the thousands of contact sheets, there are a large number of ordinary images interspersed with some of the most startling examples of war reportage. One image especially stood out – on a desert plain is a boy dressed in rags and staring into infinity, his face marked by the trauma of war. He is sitting on an unexploded 1,000 kilogram bomb dropped from the skies during the month-long aerial and seaborne bombing assault on the city of Massawa by the Soviet-backed Ethiopian air force after the rebels had taken the vital Red Sea port.

The photographer, Solomon Abraha, a humble man who is now a television cameraman with the state broadcaster, captured the most telling image of industrialised warfare in a non-industrial society; he sees his role as one within a collective. In fact, the pictures were never published with a byline; their work was all anonymous. Abraha’s overwhelming sentiment was that he worked within a collective, and his efforts were attuned to the success of that collective endeavour – The Struggle.

Photo: Cameraman armed with pistol on hip films scene.

One of the best among the photo-warriors was Seyoum Tsehaye. He developed into a mentor to many of the photographers, including Solomon Abraha.

Seyoum understood his duty as a soldier was to follow orders: to record the struggle and show war crimes against his people. Many photographers have been faced with the dilemma of wanting to put the camera down to assist or escape the horror of an extreme situation. But Seyoum’s discipline did not allow him any choices, so he continued to film. Inside, he says, he died a little every time he had to capture his civilian compatriots bleeding.

He recalls the month-long bombardment of Massawa in 1990: “I saw so many people killed. The child may be here and the mother there, sometimes both dead and sometimes the child is wounded and his mother is killed. It was cluster bombs that killed so many people at a time; burnt so many houses at a time, so it was like an inferno.

I cannot see these pictures again, because they just take me to that situation. As people were rushing to pull bodies out of the rubble, fearing the next attack, I ran towards these two kids standing there; the blood was flowing from their faces and their hands. And this girl, maybe she was five years old, she asked her elder brother, ‘Are these people going to bury us?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘they are going to take us to the hospital.’

So in one bombardment you could take pictures of people collecting all these wounded and dead bodies. And in the next bombardment, you see the person from your previous pictures – he is killed.

So taking this picture and hearing what they are saying, it really killed me. I was just crying and I was out of control.”

The Eritreans, and Seyoum, somehow withstood it all, gathering weaponry from their enemy in battle. The disintegration of the Soviet Union also heralded the end of the superpowers using Eritrea and Ethiopia as their proxies, and the Eritreans finally won their freedom, after thirty years of struggle.

Eritreans were proud of their sacrifices, and in the decade after 1990, they continued to do pro bono work on everything from resurrecting the Italian colonial railway and locomotives, to planting Neem trees along arid country roads.

Photo: Commander being interviewed in Massawa. 1990, by Habtom Berhe.

But once the euphoria had waned, some veterans felt that they had the right to more than just national sovereignty – they wanted personal and political freedom too. After a decade of freedom, followed by a pointless two-and-a-half-year border war against Ethiopia in 2000, collective thought and obedience were no longer ubiquitous.

Even among the elite of the ruling party, the fabric of revolutionary unity was fraying in the face of increasingly dictatorial rule. Many, like then-Minister for Trade and Industry and co-founder of the ruling party, Haile Woldense, questioned the failure of the government to make the transition to a true democracy. “We have to suffer from what we have done before. In following one line of thought, one school of thought, there are costs that one has to pay. That ideology was a very motivating thing and the people were very committed. That is why, in the liberation struggle period, the photographers – the propagandists – had an important role in the society.

But it is not without a cost and it is particularly after independence that you start realising the cost. To not be very open, to not be very critical. There had not been a development of tolerance to different opinions.

The Eritrean people need much more room for democracy. It is not something that has to be granted. Almost every family has paid its dear sons and daughters to the struggle for 30 years. And in the last two and half years war with Ethiopia, families who had lost all their sons and daughters except one, have now contributed this only remaining child. Who has the right to air opinion more than this family? It’s not a privilege, it’s not something that a government or a political organisation or any individual should grant to them.”

Woldense’s desire for freedom of expression saw him arrested and jailed without trial. It is believed he was killed – executed – about a year after he was detained.

