Validating Visual Heritage in Africa: Historical Photographs and the Role of the ‘Archive’. Conference Report
Cameroon, 27-29 January 2015
by Jürg Schneider and Rosario Mazuela
“When the music’s over, turn out the lights!”(The Doors, 1967)
The conference “Validating Visual Heritage in Africa: Historical Photographs and the Role of the ‘Archive’” which took place in Buea from 27 to 29 January is over. The lights are out, people have returned home. It is an appropriate moment for looking back.
For three days scholars, archivists and media professionals from Cameroon, South Africa, Europe, the United States and Canada discussed the space(s), value, role and future of photographic collections in Africa within the broader framework of the ‘Archive’. Being the closing event of the digitization and conservation project in the Cameroon Press Photo Archives-Buea (CPPA-B), which started in February 2013, the conference also constituted the transitional stage between concluding the project and exposing it to the public.
Fifteen papers were presented which touched on a number of burning issues concerning archives, photographs and their users in Cameroon and Africa in general. The conference was an excellent platform to discuss practical, methodological and theoretical questions that arise in critically dealing with photographs and their contexts in distinct fields of activity, disciplines and archival settings. In this way, the event not simply served to promote the Buea Press Photo Archives but instead succeeded to place the project within a broader framework of the “circulation of knowledge”.
The conference opened with welcome speeches given by the Regional Delegates of Communication and Culture respectively. The Swiss ambassador to Cameroon, Mister Claude Altermatt, himself a historian by training, welcomed the initiative taken by African Photography Initiatives placing it in the wider context of Switzerland’s engagement in Cameroon. In his keynote address, Verkijika Fanso, professor emeritus of Yaoundé 1, former Director of Cultural Heritage in the old Cameroon Ministry of Culture (now Ministry of Arts and Culture), and president of the Association of Friends of Archives and Antiquities – Cameroon (AFAAC), presented a gripping review of his encounters and experiences with photographs in his academic work and personal life.
Uwe Jung from the Goethe Institut in Yaoundé (on behalf of Sabine Herrmann) presented the holdings of the Bundesarchiv with regard to written and visual records from and about Germany’s former colony. Rosemary Shafack, the Head of the Library of the University of Buea evaluated the extent to which photographs are considered by students and lecturers of her university as appropriate and valuable information resources. In her paper, Margaret Fombe, who is working with the national Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV) company, underscored the valuable contribution that public and private archives in Cameroon have made in the production of a series of historical documentaries – Beacons of Time – which have been broadcasted by CRTV recently (The production is ongoing). At the same time she also highlighted the difficulties she faced in using archives in Cameroon and made some suggestions as to how Cameroon’s archives can be improved on to better serve the public.
Valentine Nyamndon, a student at the Catholic University of Cameroon in Bamenda, presented a research project he is currently carrying out under the supervision of the British anthropologist David Zeytlin in Bamenda (Northwest Region of Cameroon). He argued that photo collections play an important role as gauge of social relationships in families and lineages despite global impact, fear of exposure and poor means of preservation.
The first day of the conference closed with Caroline Authaler’s (from the University of Düsseldorf, Germany) paper about the German cameraman and filmmaker Paul Lieberenz. Using the example of “Deutsche Pflanzer am Kamerunberg” (1936) she examined how the film visually re-appropriated the Cameroonian plantations as a German space and simultaneously produced an image of modernity and technology about Germans and Cameroonians.
Her talk provided a bridge to the subsequent screening of a series of German documentaries at the CURELF (the former Alliance Franco-Camerounaise), Buea. These films, produced between 1927 and 1939, belong to the oldest films made in Cameroon and were shown there for the very first time. Mixing exotism, colonial nostalgia and missionary ideas with racism and crude paternalism the films triggered lively debates. The audience’s interventions, however, too often tried to deconstruct the films by building counterarguments which run exactly along the lines of the film’s ideological and propagandistic messages. Thus, unproductive and deadlocked in a simplistic you-we scheme the debates were a missed opportunity to discuss aspects of the films that go beyond such positions.
The second day was opened by the French scholar Erika Nimis who today lives and teaches in Quebec, Canada. Nimis who is well known for her writings on the history of photography in West Africa introduced the conference participants to a three-screen video installation, “Gardiennes d’images/ Images’ Keepers”, created in 2009 by the visual artist Zineb Sedira. The work is devoted to the father of Algerian photography, Mohamed Kouaci, who passed away in 1996. A member of the National Liberation Front and originally a worker in a steel mill, Kouaci was the sole photographer for the journal El Moudjahid, which played an
important role in the international recognition of the Algerian cause. Kouaci never went to Algeria during the war but published photographs taken by the French in Algeria he had manipulated and re-captioned.
Drawing on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Spring Ulmer from the West Chester University of Pennsylvania in the United States argued that in a situation in which no photographs of the missing exist, arising from the circumstances of war but as often by purpose, we would do well to listen to those survivors whose views are not state-sponsored, to writers and artists who are producing personal remembrances of the genocide, thus complicating the dominant genocide narrative. Her question, “When are words more appropriate than images?” is still fresh in my memory.
Presenting the ‘Barnett collection of photographs’, which is today deposited in the Historical Papers Research Archive, and reflecting their recurring themes of colonial imagery of architecture, social life, hunting, ethnographic stills of ‘black tribes’, as well as the general portrayal of a supreme status of the white man in Africa as it were, Gabriele Mohale from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, asked if we should not consider ways of analysing those images that leave aside feelings of colonial guilt thus accepting them, as she put it, “as images of people being participants in a certain period and setting, willingly or unwillingly, which is what photographs are all about.”
