Africa's Life and Color Captured in the Lens By Africans Themselves

But strapped by economics and limited demand, the continent's native photographers get little exposure abroad

Africa is often seen by the rest of the world through the pen and lens of non-Africans. But a recent gathering of African photographers here offered some unfiltered views of the continent.

Passionate about their work, yet strapped by a lack of external markets, most African photographers are little known outside their country. Zimbawean Alexander Joe of Agence France Presse (AFP), whose war photos have appeared in this newspaper and other publications in the West, is an exception.

Since African photographers are locally based, they are able to take more time to seek out detail and to record more mundane (but no less significant) aspects of life than does the average foreign photographer, who works under deadline pressure to document often violent news events in an unfamiliar land. The African, therefore, can present a more balanced picture of life in his country.

The African Photography Festival, held in December with financial support from the French government, combined a small portion of Africa's photographers of note, plus some relative newcomers to the profession, such as Themba Hadebe of South Africa.

Starting in 1993, just a year before South Africa's first all-race election, Hadebe found himself in a dangerous profession. His preelection 1994 photo shown here, for example, is of a young man in Thokoza township, near Johannesburg, running from a South African Army vehicle. Most of the homes and migrant workers' hostels in the township had been abandoned since clashes between rival civilian groups the year before.

Hadebe observed a calmer side of life, even during those tense days. ``People were sitting in their gardens. But the way it was reported [abroad], it's as if [every place] was a war zone,'' he says.

Hadebe and several other African photographers interviewed at the festival say they are less focused on making money than on taking pictures they like.

``When I take a photo, I'm not thinking of selling it,'' says Djibril Sy, from Senegal. For several years he has been documenting the culture of the Lebou, a coastal fishing people who live near the capital, Dakar. ``It's my way of contributing to keeping traditions,'' says Sy, whose mother is Lebou.

His photograph titled ``Plage Dakar'' deftly uses the neck of a horse to frame a Lebou beach festival.

Boubacar Toure Mandemory, also of Senegal, walks through a community to scout possible photographs before clicking his camera. Even after taking the pictures, he typically goes back again. ``Often I do a photo, and I think: I can re-do it better,'' he says. ``Everything I did here [in Bamako, during the festival] I re-did.''

South African photographer Ingrid Hudson once spent five months recording the lives of people in the remote Karoo region. Her photograph of a rural house with half an abandoned wreck of a vehicle shows attention to the unusual.

Yves Pitchen, who lives in Mauritius, has carefully documented daily life in his country. In his portraits he often pulls back to show character-revealing details of, for example, a subject's living room.

Among photographers at the festival, Seydou Keita, of Mali, and Samuel Fosso, a Nigerian living in the Central African Republic, pursue a different format: studio photography. Keita's image of a woman and child is an example of the importance with which his clients regard studio portraits.

Fosso has taken studio self-portraits since he was 19 ``to measure my growth.'' A former shoemaker, he took up studio photography ``to make money, nothing else.'' But he says studio work can be ``like art.''

Senegalese photographer Moussa M'Baye, whose interests span theater, architecture, and interior design, often paints or has friends paint designs on his prints.

Reflecting their absence in the profession in Africa, there were few women's works exhibited at the festival. ``It's thought of as a man's job,'' South African photographer Jenny Gordon says.

Festival organizer Francoise Huguier, a French photographer, says she got the idea for the festival after extensive photo trips to Africa between 1988 and 1990. ``When I got back to France, people said there are no photographers in Africa. I said, `Yes there are.' ''

Many African photographers sell their works for much less than they are worth, she says. Their work is also often unprotected because of lack of copyright laws in their home countries, Huguier adds.

Foreign demand for African photos is limited, says Pascal Martin Saint Leon, editor in chief of the Paris-based magazine Revue Noire, which features some African images. African photographers, he suggests, could expand their markets if agencies were created in Africa to cater to African publications.

* For more information on African photographers, including those mentioned, contact: Afrique en Creations; 51 rue Sainte Anne; 75002, Paris, France.

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