Africans as Animals in the Western Imagination

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I have always felt an inexplicable discomfort when conversations about Africa turn to the topic of wildlife. I am recently reminded why that discomfort exists when I was sent a link containing photos of wildlife in southern Africa from the Telegraph.  As I was going through the gallery I paused at two  photos showing ‘laughing children’ and a ‘bushman.’ I quickly looked at the title of the link to make sure I hadn’t gotten it wrong. It said ‘portraits of wildlife.’ Why were African people in it? The only answer I could conclude, was that the editors at the Telegraph could not distinguish African people from their surroundings. Or to put it more simply, African people and their animals are one and the same. It seems  that African people are not only a part of the beautiful scenery of southern Africa, they are the scenery.

It is important to mention that the photos have been removed. The editor at the Telegraph has left an apology on TMS Ruge’s scathing blog post calling for the photos to be taken down. I personally am not satisfied with the editors statement. The editor claims that the captions on the humans “obviously made clear they were not wildlife.” His defensive tone would indicate that he doesn’t seem to get it. I am suddenly reminded of Binyavanga  Wainaina’s famous essay on How to Write about Africa. He states that: “Animals…must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires.” The photos of the African people did not have names attached to them which divests them of humanity. As TMS Ruge mentioned in his piece, even the wild boar has a name and an intimate description as part of its caption.

The editor would have us believe this was a standard oversight rather than a reflection of a longstanding history of African people being equated to animals within the western imagination. Since colonial times African people, culture, and history have been portrayed as inferior and backward in relation to the west. This was mainly done by representing African people as subhuman. The phenomenon of the human zoo’s in which African people were put on display in major western cities in the 19th and 20th centuries is a good example of this and has been discussed by another AOTB blogger. There is also the long history of western science attempting to prove the connection between Africans and primates as  justification for colonialism and imperialism. It wouldn’t be farfetched to claim that the editing ‘mistake’ by the Telegraph fits neatly into the unrelenting western narrative of African people as animalistic which serves the purpose of dehumanization.

Although not responsible for the arrangement of his photos on the Telegraph, I think it’s important to discuss the photographer’s role in this. If you take a look at Dale Morris’ work, you will see that the same problem persists. In his slideshow of photos for South Africa, Rwanda, and Zambia he depicts wildlife, landscapes, and African people side by side. He doesn’t put it under the heading of wildlife but it still gives the impression that people and wildlife are the same. Interestingly enough, in his set of photos of the USA, there are no people depicted. Morris is part of a group of the world’s top travel photographers who showcase their work at Here too, one can find animals, landscapes, and people all lumped together. Morris and his counterparts should ask themselves this: why is it that they don’t take photo expeditions in New York or London? Why not capture stunning photos of eagles and bison alongside poignant portraits of local Americans and British? Why are the people in their photos almost exclusively black or brown or from the Global South?

The Telegraph, Dale Morris, and other photographers like him all perpetuate the age old image of African people as the exotic Other. The Freudian slip of adding Africans into a wildlife gallery by the editors at the Telegraph reveals a lot. It shows that even in the 21st century there still lingers within the western imagination the myth that Africans are inferior and thus the dehumanization continues.

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