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Africa’s Visual Representation in Photography

Reflection Landau

The chapter written by Landau (2002) discusses photography as a source that provides a visual representation of Africa. In particular, its connection with the colonial administration is explained. The author claims that photographs provided Africans with an opportunity to acknowledge colonialism’s representative encounter. In this way, those images supported the colonial project in Africa.

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During the colonial era, Africa contacted Western countries through trade, work, negotiation, and taxes, etc. With time, paper representations were used to report various rights and even depict countrymen’s activities. Photographs and those technologies that were used for their creation extended Western power. It happened because of the way those photographs were taken and the selection of images influenced people’s decisions. Moreover, images affected individuals even more than texts. This can be explained by the fact that their actual meaning was not always obvious.

When photographs first appeared, they were used as visual representations of possessions, evidence of ownership, and tools of repression. With time, they became realistic and even scientific. For instance, photographs were used for physical anthropology. They allowed measuring people’s bodies through the images where people were depicted full-sized with the use of a particular background that ensured the possibility to compare height.

Even though the technology was not well-developed at that period, it was good enough for typing races. Based on various photographs, scientists managed to identify particular features of Africans, such as their long labia, short arms, and dark skin. What are more, photographs allowed professionals to reveal the gender, ethnic, and socio-economic characteristics of Africans? For example, people’s clothing and adornment can reveal their status. Photographs of populations could also be used for policing and economic purposes.

When guns with ready-made cartridges became popular, it turned out to be easier for Western people to make photographs. As a result, the number of images that represent Africa increased. A lot of them were interested in hunting that is why they made numerous photographs of both flora and fauna. Pictures of hunters’ trophies allowed Western people to receive a lot of information about Africa so that there was even no necessity to transfer all of them.

Initially, colonial representations of African people were rather generalized. Images were often deindividualized, which affected authenticity. With the development of photography, pictures changed greatly, and a possibility to discuss individualistic features of Africans was obtained. This fact had an enormous influence on the visual representation of Africa, as it also affected sculpture. What are more, photographs allowed discussing diverse features of the African population? For instance, the focus could be made on the way different tribes dressed up or organized their territories.

Nevertheless, the colonial rule provided Western people with the opportunity to use visual signs of tribes to control the attitudes of the representatives of the general public. In the majority of cases, they depicted Africans in the way they did not appeal to the Western population and looked rather primitive or even aggressively approached. Photographs of African men and women were used to depict their routine as well, which allowed discussing cultural differences.

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Thus, it can be claimed that the development of photography provided an enormous influence on the visual representation of Africa. Initially, people from the West used only painted images that provided rather generalized descriptions of people, fauna, and flora. However, technological development altered this situation advantageously.


Landau, Paul. 2002. ‘Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa’. in Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa. University of California Press.

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