The veteran photographer Seyoum Tsehaye was barred from the frontline when he wanted to document this new war against the old enemy. He began to question its rationale; why did more sons’ and daughters’ blood have to nourish the already-sated soil? His attitude saw him being shadowed by the secret police in 2001. Within weeks, he was also jailed with trial, tortured repeatedly and kept in remote desert prisons. Occasionally, exiled Eritrean journalists get word of him from sympathetic prison guards; they say he has grown his beard as a protest and is still defiant, despite being in solitary for over 12 years.

It is tragic that an honourable and egalitarian liberation organisation with great principles has descended into one of Africa’s worst dictatorships.

Whatever the politics behind the decision to send photographers into the field during their initial struggle, the fighter-photographers have left a crucial historic document behind. The lack of any sort of documentation of Eritrea’s latter war and internal struggle ensures that heroic acts, atrocities or war crimes are all unrecorded, pictorially. The Eritrean state had learnt of the power of its own war photography and wanted to ensure that no record of its unjustifiable border conflict tarnishes the historic legacy they think they have crafted for themselves.

* * *

It is quite rare that an African conflict is comprehensively covered by professionals with no stake in the outcome. Most modern civil wars are, in fact, widely documented by partisans who have a desire to show what is happening to their compatriots, or their comrades. Or they are sporadically documented by outsiders, and left to oral historians and politicians to spin tales of valour and cruelty over the scarred battlegrounds.

One local photographer who decided to confront the violence around him and document images of scalding brutality is Kenyan photojournalist Boniface Mwangi. He did not have to travel to exotic locales to cover wars; rather, conflict came to him.

A couple of years before the orgy of post-electoral violence in 2007, Mwangi had an initiation into the violence underlying Kenyan society, especially in the sprawling slums of Kenya’s capital.

I knew some people in Mathare, so when the Mungiki shot two police officers in the slums, a friend of mine called me and told the slum had been cordoned off. The residents of Mathare will forever remember June 2007 as the month that armed police backed by the dreaded General Service Unit turned the slum into a killing field to avenge the killing of their two colleagues. When the guns fell silent, 14 people were dead, most of them shot at close range or from the back either having surrendered or been cornered. I had many images of Mungiki members who were arrested by police, only for their bodies to be later found at the morgue with gunshot wounds. The coverage was risky because l wasn’t allowed to take images of police executing the suspects and at one point they pointed a gun at me for trying to do that. The police brutality was sanctioned by the government and so even after publication of the images no one was reprimanded.”

The Mungiki are a strictly Kikuyu ethnic criminal gang who are said to induct members through gruesome secret rites. Many of these rites and the Mungiki culture are said to stem from the Mau Mau, when the Kikuyu guerrillas were fighting British colonial rule in the ’50s. The Kikuyu, also Kenya’s most numerous group, went on to dominate post-independence politics. Many believe that the Mungiki were used by the old-guard Kikuyu politicians to stay in power as they fleeced the country’s coffers.

Photo: Scared school children walk past a police dog during a crackdown on Mungiki sect adherents in Kosovo slum in Nairobi; Kenya on June 07, 2007. The sect is blamed for a string of recent murders and beheadings; the slum was believed to be a major hideout for the quasi-religious turned militant sect members. When the guns fell silent, 14 people lay dead, most of them shot at close range or from the back either having surrendered or simply cornered. (Boniface Mwangi)

A couple of years later, Mwangi went on to be the most searing eye for Kenyans during the 2007 post-election violence. “My collection of mostly unpublished images present the unvarnished truth about that moment of madness when neighbour turned against neighbour. One thousand one hundred people were murdered and a further 600,000 rendered homeless.

Covering the post election violence in my own country was extremely difficult; I had to falsify my identity in areas where certain ethnicities were not welcome. The perpetrators and victims spoke a language I could understand.”

Mwangi is himself a Kikuyu, though absolutely unaffiliated to Mungiki, and thus he was simultaneously in a privileged and a disadvantaged position to document the spasm of violence as the old guard began to lose their iron grip on power.

