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My goal with the Africa Montage series is two-fold: First, to present
a thought-provoking series of artistically expressive portraits of the
people who live in West Africa, and to explore how the imposition of
outside influences has affected their lives. Second, to give context to
the complexity of the issues they face, and to show how the outside world
attempts to involve itself in response to those issues. The combination
of these two goals is intended to give a depth of understanding and
appreciation for the individuals who live there and the plight of their
My motivation was simple. As I experienced West Africa and broadened
my perspective of the social, economic and cultural landscape there, it
became evident that the issues facing them are far from the singularly
identifiable problems that some people tend to attribute. With traumatic
problems, such as AIDS, famine, and political upheaval, assistance
groups from all over the world tend to come in and "help." While this
is a noble and worthy effort, the results of their work have dubious
long-term implications, some of which are explained individually
throughout the exhibit. The expressions on the faces of the people I
met and photographed exemplify the range of emotions that correspond to
specific instances of their interactions with outsiders.
But, faces alone don't tell the whole story. I chose to manipulate the
images the way I did to symbolize the effects outside influences have
had on the individuals who live there. In each photograph, the person is
"broken apart" in one way or another - some with a positive aesthetic,
others with a negative one. For those who've benefited from outside help,
I chose rounder, softer edges, like rising bubbles. While those who've
suffered directly or indirectly from "assistance" programs, I chose
dangerously sharp edges. In the images where the pieces are square,
the effects of outside influences are as yet unclear. In all its forms,
many of the "fragments" overlap, partially projecting the same segment
of the image as another part. I want this effect to resemble a broken
mirror, which symbolizes the reflective insight necessary to understand
Lastly, despite the shattered nature of these images, I wanted to be sure
the whole picture was still visible and comprehensible, acknowledging
the broader notion that the West Africans' resiliency has enabled them to
maintain their lifestyle and culture in many ways, despite the presence
of outsiders' interventions. Is there hope for West Africa? I don't know,
and I didn't want to imply or suggest it one way or another.
Why Outside Influences?
Most people see West Africa as a distant and foreign land, rife with
poverty, illiteracy, AIDS and other diseases, and a collapsing governmental
infrastructure. Some feel that it is a wild land that can never be tamed,
while others feel it can be salvaged and built up into a modern civilization.
No matter what your views, just about every country has a direct or indirect
presence there, through humanitarian organizations, religious groups, or
other governmental bodies, helping to change and shape the future of the
people there. How that's accomplished and who decides that requires the
support of those who aren't there. Thus,
most people see West Africa through the editorial lenses of others who
pontificate on "what it's like there, why it's like that, and what
we should do about it."
Understandably, my expectations were set by a variety of influences: TV
commercials soliciting aid to poor and starving African children, news reports
of rebel groups seizing power from ruthless dictators, and of
course, anecdotal accounts of individuals' experiences. All of these
sources seems to reflect (and fuel) the frenzy of going there (or doing
something) to "help them." It reminds me of the following quote:
"The problem with this country is that everyone that knows how to run it
is too busy driving cabs and working as bar tenders."Harry S. Truman
What I Experienced
To my surprise, I found that my experiences differed considerably from
the expectations that'd been set for me. I witnessed things and events
that clearly showed evidence of the outside world trying in vain to "help",
but what I actually found was a quiet sense of status quo about who
these people were, how they viewed themselves, and how they chose to live
their lives. They were virtually shrugging their shoulders in oblivious
defiance against the outsiders interventions, just as they seem perfectly
comfortable in the intense and unrelenting heat of the afternoon sun.
Like the tourist that tries to avoid the daily 110F temperatures by sitting
in the shade, wearing the Coolmax fabrics, and sitting inches away from their
battery-powered facial fansall to no availthe world tries in vain to
change West Africa. Like the heat, where one has no choice but to accept
it and learn to live with it, so too does it seem futile to effect change
in a region that does not want to be changed. But, like the tourist, the
outside world tries to change it anyway.
West African people are, like all of us, subject to the influences of
their environment, good or bad, whether they want it or not.
Africa is perceived to be especially vulnerable because they don't
seem to have the resources to defend themselves, to compete in a global
economy, to grow as a self-sustaining region, and sometimes, simply to
survive. Thus, people on the outside want to "help." Some see economic
opportunity, while others have altruistic intentions. But, what does
it mean to "help"? To make them more like their benefactors? To impose
values and lifestyles from those with different philosophies and values?
To be more "profitable?" More civilized? While these objectives are
reasonable in the abstract, how do we resolve the specifics?
Who determines which "civilization" to model them after? Which outside
cultures' morals are appropriate for them? Which version of "better" are
we striving for?
The Net Result
The culture of the region is based on tribal traditions, farming, and simple
lifestyles. Accordingly, they do not suffer from many of the things in life
that cause unhappiness in our culture. On the other hand, there are pitfalls
associated with not having features that we in the West take for granted, like
medicine and television. Some look upon the West African's way of life with
envy, while others feel they are in desparate need of aid. However one
chooses to judge them or attempt to effect change, it seems the same
principle applies in Africa as does in physics:
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
All the efforts from the outside has helped some people's lives to improve,
while others' lives have shattered.
In my opinion, the net result has been a zero-sum game; the picture remains
fundamentally the same, even though superficial changes have taken place.
Food For thought
That's not to say that change cannot happen or will not happen, but
superficial intervention is an ineffective way to effect change.
Change must come from within.
First and foremost, there needs to be a swell of philosophical and
intellectual thought. Just as Western culture evolved from the unification
of peoples, ideas and philosophies, ranging from Socrates, Plato and
other thinkers from many nations and cultures throughout our history, so
too must the African culture have a fundamental coalition of thought and
ideas for it to evolve. It's not to say that this should happen,
but that any kind of change won't happen without this. This leads
to unification of people, development of infrastructure, and evolution
of culture. Nothing else can possibly do that work.
Motivations For These Images
This leads to the meaning and purpose of this particular series of images.
While the picture of the West African resident remains fundamentally intact,
there is still evidence of disruption. While the effects of outside
intervention may have minimal long term effects, the immediate effects on
the individuals who live there today are apparent. The meaning of the
images with their parts being pulled apart or broken, reflects the same kind
of fragmentation people experience as a result of the outside influences.
This can take many forms, some positive, others negative.
Some structured and ordered,
others random and hectic. Some aesthetically pleasing, while others a
disarray of dangerously sharp edges that depict their new lifestyles in a
modern world that doesn't seem to fit in.
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