Parts of East Africa are currently suffering the effects of one of the worst food crises in decades, with around 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Worst hit is Somalia, where at least six areas are now suffering from famine, but Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are also severely affected by food shortages and spiralling numbers of refugees. Dadaab, a camp close to the Somalian border which has a population of 400,000, is the world’s largest refugee complex and now Kenya’s third largest city. Reports suggest that conditions are dire, with little hope of improvement in the near future.
How have things got this bad? The ongoing drought is clearly an immediate suspect, but many are arguing that there’s far more to it than that: famines are man-made. Depending on who you ask, it’s the fault of a decade of post 9/11 US foreign policy creating instability in the region; it’s the result of local corruption which siphons off food aid for the profit of unscrupulous businessmen; it’s Somalia’s long-term political chaos and the extremist al-Qaida affiliated al-Shabaab rebels controlling much of southern Somalia, where the trouble threatens to spill over into Kenya. Depending on who you ask, there’s not enough aid, and we need to send more; or there’s too much aid, and beyond immediate emergency relief money, we shouldn’t be sending it at all. Perhaps there are some contradictory truths in all of these arguments, but most pressing during the current crisis is the point that while refugees continue to pour into north and east Kenya, and the drought continues, emergency aid isn’t getting to where it’s needed, often for political reasons.
Meanwhile, the photographer John Kenny has a new exhibition at 3 Bedfordbury Gallery, Facing Uncertainty: Portraits from Kenya, which opened yesterday. The show presents pictures taken in the spring this year in the northern lowlands of Kenya, including portraits of members of the Samburu, Turkana and Rendille ethnic groups. I’ve seen Kenny’s photographs before, and there’s no doubt that they’re exceptionally beautiful and well-crafted, and he is clearly passionate about his work. With his artist’s prerogative, Kenny is more interested in personal encounters with remarkable individuals than political critique; his portraits are both impressive and intimate, and part of me is looking forward to seeing the latest series.
I do have some hesitations, however. The show’s blurb focuses on the ‘climatic uncertainties’ threatening the livelihoods of the people in Kenny’s images, and there’s no question that this is a major challenge facing those in the drylands in this area, increasing competition over scarce resources. But I wonder what lies behind Kenny’s acknowledgment of the ‘escalation of armed conflict between tribal groups’. I’m no expert, and I don’t know to what extent the problems faced by the artist’s subjects are connected with the wider situation that is unfolding in the region, but I’d like to know more. What kind of recognition do these people’s interests and conflicts get against the wider backdrop of encroaching famine and political unrest, which despite their urgency have apparently received a sluggish response from the Kenyan government? Away from the battleground of Somalia, are drought and climate change really the main problem, or are they still simply a distraction from ongoing political issues? The show promises to present the views of Samburu people on climate change and how it is affecting them, so I look forward to hearing their take on how they fit into the bigger picture.
More generally, the ethics of photographing famine and poverty are fraught with difficulty, and I’m not sure that Kenny’s explanation of his work (on his website, at least) fully deals with some of these issues. It would be interesting to hear more about his views on the political and ethical responsibilities and opportunities offered by photography, and how he places his own work within the history of documentary photography in Africa. The people in Kenny’s portraits project pride and intelligence, thoughtfulness and determination, making his work a welcome antidote to the all too frequent (and arguably unhelpful) media images of destitute and starving Africans, which fail to show the bigger picture. But by presenting many of his subjects as pure human forms, devoid of any physical setting, perhaps Kenny’s work also obscures the political complexities of the very challenging realities that he wants to explore in the region, which, in the current context, might be the most valuable work of all.
If you can’t make it to the show, there’s a clunky slideshow from the Independent here.
For some interesting thoughts from an artist-photographer on the struggle to produce humane portraits of people living with challenging circumstances, it’s worth checking out South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa’s work: see for example this interview with scholar and curator Okwui Enwezor.
Update: I made it along to the show today. The photographs are accompanied by wall texts with detailed snippets about some of the individuals featured in the photographs and how Kenny met them, as well as background information about their way of life and how this is being affected by climate change, from their point of view. There’s also some more information provided about how Kenny positions his work, and his twin aims: first, to share his experiences of spending time with these communities and present visual aspects of their cultures, and second, to explain the challenges they are currently facing.
The photographs are stunning – rich with detail, and totally fascinating for anyone like me who has little knowledge of the clothing and hairstyles worn in these areas – but I stand by my initial doubts about the ability of portraits like these to ‘explain’ things. The additional information provided in the exhibition goes a long way to achieving this, and is especially good at presenting the perspectives of the Samburu people and their approach to preserving their traditions whilst meeting change head-on. But while local stories come across well, there’s no mention of the broader political context, and in the commercially-saturated surroundings of Covent Garden, in the face of such arresting visual material, it’s easy to see how the explanatory notes may be easily detached and quickly forgotten about. The question of how to portray complex realities with photographic images remains unanswered.
If you’ve got this far, and/or you’ve seen the show, I’d welcome thoughts and comments. Also, one of the main aims of the exhibition is to raise money for people in the region develop more secure sources of food, water and income, as well as improving education and healthcare, which seems worthwhile and is apparently welcomed in the communities in question. Charities benefitting from the show and working locally are CIFA Kenya, the BOMA project and Concern Worldwide).
Weds 21st Sept – Sat 3rd Oct
Closed Mon 26th
Covent Garden, London