The newsletter that is creating a new discussion about African photography

Emmanuel Iduma, a Nigerian, is a writer, editor and publisher. He’s also a critic and a photographer. In 2022, he combined his skills and introduced Tender Foto to subscribers, which was sent twice weekly. Since then, it has become a platform of choice for African photographers and writers as well as critics and curators. It was published on Substack and has been so popular that it has become a featured publication on the online newsletter support website.

Iduma has written three books: I Am Still with You, which is a memoir about the Nigerian Civil War, A Stranger’s Pose (a travelogue), and The Sound of Things to Come (a novel). He is also the recipient of the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize.

Iduma’s Tender Photo is a reflection of his interest in the storytelling potential and hidden elements that photography has to offer. Iduma selects a photograph and briefly describes what it reminds him of. The featured photographer writes about the reasons and methods of taking the picture. Tinashe Mushakavanhu, a literary culture scholar, asked him to talk about the project.

What was the inspiration behind creating a forum such as Tender Photo?

While working on my book in mid-2021, I decided to change the way I published my articles on photography. In the seven years prior to this, I wrote essays or stories that highlighted my voice as a critic.

I was curious about how I could express my interest in photography to people who were not familiar with my work. The newsletter was born out of my desire to rid myself of any unnecessary jargon that I had developed over the years writing for an art-world audience. It was a simple attempt to find new directions in my photography. The exhibition features work by early- to mid-career African photographers.

Why was it important to have a dialogue between the photographer and a critic?

I needed to act as a mediator in the exchange of photographs between the photographer and the photo they took. The frame of the correspondence was crucial. How could I convince the photographer to talk freely about the image without using jargon? I wanted to tell stories about photography, mainly from the perspective of photographers. Each narrative is prefaced with short captions illustrating the possibilities of keen observation.

What was your decision-making process when it came to the format?

In the current edition, which is nearing its 60th issue, I’ve decided only to publish one photo per feature. In the first edition of the newsletter, I published two additional photographs. The original idea was to display all three photographs I chose from the photographer’s collection, showing a range of styles.

This second year, I have simplified my presentation even more, as the feedback that I received indicates that people like the concise. I want people to be able to enjoy the experience of viewing a photo as if they were being caressed repeatedly.

You’ve recently asked guests to write about photos that you’ve taken. Why?

This expansion was inevitable for two reasons. I knew right from the beginning that I would end up with a good number of images that spoke to one another in unexpected ways.

I also wanted to expand the scope of engagement by including other voices. These were primarily readers who read my newsletter on a regular basis. My instincts were right. The depth and understanding of the guest’s commentary, as well as the recurrence of photographs in the selections, have me moved.

What is the current state of art criticism on the continent?

It’s difficult for me because I tend to be wary of broad, continental assessments to make generalizations about the current state of photography critique. I work more urgently on a personal basis: what is it that I need to do, given my background, interests, and talents? In this regard, I’m interested in expanding the conversation on criticism in the continent by producing work for mainstream publication – such as a memoir li, literary journal, or newspaper – while paying homage to the job done in theoretical or academic circles.

More self-driven projects will emerge to diversify and amplify the work of critics and photographers, even if these initiatives only last a short period.

Is Tender Photo a platform for setting agendas?

The agenda is limited to presenting photographs of artists based or born on the African continent. If I can show the diversity of work produced in Africa – both geographically and stylistically, I could challenge reductive epistemologies.

Do you refer to views that lump together African photography? This is often a white gaze. How can we, as a generation, handle this?

I believe there are more photographers today who identify themselves as Africans or Blacks than ever before in history. In the West, museums regularly organize surveys of African photography. They display a variety of styles and subjects. Both of these facts can be considered as progress. Since every generation has to discover its mission, my interest is in the tasks we will have to perform when the “black gaze” becomes more and more known.

What is the goal of Tender Photo? What about a book? Exhibition? Archive? Web platform?

All the options you have mentioned are available. Although I am grateful for the response to the newsletter, I must be consistent and do unhurried work. You’ll see.

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