Sunday May 11 2014

How photos make or break Africa’s image


By Timothy Kalyegira

This week I need to explain a little to readers partly why I have recently been on a photo tour around Uganda. I will start where it all begins these days, with the phenomenon called the Internet and its impact on our world today.

The world’s three most-visited websites of any kind, in order of ranking, are, Facebook and YouTube.

That, the world’s largest search engine, gets more traffic than any other website in the world shows that the main reason most people use the Internet is to look up information.

In second position is Facebook, the world’s largest social gathering platform. With more than 1.2 billion signed-up users, for many millions around the world, Facebook has become more or less their daily newspaper, the first port of call to find out what’s happening in the world and among their friends when the day starts.

The third is YouTube, the world’s largest video-sharing of professional and amateur quality video recordings. It is, if you will, the world’s television station and video archive.
As more and more of the world’s population adopts the Internet as part of their daily lives, these three websites Google, YouTube and Facebook increasingly are the world’s voice, consciousness and mirror. They both shape and reflect who we are.

When a tourist, prospective investor, journalist or student wants to find out about a foreign country, it is not that country’s embassy or government offices he or she turns to as a starting point. These days it is to Google.
Google is now more important in shaping a country’s image to outsiders than its foreign embassies or international airports.

Role of pictures
And because many people in many countries do not understand foreign languages, photos are the best way of understanding a place, since they are, as cliché goes, worth a thousand words.

So, let’s experiment and go to that international airport or embassy called and type in the words “Uganda” and “photos”, or “photographs”, “images” or “pictures”.

What comes up on your screen? It is photographs of little Ugandan children, usually in rags, smiling for the camera. Or a few wild animals, some places around Kampala, a map of Uganda and so on. You will be struck by the rather poor quality of most of these photos.
The overwhelming number of photos about Africa on the first page of search results about Uganda or Zambia and on the Internet in general, are taken and uploaded by Western citizens during their visits.

To a European, Australian or Americans, it is not the new Acacia Mall or Speke Resort Munyonyo in Kampala that appeals to them. In their home countries are shopping malls and hotel complexes 10 times larger and more modern than anything Uganda is capable of.
Rather, the appeal and “exotic” about Uganda is its wild life, big game, incredibly backward rural villages and unkempt children. This 16th century feel and look about most of Africa is so unfamiliar and rich, an experience to Europeans that it appeals to them.

In other words, thanks unwittingly to the Internet, Africa is back to where it was in the 1970s, when the world’s image of the continent was of war, famine, poverty and primitive living conditions.

The Internet, largely unregulated and unedited, free for anyone to act as a reporter and editor, is proving a disaster for Africa’s international image.

You can’t delete these highly embarrassing photos, you can’t order Google to display better photos because it is Google’s computers, using algorithmic technology (or automatic calculation), not Google employees, that rank websites according to popularity or the relevance of their topics.

An important fact to bear in mind is that, according to data, between 80 to 85 per cent of Internet users worldwide usually go by the material that shows up on the first page of Google’s search results.

It would do justice if most of us clicked further to page two or right up to page 20 shown at the bottom of the page, but unfortunately 80 per cent of us don’t bother and so the photos, articles, maps, and other content on the first results page is all we ever go by.
When President Museveni visits the West and urges investors to bring capital and skills to Uganda, even as he is speaking most among his audience in London are typing in “Uganda” or “Ouganda” into Google and the first photos they see are those above --- bare-footed children in up-country townships and villages, murram roads and dilapidated town buildings.

The only solution to this is not to lament about it, but for Africans to start investing more in good quality cameras and start to take photos of their own towns, cities, landscapes and schools.

As usual, the African is clueless about what’s going on around him or her and in the world, even 13 years into the 21st century and even when well-educated. He or she will buy a four-wheel drive car and has no time for abstractions like photography.

Way forward
All said and done, we all need to keep this in mind: the Internet now shapes the thinking and daily activities slightly less than half of the world’s population. Google, YouTube and Facebook and how they now shape the world’s view of itself and of Africa.

And then, randomly taken photographs and videos on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Picassa and Whatsapp (90 per cent of which are of a quite poor quality) now shape the world’s image of Africa more crucially than the best newspaper articles, attempts by government officials to promote tourism or a positive image.

The British historian Arnold Toynbee, in his 1934 work A Study of History, described “the laboriousness, the ‘factual’ knowledge, the mechanical skill, and the organising power of our [European] society.” These traits listed by Toynbee best capture the spirit of Europe.
That is why Europeans, much more intellectually sophisticated than us, will spend $2,000 on a camera rather than nice clothes or a home entertainment system.
They know things we Africans don’t know or can’t seem to see.