Nurturing New Storytellers in Africa and Latin America
( Lens Blogs NY Times) – For some people, the idea of “serious” photography conjures up dramatic scenes of suffering, violence and poverty. This can be especially so in parts of Latin America and Africa, where careers have been made by foreign journalists who go in looking for drama. While no doubt there are pressing issues in these regions, there are also scenes of daily life, or less dramatic situations, that go unnoticed, slanting how a global audience sees people and places.
The prize-winning aesthetic can filter down to local photographers, who imitate what they think will get them noticed, said Laura Beltrán Villamizar, a photo editor and curator originally from Colombia. “Most of the World Press Photo winners, and people in the industry, are male and western, either from Europe or the U.S.,” said Ms. Beltrán Villamizar, who used to work for World Press Photo. “Photographers from Africa and Latin America think the western gaze is how you make it in the industry, that poverty and blood-drenched photos are the ones that are going to sell because it’s the one that is portrayed the most. This is what makes it to the news. This is how western photographers get their stories.”
This is what she intends to change. She and Colombian photographer Federico Rios Escobar have started Native Agency, which has taken under its wings a dozen photographers from Africa and Latin America mentoring them on everything from developing and researching stories to getting their work published. Working as a collective — and across six time zones — they also share their work with one another online to begin to understand not just their own countries, but what is going on elsewhere.
Among the photographers in the group are Yael Martinez, who has explored in very personal ways the lingering effects of disappearances in Mexico; Alejandro Cegarra, who has looked at the psychic landscape of Venezuela’s crisis; Cynthia R. Matonhodze, a Zimbabwean photographer who is documenting human rights issues in her country; and Miora Rajaonary — Madagascar, a Johannesburg-based photographer whose work explores “social issues and shifting cultures and identities” in Africa.
Ms. Beltrán Villamizar got the idea for the collective in 2014, when she was part of a World Press Photo team that led its first Master Class outside Europe, in Mexico. As she scouted regional talent, she realized many photographers, while talented, needed help learning how to pitch stories and work with editors. She had already known from her work with World Press Photo that there was a serious lack of representation — and storytelling — from photographers in Latin America and Africa.
“We wanted to create and interregional platform, aside from the big agencies,” Ms. Beltrán Villamizar said. “We wanted to provide them with the means and knowledge so they can create their own narratives without it being dramatic, violent or poor.”
In mentoring sessions and critics, the group’s members meet online for discussions. They also are connected to grant sources, schools and are taught everything from how to write captions to how to prepare a grant proposal. Mr. Rios Escobar helps them develop their stories, teaching them how to develop a visual narrative as well as researching topics. Keenly aware of the challenges facing female photographers, Ms. Beltrán Villamizar wants to broaden their opportunities helping them get hires as fixers, too.
Beyond connecting photographers to nongovernmental organizations that could hire them, or museums and galleries that can exhibit them, Native Agency’s founders are hoping to bring about lasting changes in how these regions are represented.