Covering conflict in your own country is a risky affair. Mwangi has been detained in military camps and police stations, and repeatedly beaten in the course of doing his work. The organised criminals of Mungiki have threatened worse yet.

That, of course, is the indicator that Mwangi is following the correct path; that what he is doing has value. These experiences have pushed him to take his photojournalism into outright activism, sometimes with a camera and sometimes without.

While the outrage of patronage politics, widespread corruption and the use of ethnic gangsters to further political ambition is still rife in Kenya, some high profile figures have had to face charges at The Hague. Without the photographic evidence from photojournalists like Mwangi, the Kenyan communal conflict might have disappeared into the moral relativism of ‘anticipated’ African electoral violence.

* * *

On another front-line in Africa, but this time in the war of ideas, two African photographers are breaking the mould and challenging comfortable mythologies.

On November 16, 2011, the Nigerian parliament passed into law the criminalisation of homosexuality in Nigeria. The law states that anybody caught in the act of homosexuality will be sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment. Any person or organisation abetting such unions will be liable to ten years in jail.

That would make Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo liable to a nice round decade of incarceration: “In light of this Same Gender Marriage Prohibition Bill that is now awaiting the signature of Nigeria’s president, documenting or reporting on the lives of gay folk in Nigeria has become more tricky and dreadful. I will not be deterred by these unfortunate developments but rather continue to carry out my duty in highlighting those whose lives are on the margin of our society.”

Esiebo is a documentary photographer with a compulsion to expose injustice where he finds it. “Photographing gay life in Nigeria has always been kind of tricky, though I wouldn’t say dangerous. You can’t say outright you want to photograph gay people because this is a hugely homophobic society.”

Homosexuals have long been targeted for discrimination, and often abuse. A church that catered to LGBT Christians in Lagos was repeatedly attacked, and people beaten. It was closed down.

Esiebo sees himself as a cultural interlocutor: “My role as a photographer is to communicate things that are around me, find the ways that issues can be discussed in a constructive manner.

Sometimes I think people do not intend to be homophobic, but lack information. They do not have an understanding of what it is like to be gay – all they have in their head is an image of this guy having sex with another guy.”

Esiebo has chosen to document the intimate spaces of gay people. “These intimate spaces reflect the challenge of them having to live a double life – even in their intimate space, they are unable to freely display their sexuality.

I want to show a normative view of being gay in our society and that there is diversity in sexuality. We are almost the same; the only difference is our affection for one another. My own starting point is that… human beings should be treated with equal rights, regardless of their sexuality. We have the same human rights, so why should they not be given their rights to live regardless of their sexuality?

For them it is a war, a mental war.”

There has been a groundswell of hostile opposition to African homosexuality across the continent. Some states have taken legislative steps to outlaw what Esiebo calls sexual diversity. Frequently, homosexuality is seen as a Western ‘disease’ or ‘condition’ that has been introduced into Africa and that can be ‘cured’.

I don’t think that being gay is un-African. It has been there for a long time. Society tells them it is un-African. I think Africans have not been conscious of their sexual diversity. It is just that it has become more prominent today because we are living in a more informed society. People can express their opinions more freely, and probably this is why people in this sexual minority have taken this bold step to fight for their rights.

I would say it is a battle that is quite difficult to win, but if everyone keeps moving forward with this fight, one day victory will come.

At the opposite end of the continent, in South Africa, lesbian and gay activist photographer Zanele Muholi’s work provokes outrage. Her early work was, to put it mildly, confrontational. Later, she began to seriously document the lives of gays and lesbians, especially those living in African states where the practice is illegal.

South Africa is unusual on the continent in that it has gay rights, and even gay marriage, enshrined in its Constitution. Despite this, there have been a series of hate crimes against gays over the years, and a disturbing trend of ‘corrective rape’ in which lesbians are gang-raped to try to re-orientate their sexuality.

Muholi began to document the impact of these crimes and murders within the LGBTI or non-heterosexual community. Muholi speaks about the importance of art in raising awareness around lesbian issues and of giving a different view of black women.