In a quite personal take, photographer, artist and PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town, George Mahashe, expounded the challenges and solutions he faced in his dealings with the claims the wider humanities scholar has laid on what the historic photograph’s work is. Stressing that the archive is both generated and generative and engaging the photographic through art installations that bring the viewer into close proximity with the photographic document/object, Mahashe’s installations play with the boundary of observer and observed, questioning the very impulse to police how the photographic residue of a past moments is to be perceived today.
George Mahashe’s paper was followed by a short intervention by the Chief Imam of Buea, Hadji Mohammed Aboubakar, who had kindly accepted our invitation to speak about the role and place of images and photographs in the Islamic belief. Although the terrible incidents in Paris of January 7 in the premises of Charlie Hebdo were still fresh in the participants’ minds the attentive chair Guy Thomas did not allow the Imam being compromised in a political discussion. He explained that photography is part of the sciences Allah (God) has endowed man with and that photographic pictures are basically permissible but become forbidden when they serve the purpose of veneration.
Unfortunately, time constraints made it impossible to show Frida Robles‘ video “Imprisoned (Archive)” but everybody is invited to watch Frida’s great work which reflects upon the instauration of the archive as a political act thereby questioning, in a Foucauldian take, the similarities between the archive and the structure of prisons in its position as guardians. You will find the video here.
Andrea Stultiens closed the session with an insight into her practice as an artist as well as into research she is carrying out in the framework of the platform ‘History in Progress Uganda’ she started three years ago. In her lively presentation she introduced the conference participants to the East African photographers Elly Rwakoma and Mohamed Amin and one of Rwakoma’s photographs “that had gotten him into trouble”. Tracking through time and space the ‘innocent’ image of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin swimming in a pool which turned into a live threat to the photographer after its publication in an international news journal Stultiens succeeded in sheding some light on the randomness of the production of historical moments through photographs. Indeed, photographs and their meanings are, as shown here and in Erika Nimis’ paper earlier that day, as unstable as our imagination.
The second conference day ended with a visit of the Buea National Archives. The retired but in fact still active Head of Archives, Primus Forgwe, showed the conference participants around the archive which since its foundation in the later 1960s has survived to a good degree with the help of friends and enthusiasts from Cameroon’s academic community and scholars abroad.
The last day started with a paper jointly given by Julius Che Tita, Head of Department of Journalism and Mass in the University of Buea, and Ali Ngwe Pechu, one of his former students. Presenting the results of a qualitative study based on interviews with Cameroonian press photographers and journalists on the topic of the Cameroon Photo Press Archives as an image provider for Mass Communication, they brought forward an analysis of the practices of press photography and archiving by Anglophone Cameroon journalists. Their paper compared photographic practices from the heydays of the Buea Photo Archives to present day practices on order to delineate three periods of photojournalism in Cameroon.
Elvis Nkome Ngome and Rose Frii-Anjoh, both from the University of Buea, reflected on early missionary and colonial photos in Bakossiland (in Cameroon’s Northwest Region) comparing photographic images about personalities, infrastructures and architecture before and after colonial rule. Blandine Guteh Babey, a student at the Advanced School of Mass Communication, University of Yaoundé II, outlined her experiences as an internee in the archives of various administrative bodies.
The following presentation took the conference participants to South Africa. Paul Weinberg, a documentary photographer, founding member of the photo collective Afrapix and Senior Curator of visual archives at the University of Cape Town, pointed out the high concentration of interest ‘vernacular’ photography has enjoyed in the last two decades. Drawing on two collections he has been working with, the ‘Independent Newspaper archive’ and ‘The Other Camera’, Weinberg highlighted issues about archival practices and heritage in South Africa, which, however, are of importance beyond the South African context. Perennial issues like the need for repatriation of heritage, lack of resources, capacity and skill, he emphasized, bedevil those who work in South African and African photography archives. Initiatives like the South African Digitisation Initiative (SADI), driven by Wits Libraries, however, signal the great potential of how not just South African but African archives can work together to overcome those challenges.
Dan Ekongwe, Research Head and responsible for Government Relations and Protocol at the Pan African Institute for Development West Africa, incidentally our host institution and venue, convincingly showed how a comparative display of images of the past alongside the present can explain the changes over time and the impact on lives and development.
Doreen Binain Mbain, from the Catholic University of Cameroon, Bamenda, for her part, offered a critical synthesis of the information collected through oral interviews, archival material, published and unpublished works. Her study asserted the presence of a large collection of historical photographs in Cameroon and revealed the importance of photographs which contain rich information which could be relevant for a better understanding of history.
The series of papers was concluded by Walter Nkwi, lecturer of history at the University of Buea. In his paper he explored visual representations towards understanding the ways in which returned labour migrants remembered their days as labour force taking the Western Grassfields of Cameroon as a case study. After spending months and years far away from home those migrants came back with very changed habits; their language, dress and mode of speaking reflected a type of modernity and a way of live which in many instances was already displayed on photographs they had sent home prior to their return.
The conference brought together an enthusiastic group of people who contributed with their work experiences in African archives and their thought out and provocative papers to a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities all those face and enjoy who have embarked on the adventure of working with visual sources. The participants learned a lot from each other not least with regard to different theoretical approaches, presentation styles, ways of arguing and work conditions. It also showed Cameroonians the importance and wealth of their visual heritage, something though lying right in front of their doorsteps many of them have given only little attention to date.
A selection of the papers presented at the conference will be made available on our website.
Pour un tour d’horizon du festival « Interprétation de la photographie historique » qui a accompagné la conférence, se reporter au billet publié sur le site d’Afrique in visu : Réinterprétation et valorisation des archives photographiques en Afrique.