The exterior of the newly opened Dikan Center for photography in Accra, Ghana.

The new Dikan Center in Ghana displays a collection of photography from across Africa

Paul Ninson joins The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss the opening of the new photography library that he created, called the Dikan Center in Accra, Ghana, to showcase work by Africans and African Americans.

The World

In Susan Sontag’s well-known essay “On Photography,” she wrote that, “To collect photographs is to collect the world.”

The collections of photographs that many people see are often curated by people steeped in a mostly Western tradition — which is what makes a new photography library in Ghana so remarkable.

The Dikan Center, which just opened in Ghana’s capital, Accra, was created by Paul Ninson. And it’s filled with photography books and films by people from Africa and across the diaspora.

Ninson joined The World’s host Marco Werman from Accra to discuss the new center and it’s purpose.

Marco Werman: Paul, this new library is a project I know you’ve been passionate about for some time. What does it mean to you that it’s now opened?
Paul Ninson: I’m so excited about it because it’s an opportunity to give Africans and Black people an opportunity to learn more about their culture and also to be inspired about the visual culture.
Why do you think collecting and showcasing the photographic arts and documentation of Africa is so important?
Because then you’ll be able to understand — if you don’t know your history, you cannot progress. So, my joy in these things is to have a place where people could be educated in terms of the narrative and be inspired to create [their] own narrative. 

And how do you see the current kind of photographic narrative that’s been told by many people about Africa, not just Africans, I mean, people from all over the world who come to Africa and kind of show what they’ve seen. Why do you see that as problematic?
The inside and the outside perspective will always be different. The things which we hold dear and see as our own will definitely be different from somebody coming in and telling the story. I don’t say that people shouldn’t, but I think more opportunities should be given to Africans to be able to tell their own story. 
And that story has existed for many, many years in Africa. Where have those photographs been all this time?
The independence of Ghana, all that visual history of Ghana, is not accessible for Ghanaians or Africans to be able to learn from some of these things. Some of these things are mostly on the Western side of the world. That is why I created [it] to be able to collaborate, bridge work with people, to be able to give these tools and [make this] history accessible to Africans.
So, the bulk of the collection, I gather, at the Dikan Center is made up of your own collection of 30,000 photography books. What kind of books are we talking about and who are the range of photographers represented?
So, one of my favorites is Gordon Parks. I bought it on the Lower East Side in New York. And I want to work and seek donations and be able to raise more money to buy more African books and African American books as well.

Gordon Parks, obviously the legendary African American photographer. So, it’s not just African photographers, per se, from the continent. Who is represented from the continent, who stands out?
James Barnor, who is a photographer from Ghana. He has three books and I have all of them. We have Malick [Sidibé] also from Senegal. I have some of his books, as well.
So, the photography library is called the Dikan Center, as I said. What does Dikan mean?
Dikan means “take the lead.”
And what would you like the center to take the lead in?
There are problems in Africa, problems of accessibility, problems of visual culture, problems of job creation and other things. So, for me, I want to inspire people to take the lead, and I’m taking the lead.

How do you see photographs solving some of the big problems that Africa is facing today?
Because, you know, sometimes we neglect [and separate] economics from narrative. If today you type “Africa” in New York Times, what would you see? How would that narrative help an investor to invest in Africa, right? I did a story in a village where there are no men. Today, if you talk about this, those are the most powerful women who are fleeing female genital mutilation and abuse. These are stories, you don’t see in the major news outlets. I want the Africans to tell the story in their backyard, the good stories, even the bad stories, to even solve problems. So, that’s why I want to train more people in Africa, give them the tools and the resources to be able to tell our stories on our own terms, in our way and [have] every means to distribute them.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: ‘We want Africa to take its place’: African leaders call for more representation at UN Security Council

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