It is not just strong men with weak brains who feel threatened by lesbians. The South African traditional leadership body – Contralesa – is lobbying hard to have the Constitution changed to once again disallow gay marriage and practice. They want a referendum, and are sure South Africans will reverse gay rights. Their president, Chief Phathekile Holomisa, is quoted as saying: “The ANC (ruling African National Congress) knows that the majority of South Africans do not want to promote or protect the rights of gays and lesbians.”

In this heated atmosphere, Muholi’s images stoke the flames of prejudice among some. Her images of love, what some call forbidden love, provoke the majority of people. Sexuality in Africa is a thorny topic. Images of lesbian intimacy make the more conservative among us quite incandescent with rage.

Shortly before a major exhibition of her work at an international conference in Cape Town in May of this year, her apartment was broken into and her entire archive stolen. Twenty back-up hard drives and all data relating to her work were taken, while expensive camera equipment, televisions, clothing and jewellery were left untouched.

Five years of my life were taken. Those things were priceless for me. I am even questioning what I am doing; if (my work) has just become this thing that people want to grab, or steal, or something. It used to be about beauty, about something that was needed, something that is valuable, but right now I don’t know anymore, I am questioning what I am doing.

I’ve dedicated my entire life to documenting queer lives and now my projects are gone. I feel like a breathing zombie right now. I don’t even know where to start. I’m wasted.”

The nature of the theft raises red flags. It appears that the thieves knew what they wanted. The drives were hidden in all different parts of her apartment. Wrapped in clothes, hats, etc. All were found. Even her camera data cards were stolen. “Seemingly they used the laptop to check the drives. They ignored jewellery and expensive cameras. So it was not a theft about the money, but about the information.”

Tears slide unheeded from the corners of Muholi’s eyes. “For me, this work is our history and we need it.

Was Muholi’s work indeed targeted? Did it so offend some in our society that they decided to rid their world of it? Was one small woman’s work too powerful for them to handle? “Why are queer lives such a threat in a democratic country?”

Photo: Zanele Muholi (Sally Shorkend)

Shrugging off despair, within a month she travelled to the far-off town of Kuruman to document the aftermath of the brutal murder of a 23-year-old openly gay man, Thapelo Makutle. Makutle was a drag queen known as Queen Bling, who was recently crowned Miss Gay Kuruman.

Muholi and other activists recount in a blog: Thapelo was found by a friend in the room he rented, lying on the floor under a blanket with his throat slit and his genitals removed. It was at the mortuary they found his tongue cut out and his testicles stuffed into his mouth. The walls dividing the rooms are shallow but the neighbours in the next room and beyond said they heard only voices talking but no screams or shouting. Nothing that would indicate the level of brutality that took place that early morning. How could one person have done this thing? South Africa has had at least 23 murders of gays believed to be hate crimes. It would seem that the war of ideas about sexual diversity has escalated into extreme conflict.’

Documenting crimes or defending the rights of gays in Africa will never be a popular occupation, and photographers like Muholi, Esiebo and Mwangi do not travel the world with wads of expense dollars, and they have no safe place to retreat to when the going gets tough, or they are targeted. They are true inheritors of the role of African war photographer, challenging us to examine our societies and our world views.

While brave and principled documenters like Tsehaye suffer in a dictator’s jail, across the rest of the continent, ruthless regimes bring the violence and fear to bear to suppress the truth.

Across Africa, there are few world-renowned war photographers, but many less famous ones continue to document injustice and abuse at great personal risk. DM


  • Intelligence warns Central on Mungiki and rallies, in Standard Digital;

  • Court sheds light on scary Kenya gang at LA Times;

  • European Parliament calls on Nigeria to reverse anti-gay laws at Pink News;

  • Trans gay activist believed to have been brutally murdered in South Africa in Pink News;

  • Gay murder linked to lesbian killing – claim at News24;

  • No Easy Life for Journalists in Africa in Nieman Reports;

  • Zanele Muholi’s Facebook page;

  • A Dangerous Visibility – In memory of Thapelo Makhutle in Black Looks.

Main photo: A boy is sitting on an unexploded 1,000 kilogram bomb dropped from the skies during the month-long aerial and seaborne bombing assault on the city of Massawa by the Soviet-backed Ethiopian air force after the rebels had taken the vital Red Sea port.


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