DAKAR, Senegal — What is Africa? Is it a hopeless continent of chronic hunger, war, poverty, misery, disease and death, plagued by tribalism, violence and corruption?
Or is this that colorful place we see on the pages of National Geographic, tourism brochures and coffee table books — all sweeping landscapes, ethnic tribes and exotic wildlife?
Africa is both, but the reality of most people’s lives exists somewhere between these two extremes, one predominantly negative, the other overly sanitized.
Our job as journalists, whether writers, photographers or broadcasters, is to show the nuances of African life and to provide stories that go beyond stereotypical images.
Africa can often seem complicated or even incomprehensible. Bad news tends to dominate. Sometimes it feels overwhelming.
Yet Africa matters. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 interest in international news increased as Americans tried to come to terms with what had happened. The world was taken by surprise by an extremist movement that emerged from the failed state of Afghanistan.
As we now cope with the individual burdens of a global economic crisis, the temptation is to look inward again, to deal with problems closer to home. This would be a mistake.
Africa has its fair share of failed states. Al Qaeda has made inroads on the continent, most notably in lawless Somalia, but also in parts of North Africa and further south, into Mauritania.
The 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya killed hundreds of people and were a harbinger of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. We’ve learned the hard way that we ignore the outside world at our peril.
I began working in Africa seven years ago in Democratic Republic of Congo as a text correspondent covering the deadliest conflict since World War II. I’m always astounded that so few people are aware that millions of people have died in Congo and that many more continue to die in a regional war that once engulfed much of central Africa. I was frustrated that nobody seemed too interested in what was happening.
The same was true when I spent a month in Darfur, Sudan, in 2004. What was different for me on that assignment is that I turned to photography to tell my stories. Pictures can have an immediate and emotional impact that words often cannot. A successful image can make people pause in the midst of their busy day to reflect on what is shown, perhaps prompting them to find out more about what is happening and why. Photographs have the ability to connect people on a human level, even though the events they depict can be worlds away.
Coming from a background as a writer, I still value the importance of words, but I now rely on photographs to tell African stories, hoping that if an image is successful the viewer will seek out more information about the story. At best, it will prompt people to do something.
All too aware of the cliché of starving children with flies in their eyes, I focus on portraying people not as helpless victims, even if that’s what they are, but rather as almost heroic figures coping under some of the most difficult conditions on the planet.
On an assignment to cover the latest violence on Congo in November, heavy gunfire erupted while I was taking pictures at Kibati refugee camp near the city of Goma. I was quickly offered shelter in a flimsy tent by Boniface Buhoro, a tailor trying to protect his sister and 3-year-old son from humming bullets.
Such kindness is typical of Congo’s resilient population, perpetually subject to miserable circumstances, misrule and war. Refugees frequently offered warm greetings, friendly smiles and handshakes in squalid camps where they may not have eaten for days.
Amid the chaos of fighting, people fleeing their homes and the demand for quick pictures, I slowed things down by taking intimate portraits that will hopefully last beyond the daily news.
The essence of reporting from Africa is illustrating that people are not anonymous victims, but individuals whose lives and stories matter as much as anyone else’s.
At refugee camps in Sudan, Chad and Congo, people who have the least are usually the most willing to share.
The strength of character and the dignity of people surviving under such difficult conditions is humbling to anyone who experiences it.
Sure we need to cover the news. But there are other stories that need to be told, too, to show that Africa is not just about war, famine and disease. It is about hope and struggling to make a better future in our challenging world.