DREW THOMPSON – Press(-)Photography: An Obsolete Concept?

Press(-)Photography: An Obsolete Concept?

Drew Thompson

From a technical perspective, press(-)photography refers to photographs produced within the context of a news organization for the intended purpose of publication. Practitioners of press(-)photography are traditionally called press(-)photographers. There is no shortage of these ‘types’ of photographs when it comes to Africa, its populations, and its history. The end of European rule, civil war that followed independence, and famine in Africa increasingly came into the public view of Western audiences with photography’s portability and photographers’ ability to electronically send their photographs while ‘on assignment’ to newsrooms across the globe in real-time. The increasing proximity of photographers to warfronts gave rise to collectives, like Magnum and other news agencies, which generated collections of photographs for sale and exhibition. Such endeavors, while novel at the time of their founding in the mid-20th century, imposed themselves onto, and even marginalized, longstanding history of news reporting and public viewing of photographs in Africa. Because of the mandate and politics of news agencies, the documentary served as an alternative to press(-)photography. Illustrations of acts of self-fashioning and resistance transformed the documentary into a type of social and political critique.

Practices of the documentary have unsettled press(-)photography’s ubiquity and dominance. In South Africa, a documentary movement evolved from within the confines of the press. The work of Jürgen Schadeberg, Ernest Cole, Peter Magubane, David Goldblatt, and many others paved the way for the activism that came to define the 1980s photography collective Afrapix and, in the 1990s, the Bang-Bang Club. Collectively, these efforts ‘to document’ alongside more commercial practices contributed to apartheid’s downfall. In this instance, the documentary developed in order to dispute and repudiate more widely recognized apartheid-era images of public spaces divided by race. Photographers also saw the documentary as a way to compensate for the discomfort of photographing injured or dead bodies. New lines of arguments have since surfaced that photographed subjects featured in photographs of the anti-apartheid struggle rejected their appearance and portrayal.

The anti-apartheid struggle created a socially inspiring and empowering view of the documentary. But, such a perspective proves somewhat of a straightjacket in that, what transpired in South Africa was not representative of photographic practices unfolding elsewhere on the continent. South Africa often stands in, and sets the baseline, for other practices and traditions of photography that occurred across Southern Africa. It is often ignored that in the last years of apartheid, the South African government practiced a strategy of destabilization, where it launched military attacks on its neighbors. Such destruction not only halted photographic production, but also fundamentally reshaped how populations appeared within the photographic frame. Many international news agencies failed to publish photographs they received from governments in Mozambique and Angola, dismissing them as propaganda. Instead, the Associated Press, Der Spiegel, and Reuters relied on photographers from South Africa who traveled on assignment to cover the deaths of fallen leaders and to visit the camps of opposition groups like those of UNITA in Angola and RENAMO in Mozambique. Lost to these histories of war, which included an assault on the visual, were instances where Mozambicans working on the mines in South Africa sent photographs to relatives in Mozambique or how these miners acquired technical skills in photography, which they used after Mozambique’s independence to operate commercial photography studios.

West Africa is also influential in photographic studies but follows a different teleology and discourse from South Africa in terms of the development of the press and the press’ incorporation of photographs. Histories of colonialism and independence in West Africa bound histories of photography in West Africa. Here, I am not suggesting that Europeans imported the camera to Africa. Instead, adopted photographic practices brought different historical actors into and out of the picture frame and constantly shifted the backdrop against which photography took place. Studio-based photography gave way to the press. Newspapers printed photographs and people used studios to represent themselves in relation to reported historical developments. Similar to practices in Southern Africa, photographers displayed a particular proclivity to move between photography’s press and commercial realms and undermined the need for genre distinctions. Independence in West Africa introduced new modes of self-fashioning and transformed press(-)photography from a studio-based practice into one characterized as official state media. Studio-based photographers found themselves photographing state leaders and ceremonies, thereby blurring what comprised the press and the commercial, and sometimes leading photographers to withdraw to the studio or leave their profession altogether. The accessibility of photographic supplies further facilitated these transformations in West Africa. Such was not the case in Mozambique, where the state nationalized private industries, including film distributors, and where currency devaluations prevented the purchasing of Kodak and other name-brand films.

Press(-)photography is constructed as much by the photographs that appear in text as by the photographs not shown. The editorial processes of press(-)photography involve a large number of images, only a small selection of which is eventually printed. The photographs that photographers wanted published did not always appear in print, and if they did, the editors cropped them and shrunk them to size. When the press became state-run, unpublished prints hung on the walls of government institutions or remained in newsroom archives. Photographers employed by local press publications in Africa continued photographing after work hours. In parallel with the publication of photographs, many subjects of these prints, including government officials, took pictures with their own cameras. Populations may not have viewed photographs in print, but they did come to understand movements of independence and historical change through the accessibility of photographic materials and abilities to obtain photographs of themselves.

I never know whether to write press(-)photography with or without a hyphen. I have placed the hyphen in parenthesis in order to both question and draw attention to what makes-up the relationship between the two terms and the possible ways in which each term defines the other. Press(-)photography is a way to classify specific photographic practices in Africa, and to assign importance to modes of historical participation and spectatorship across time and space. However, apartheid’s war of destabilization, coupled with the cravings of wire agencies, labeled as ‘untrue’ and ‘factually inaccurate’ many photographs which governments and populations neighboring South Africa actively produced, archived, and even destroyed. Furthermore, the concept excludes and relegates to the genre of studio portraiture the countless portraits taken by families in West Africa during the late 19th and 20th century. Press(-)photography attempts to liberate photographs from the stereotypes imposed through the camera’s use yet by doing so it marginalizes other forms of “press” and “news,” such as portraits or identity documents.

In its current form, press(-)photography is limiting because it is predicated on notions of literacy, representation, and publication. People see photographs through other photographs, not only text. Thus, to define press(-)photography in relation to notions of readership or audience is unreasonable. Prints are one aspect of photography. There are also visual encounters and discourses that escape the photographic print but that are equally important to photography’s practice and occurrence. There are complexities and interchanges that define such visual production and viewing that are lost to press(-)photography in its current conceptual form. And so I am left to wonder whether press(-)photography, even with its hyphen, is an obsolete concept?


Drew Thompson is a visual historian who teaches at Bard College.