Namibians marginalized by colonialism are trying to reclaim their photography

In much of Africa, photography haNamibia’shequered past. Namibia was, for example, the site of a Genocide between 1904-1908. The German colonial army wiped out up to 80% of the Herero and other ethnic groups. The German colonial military machine used photography to justify these massacres.

Namibia’s archive contains images of German soldiers standing proudly at attention alongside the bodies of Herero prisoners. In the decades that followed, colonial officials tried to portray a softer side of white rule. It is not unusual to see black people enthralled by white technology, such as cameras, planes, and cars. Photographs were also used by the South ANamibia’slers, who followed Germany from 1915 until 1990.

A German officer, identified as Lieutenant von Durling, with Herero prisoners in 1905. WikicommonsCC BY

Even today, Namibians misuse photography. In interviews for my doctoral dissertation that I recently completed, indigenous San people explained how, in some villages and development projects, the privilege to take photographs of Sans was exchanged for food and money.

This reality could limit the ability of photography to be emancipatory. In my research, I interviewed a number of Namibian organizations that have made photography a part of their mission of empowering marginalized people. Their work was often positive and challenging, challenging Namibian social norms. It also portrayed an urgent need to be seen. The devil lies in the details, and that detail is often a reflection of the prevailing patterns of privilege.

There are many ways to see.

The organizations with which I have worked are trying to “reclaim” photography from the historical and current misuse. They want marginalized Namibians to tell their stories and document their communities using photography.

As an ethnographic researcher, I worked on some of these projects with my students at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. We all were relatively privileged Namibians, and we had to consider” when helping people empower themselves by creating images without focusing on our own experiences.

Both the teacher’s role and the expert’s role are traditionally imbued with a certain amount of power. These ways of thinking are problematic because they imply there’s a non-expert for every expert who has to be “given information.” This means an expert who is powerful and involved on the one hand and a passive recipient of knowledge on another.

I have explained this to the teacher regarding the project. This is a pervasive problem when it comes to education about technology.

The research shows people there and in a more empowered way when they can” construct themse”ves and own a process that decides what knowledge to value and what not.

In my research, I saw what happens when students are given the power to describe themselves in photographs. The results can be unique and interesting.

In Namibia, for example, members of the San community were involved in photography projects. San people are often photographed. Their photographs, which they have taken themselves, are rarely included in photographic works that are published or displayed.

Tartu Fernandu is one of my San colleagues in a project that I am involved with. She took the main image for this article. Kileni Fernando is a Namibian San woman who belongs to one of Namibia’s San groups. She is involved in several organizations which represent the San collectively.

The advertising sign of a tourist shop/curio called “Bushman Art,” located behind her, is interesting. The term Bushman, which Westerners use to describe a number of San ethnic groups, is often viewed as derogatory and even offensive by San themselves. The Namibia structures stylized representations of Namibian rock paintings that are supposedly representative of “Bushman or San” culture. They are also painted “ehind the s”gn.

The picture, by the contrast between the subject and background, indicates a disconnect between the San people as they were perceived in the past and who they are today. The picture also shows the difference between the representations of Sans offered to foreigners and the actual character” sticks of Namib” and Sans.

Challenge power

In some photographs, participants also showed the “in-betweenness” they described in my interviews regarding their national, gendered, and ethnic identities. Photographs were often used to express these feelings.

This photo was taken through the window of an artifact shop that sells artifacts purporting to represent Namibia. The store is primarily aimed at tourists. In the reflection, a hand makes the sign language”ge for Namibia.” The inside of the glass window shows a Himba child and woman wearing traditional clothing, as well as what appears to be a necklace.

A student’s image of reflections and curiosities. Emmency Nuukala

The image indicates that there are multiple ways to be Namibian and that the image that is presented to visitors from abroad is only partially accurate. This is only a part of the story.

These images question or challenge the power relations in Namibia. In interviews, my participants’ students said that photography can be used to challenge power structures. The participants said that photography could be used to show queer Namibians, who face discrimination, as normal people with the same hopes and desires as anyone else. The idea was to allow “the youth” to communicate with each other and share information via social media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *