The marginalized Namibians are trying to recover photography after colonialism

A lot of people view photography as the most democratic medium for mass communication. Anyone can snap and upload a selfie on global platforms. People who take selfies and post on social media have changed the course of politics, as in the Egyptian revolution in 2011.

However, in a lot of Africa, photography has an enigmatic past as well as an uncertain future. Namibia, for example, was the site of the massacre 1904 between 1904 and 1908. As high as 80 percent of people belonging to the Herero ethnic group, as well as many other groups, were eradicated through the German colonial army. Photography was instrumental in justifying these killings and later on.

Namibia’s archives include photographs of proud German troops standing in front of the bodies of Herero prisoners. In the following years, the colonial administration tried to show a more gentle side that was white-ruled. Photos of blacks captivated by white technology, such as cameras, automobiles, airplanes – are not unusual. It is also true that the South African rulers who followed the Germans from 1915 until 1990 also utilized photography to promote their cause.

A German officer was identified as Lieutenant von Durling and Herero captives at the time of 1905. WikicommonsCC BY

Even nowadays, photography is used to deceive in Namibia. In the interviews I conducted in my doctoral thesis, indigenous San people spoke of how, in several villages and some projects for development, the right to take photos taken by San people was exchanged in exchange for cash and food items.

This is a reality that could restrict the extent to which photography could become emancipatory in the coming years. My research focused on a range of Namibian organizations that have made photography an integral part of their work to help marginalized people. I observed that their work is usually positively uplifting and challenging widely held Namibian social norms and presenting an urgent need to be heard. However, the devil lies in the details, and often, the details are connected to the ongoing pattern of privilege.

Different ways of looking at things

The organizations I worked with are seeking to “take back” photography from its past and current misuse. They want to get marginalized Namibians to be involved in telling their stories and documenting their communities with photography.

I was part of these research projects as an ethnographic scholar, as well as some of my seniors at NUST. Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). We were all fairly fortunate Namibians and required to consider this in our efforts to assist people in developing their image-makers without focusing on our own experiences, particularly when we were acting as teachers or experts.

The teaching role, as well as the role of the expert, are typically infused with a certain amount of authority. This kind of way of thinking of knowledge is not ideal as it implies that for every expert, there’s a non-expert that has to receive “given” information. This is a sign of a strong, active expert on one hand and a passive learner on the second.

As I’ve described in a TEDx presentation on the project, this presents a very real risk when it comes to teaching about technology.

However, studies show that individuals learn more effectively and powerfully when they have the freedom to build their understanding. They are also the sole masters of a system that decides what information is valuable and what knowledge is not.

Through my study, I was able to discover what happens when conventional ideas are put aside, and it left students with the ability to use photographs to describe their identities. The results could be fascinating and distinctive.

A good example is the participation of members from Namibia’s San communities in photography projects. San people are often photographed. But the photographs that they create themselves seldom appear in published or displayed pictures.

The image in this story was taken by Tertu Fernando, one of the San participants in a photo project I am working on. The woman in the photo, Kileni Fernando, is an active member of one of Namibia’s San communities. She is involved in various groups which are representative of San communities. San as a whole.

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