By James Meyer @ ARTFORUM
AFRICA AND PHOTOGRAPHY have a tangled history. Can the medium that has depicted Africa for the West since the moment of the camera’s invention, during the colonialism of the nineteenth century, escape this troubled past? The thesis of “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography” was that this possibility exists not only in theory but in practice among contemporary African artists, who are all too often ignored beyond their homelands. In his impressive introduction to the catalogue, curator Okwui Enwezor states that Western photographic depictions have either aestheticized and exoticized Africa (he cites the work of Leni Riefenstahl and Peter Beard) or represented it as a place imprisoned in a never-ending cycle of famine and political mayhem. “Afro-pessimism” is Enwezor’s term for imagery of the last category, typified by Kevin Carter’s ghastly 1993 photograph of a starving Sudanese child stalked by a vulture (published in the New York Times). According to Enwezor, Afro-pessimistic pictures construct an Africa that is the West’s entropic double, deserving of charity and piteous regard, even as they mystify the West’s long-standing exploitation of the continent’s human and natural resources.