The news we hear out of Africa often ranges only from terrible to tragic: conflict, famine, rape, poverty, AIDS. But behind the ugly headlines is another Africa – for those who choose to look for it. Photographer Betty Press sees Africa through the lens of humanity in her powerful and touching book I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb.
Betty first went to Africa in the late 1980s with her husband, Bob, who was the Africa correspondent for this publication when the Monitor was a daily print newspaper. Almost immediately, Betty began contributing photos from their trips together.
Back then, the Monitor was exclusively black and white. Film had to be sent back to Boston to be developed and printed. I remember watching Betty’s work get stronger and stronger as she found her voice, her point of view.
“I Am Because We Are” is filled with 125 of Betty’s beautiful black-and-white images paired with African proverbs to create a presentation that is both profound and poetic. Together, the words and pictures show us an Africa filled with dignity and connectedness. Betty documents the everyday lives that thrive on this complicated continent despite the challenges. The book’s theme is ubuntu, the African concept of living harmoniously in community, encompassing the joys, sorrows, beauty, and diversity of the group.
Betty finds quiet gestures, and it is these intimate moments that show us our commonality with these faraway people. Her subjects seem comfortable and relaxed, in surroundings that are framed in a beautiful way. A gleeful Rwandan baby sits on a scale in a maternal health clinic. A Jola entertainer from Senegal stares at us through glasses bigger than her face. (Do the glasses actually have glass in them?)
But Betty doesn’t shy away from tough situations. The tears of a child who was separated from his family during the genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo are heartbreaking, but other children gather close and touch his shoulder, offering hope that they will get through it together.
Since their eight years based in Nairobi, Kenya, the Presses have occasionally traveled back to Africa for extended trips where Betty was able to add to her impressive body of work. Today, most photographers shoot in color, but I love the impact of black and white and am glad Betty chose to use it exclusively in her book.
One of my favorite proverbs in the book is: “The world is a mirror; it looks at you the same way you look at it.” Through the magic of photography, we are fortunate enough to see Africa the way Betty Press looks at it.
“I Am Because We Are” is available online at www.bettypress.com.
Reviewed by Melanie Stetson Freeman, Monitor staff photographer