The danger of single stories: ‘Africa’

Those interested in good quality lectures, music and humour (and much else!) will already be familiar with TED – – in 2009, TED posted a talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie (Purple Hibiscus 2003 and Half a Yellow Sun 2006) on the dangers of presenting overlapping dimensions of a story as one ‘single’ story which can lead to critical misunderstandings.

If ever a Continent suffered from this problem it is Africa – routinely presented as a single story; one usually filled with suffering, failure, corruption and hopelessness.  It is not that these stories are not real or accurate; it’s that they reveal only one small fragment of a rich, contradictory and complex tapestry.

Nowhere is this revealed most immediately than in photography and once again the National Geographic is under attack for an exhibition of photos by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher from their 2004 book Faces of Africa.

Here are three examples from the exhibition:

The photos chosen to represent the ‘faces of Africa’ were criticised by That African Girl blogger Makafui Fiavi for feeding into a single, stereotypical story amounting to suggested ad nauseam propaganda:

This is something familiar to all of us from aid agency fund-raising images.  Makafui goes on to argue:

‘After clicking through a few more pictures, I became frustrated and had to come back later to read the interview with authors and photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. After seeing the pictures, it was no longer surprising for me to have encountered people, who upon seeing pictures of skyscrapers, beaches and cars in Africa, ask to see the “real Africa”. Or college students who reduce the breadth of African music to ‘talking drums’. It’s true that pictures are just pictures; they are the representations of one person’s perspectives, but pictures tell a story, they are said to be “worth a thousand words”. In all the pictures on the website, the only modern element was a “Kalashnikov” riffle in one of the pictures.’

Yes, we’ve all been to ‘that’ African drumming workshop – the last resort of the lazy conference organiser!


More on the debate can be found at:

  • On a different but related topic – images of ‘development’, see the annual photo collections for The Guardian global development focus for 2012 and for 2011
  • See a previous blog post on ‘poverty porn’ in The Times of Malta by Colm Regan and Tony Daly with info on the Irish NGO code of conduct on images and messages developed by Dóchas | June 2012