The Relationship between Visual and Text

While we seem to spend an enormous amount of virtual space at AIAC critiquing the ways that Africa and Africans are represented, we do so because we believe that it is possible to subvert expectations, to create images that shatter myths and ideology and that make people think about why they are surprised by particular representations. It is exciting, therefore, that the journal Cultural Anthropology has used ‘Corpus: Mining the Body’, a photographic essay of West African mine workers by Danny Hoffman to kick off a conversation about visual ethnography and the visual as story telling medium, all things we are into here at AIAC.

This photo essay of mineworkers on the Sierra Leone/Liberia Border is accompanied by a written essay, citing the meaning and purpose of the images and setting them in context. Its focus, Hoffman argues, is to evoke the power of the visual to do what text cannot and to show “the materiality of West African diamond mining as labor.” Much of this meaning though cannot be easily understood without Hoffman’s written reflections.

This relationship between visual and text, ethnography and photography is beautifully taken up in Zeynep Gürsel’s accompanying response essay. The photo essay’s story-telling power about labor and bodies is provocatively articulated in Hoffman’s and Gürsel’s, as well as Alan Klima’s reflections as part of Cultural Anthropology’s forum. I am more concerned with the story we see about West Africa than about laboring bodies. These photographs — individually or as a group — will inevitably circulate with or without the text and frequently be viewed without the accompanying essay being read.

What then can the photographs tell us about Sierra Leone and Liberian mineworkers or about mining in West Africa? The photos, though beautiful — or perhaps because they are so beautiful — juxtapose hard male black bodies (often partial and truncated) against soft, yielding, red/yellow soil in a way that makes me unable to think of anything but all those critiques of the exploitation of black masculinity in the interest of Euro-American conquest, sexual and otherwise, and of the feminization of Africa waiting to be penetrated by (now) an increasing and diverse number of saviors/visitors.

It is particularly surprising that the photos bear no context or framing without the written text. This produces the kind of flattening out of all of Africa and of all Africans so present in the many problematic tropes representing the continent; a flattening out that homogenizes and de-historizes African specificities and particularities. We know how incredibly difficult it is to create new images when expectations overwhelm most viewers/readers. I myself am clearly unable to see these images as other than troubling representations of black bodies. This is perhaps unfair, but I am looking for something in them that would shift my perspective, not just about embodied labor, but about African labor and African bodies.

I am always hopeful that just such shifting of perspective about images of Africans is possible. I have had with me now for more than 10 years a postcard from a photographic exhibit by Mimi Chakarova of a young black South African man holding a large silver pistol.

I first saw this black and white image soon after my brother was shot in a car high jacking in Johannesburg. The man is sitting on a high bar stool on dirt ground outside the kind of shack that, given the repetition of such images, effectively marks the place as South Africa, leaning back cradling the weapon in two hands and looking impassively at the photographer. The only menacing thing in the picture is the gun itself and one can easily imagine it being lifted and pointed and in a matter of milliseconds fired, because that is all it takes. Yet the separation of the person from the weapon is clear in this image. (A not inconsequential representation in light of current debates about gun control in the US.) This is a portrait of a South African man that is complex, situated and allows for the possibility of a conversation about why he might have that gun, what he has or will do with it. A conversation that has nothing to do with the ubiquitous image of black-man-with-gun required to illustrate any political event on the continent. In fact in some ways the gun becomes irrelevant in having to consider the role this young man might envisage for himself in the South Africa of the early 2000s, why he is OK with posing for the photographer, what he is saying to her as he looks directly into the camera. While I clearly had a personal response to this image, I believe that it an example of how a still photograph can be ethnographic in ways that I struggle to find in ‘Corpus: Mining the Body’.

Please join the conversations about images that change our perspectives here and/or at the Cultural Anthropology forum.

7 thoughts on “The Relationship between Visual and Text

  1. “It is particularly surprising that the photos bear no context or framing without the written text.”

    I’m having trouble deciphering what you mean, but I think feeling some of the same things. Do you mean as a series they lack photos that would establish a larger context in place of the text (which would seem to not be a solution, given your point about context free appropriation and circulation within the tumblrverse, et al), or that there is something decontextualizing in the photos themselves. Your hyperlink doesn’t lead to the particular Mimi Chakarova photo that you describe, so I’m left to imagine it, but your reading of it seems to rely on your ability to visually locate the image in South Africa and to relate to other images of South Africans. These West African images operate for me alongside other images from the region, or alonside other images of African mining in central Africa, more than the multitude of images of laboring Black men in representations of slavery, though inevitably that is there as well.

    On the other hand, there is something in Hoffman’s images them themselves that is abstracts the young men shown in them. The aesthetic power of them yes, but also the simple fact that most of them obscure the young men’s faces and in only one case shows them in more than profile. Hoffmann explains this as a compositional choice to emphasize an “ethnographic” quality in which the emphasis is on work rather than the workers. “The images in the project I have assembled here are organized less cinematically and more as a collection of figure studies. … [This] is primarily a function of my desire to limit the scope to the material encounter of the miner’s body with this mode of work and to explore its ready translatability into other forms of violent labor.” Hoffman appeals to discussions of Sebastião Salgado’s “Workers” project (, no doubt thinking in particular of Salgado’s famous images of Brazilian gold miners, but Salgado used a great deal of portaiture and pictures that focus on individuals out of a crowd. Hoffman writes, “It is the effort to visually ‘render-strange’ the familiar world of work that makes these images ethnographic.” I’m not sure what he is opposing the category of the “ethnographic” to here, but it would seem to depend for Hoffman on depersonalization and abstraction.

  2. Interesting post, though I am not sure I really understand it. I am not an academic, but I am deeply involved with photography, and have spent some time thinking about images, the experience we bring to making and seeing images, the expropriation of images. It comes down to you, the viewer, bringing a history of many images that you have seen over your lifetime to bear on these particular images, which were made by someone with a different life experience and a different “library” of images from which he extracts his own meaning. My own response to these photos is still different — largely appreciation for the formal aspects, I find them beautifully composed. I am beguiled by the colors, the unusual perspectives, though with a sort of under-layer of discomfort with the facelessness of the workers and the beauty of their bodies. As a woman, burdened with my own “library” of images depicting women piecemeal, as breasts or butts or lips or whatever, I do not respond positively to seeing men treated the same way…it depresses me.

    Hoffman is trying to say something in a language that we all speak, but rather poorly. Misunderstanding is bound to occur. Overall, I find it positive that he reaches for beauty in these images of work, rather than for despair.

    • Great response, Susan!
      I totally agree that, in the end, it comes down to you and me. It is impossible for any photographer to present us with a picture (no matter from where and about what, in this case mine workers) that is comeplety unbiased or ‘neutral’; that does not upset one viewer, but intrigues the other. We all have a view of the world that is highly dependent on our life experience. We cannot see and talk and view and act without this life experience influencing what we see, talk about, view, and act upon. So, I guess, some will always need acompanying texts to images and other may not, depending on what/who is depicted and depending on the ‘library’ that each viewer can draw on…

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