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Monday, 1 April 2013

New book attempts to inspire documentary photography

By Andrew Mulenga

“The evolution of photography and the history of Zambia show some intriguing parallels, not only in their timelines but also in the way they reflect moments in world history, their paths crossing in extraordinary ways,” writes photographer and agriculturalist Peter Langmead in the introductory remarks of his recently published documentary photography book Postcards from Zambia.

There is a great deal to admire in the book,
not least its effortless ability to seamlessly sweep
across rural Zambia from Samfya to Mumbwa
Dr Langmead, who studied photography before working in Nigeria making photographs, film and video for agricultural development projects, describes how a decade after David Livingstone became the first European to set eyes on Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) in 1855, European expeditionary photography took hold.

“The camera arrived in the geographic area now called Zambia with David Livingstone’s brother Charles, the photographer on the Royal Geographic Society’s (RGS) 1858-64 official British expedition to the Zambezi led by David Livingstone. There is one surviving photograph of 40 by Charles, a stereoscopic picture of a baobab, which is in the Livingstone Museum”

Dr Langmead continues in part by stating that although Charles Livingstone was required photograph ‘characteristic specimens of different tribes’, this was difficult due to the lengthy exposure times of early photography and the lack of familiarity local people had with having their pictures taken.

He explains that the first attempt to photograph Mosi-oa-Tunya was by adventurer James Chapman on an 1859-63 expedition but the attempt failed and that the mighty water falls only had its first photograph taken about 29 years later by William Ellerton Fry in 1892 as part of a Colonial Office survey and this was 37 years after Livingstone’s first sighting of the geographical feature.

Nevertheless, Dr Langmead’s 7-page explanatory text is in itself a short, well researched and riveting colonial history lesson that also encompasses a brief history of photography from a technological standpoint. This is broken down into six, titled segments namely Discovery, Difference, Mass Tools, Theory and Practice, Globalism, Technology and Social Change and A New Photographic response. 

In the latter, Dr Langmead grapples with a debate that was also tackled by British photographer David Bate in his 2009 book Photography, The Key Concepts.

“A common criticism of documentary photography is that it ‘constructs a victim for its always privileged audience in terms of class, ethnicity, gender or other social category, […] and the dignity of the subject, […] is not guaranteed by any particular viewer,” writes Dr Langmead echoing Bate “Just such a negative approach has misplaced aid and development for many years and now there is a need for a new photographic response.”

He goes on further to emphasise that “in this book, the motivation is to disrupt this cliché and show the subject not as a victim but as a dignified participant in his or her own increasingly successful economic environment.”

As well intentioned and pious as Dr Langmead’s statement reads, flipping through the first few pages of the 77 or so black and white photographs under the title The People one cannot ignore the impression that some of the photos have the almost voyeuristic feeling of National Geographic-type exoticism towards none-western people.

This can be seen in many ‘face-to-the-camera’ portraits that feature different aspects of rural life in Zambia. Typical is A working man, Mumbwa, which shows the wind-beaten and sun-dried face of a man who appears to be older than he may actually be but, the lines on his face show that hardships seem to have gotten the best of him. Then there is Licensed wild honey hunter, Itezhi-Tezhi, which shows a young man in front of a village hut proudly brandishing the K20 (twenty kwacha) cash sale receipt that will allow him to collect honey for two weeks. A rice grower and his son in Lambwe Chomba, shows an elderly man in an oversized shirt standing in a field with a youth by his side, both face the camera in poses that make them look ridiculous if one was to be frank. Clearing a bit of forest for his farm, is the portrait of a weathered elderly man in a tattered baseball cap, soiled shirt and tattered pinstripe jacket.

Looking at these images, which are just a few among many, one finds it difficult to describe the subjects as dignified participants in their “own increasingly successful economic environment.” Almost to the contrary, the photographer tries to capture and encapsulated in his subjects some sort of primitiveness.

But perhaps these are reasonably inconsequential details and to a great extent matters of individual interpretation. It would be interesting, however, to see the reaction to this book from the rapidly increasing Café-type urban Zambians who are likely to have easier acces to it but to a large degree seem to have been left out.

Certainly one of the most welcome aspects of the book is Dr Langmead’s commitment to the documentation of excessive deforestation due to charcoal burning. He dedicates about twelve pages including the cover to it. Charcoal: livelihoods or deforestation?  Is a portrait that speaks volumes, it shows an evidently well-sustained rural woman (not in tatters) standing in front of her trading depot with dozens of charcoal sacks fading into the background. This is followed by Depleted Miombo Forest and An executioner cuts down the tree, all of which speak for themselves.

Anyhow, there is a great deal to admire in the book, not least its effortless ability to seamlessly sweep across rural Zambia from Samfya to Mumbwa, from Itezhi-Tezhi to Chipata and so on. As a coffee table book, the 17cm x 17cm publication is likely to give city dwelling Zambians as well as foreign tourists a deeper glance at Zambia as they peruse through its 95 pages.

In addition to targeting a local readership, Postcards from Zambia also provides a snapshot of life in Zambia for those less familiar with the country, whether tourists, business visitors or overseas observers. As such, it makes an ideal platform to showcase the country for the United Nation World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly in August,” reads the electronic press release in part.

And the brief text on the back reads “This collection of photographs reflects aspects of life and society in Zambia with the aim of inspiring current and future generations of documentary photographers”. Postcards from Zambia is published by Langmead & Baker Ltd, it is now available in leading bookstores around Zambia and can be purchased in the United Kingdom at
Dr Langmead has also spent time in South East Asia and later studied for a PhD in finance. By 1993 he had obtained a farm in Zambia where he returned after his Asian excursion as a business development consultant.

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