« Africa in the Photobook » – Interview with Ben Krewinkel

A few months ago, Fotota’s team discovered this mysterious and brilliant blog, which gives access to all sorts of photobooks, mostly historical, dealing with the African continent. Q/A with the man behind this great initiative.

Ben, what is your background? How did the idea of launching « Africa in the Photobook » come about and how do you see it evolving in the next future?

After I finished my study history in Amsterdam and Pretoria I got interested in photography and started a study in photography. I specialized in documentary photography and after graduating I did a master in Photographic Studies. Currently I work as a photographer, bookmaker and teacher of photography at the school of journalism. While studying history I always liked photographic illustrations in history books. I loved to read books from my fathers’ small photobook collection. Most books from this collection dealt with the then so called Third World. As a child I was utterly fascinated by the book Sahel by Dutch photographer Willem Diepraam and Black child by South African photographer Peter Magubane.

I started to collect photobooks seriously about the same time Martin Parr and Gerry Badger published their History of the Photobook, and for sure these titles boosted my enthusiasm for collecting books. In my private book collection more and more I started focusing on photobooks dealing with African countries, regions or subjects. I though it would be a good thing to bring all these books together and share all this with others, since there is no book, website dealing with these books from and about Africa.

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What’s its focus and what are your criteria for presenting a book on your website?

At this moment the only criteria is that the book has to deal with an African subject and/or has been made by and African artist. Another thing is that I have to like the book in one way or another. There have been produced many crappy books on Africa. I don’t include many wildlife books, with the exception of books like Peter Beard’s The End of the Game.
I will post books I don’t agree on contentwise, because they can be very, very interesting and often they are beautifully produced. Many of the propaganda books are examples of this.

On the website I don’t want to work as a critic, but in the future I’d love to show historic connections between books and focus on the changing visual representation of Africa as expressed through this medium. I’m also aware that in the end I will have to give some kind of definition of the photobook. A lot of the books I’m showing might be called pamphlets. The ones produced in Rhodesia, for example, are historically of such an importance that I can’t exclude them. Also, photobooks as objects of art haven’t been produced a lot in Africa in the twentieth century. The continent doesn’t have a tradition in photobooks, but might develop one.
Another question is if I should only include books that were made by African photographers and were produced in African countries. As you might guess, there aren’t a lot. The great book House of Bondage by South African photographer Ernest Cole was (for a reason) published in Canada and the United Kingdom. For me it doesn’t matter that much, but the book has to be interesting in the context of African history, tell something about the visual representation of Africa or should tell us something about photography as a form of art (which is often connected with political history). I will post monographs of African photographers, but I’m more interested in books dealing with a certain theme.

Many ‘older’ books are propaganda books showing a particular country. I found a really interesting one from 1966 called La République Centrafricaine et son Président, le Général Jean-Bedel Bokassa. The photography and production is not great, but the book gives some insight in the way the new leaders tried to justify their politics using photography.

The problem with many of the books I find is the difficulty to find out who produced them, where they were printed etc. The book Resistencia Popular Generalizada (a propagandabook from Angola) for instance is difficult to place since it is unknown who the photographers and designers were. It is possible that they weren’t even from Angola.

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As no or little research has been done on this topic so far, how do you work on it? Where do these books come from?

Since I found interesting books I didn’t know of and with me many others, I thought it would be a good idea to start a Facebook page and a blog where I could share these findings with others. More important, I could use the social media to invite others to cooperate or to give me tips. Many times people helped me with questions or gave me helpful advice. Through facebook I found people who knew a lot about books around the world and they helped me out finding information. A graphic designer from Spain showed me a great propaganda book from Belgium Congo, produced in Spain, but also found a review of the book from a newspaper written when it was published. It helped me to date the book.
Most of the older books were found on the Internet. You have to look a little bit further than Ebay or Amazon to find the books, but dive into national collectible websites. In the Netherlands we have some great archives here in Amsterdam and the people working there are more than willing to help me and show me titles, that I can try to find in second hand bookshops or on the internet.

When I have found books it actually takes a lot of work to see what these books are all about, who made them and for what reason. At this stage I’m still collecting the books, but in the very near future I will start further research. I am collaborating with other organizations and individuals to see if we can find more collaborators and can produce an exhibition and possibly even a publication.


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