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Visual Representations of Africa:

A Contrast of Public Images and Private Encounters

By Dominica McBride

Violent. Exotic. War-torn. Poor. AIDS-stricken. Helpless. Hopeless. These adjectives are often used in the portrayal of past and present day Africa. Africa is seen and heard through various forms of media – motion pictures, newspapers, internet, and radio – however, each medium succumbs to perpetuating these dismal stereotypes. A large majority of what Western people perceive of Africa in the comfort of their own homes, the silence of work offices, and the attractive experience of the theater is a picture of a people on a continent utterly infested with acts of violence, overcome with grave poverty, and dying of malaria, tuberculosis, or AIDS. Yet, intellectually, we must know this picture is illogical, that the whole of the second largest and most populous continent has a more varied atmosphere than demonstrated through the eye of the media. In my own encounter living and working in Africa, I have experienced the more logical and realistic side of this skewed depiction.

As Thompson (1995) has suggested, prior to technologies such as the printing press, cameras, television and satellites, the intimate, face-to-face conveyance of stories prevailed. Narratives and life experiences were passed on through a more controlled and localized discourse. The inventions of various media made it possible for the experiences of those far away to be told all around the world. This opening of possibilities gave persons the opportunity to reach through the privacy of their own lives and the solitary activities of the daily routine and to touch the experiences of those in foreign lands, across seas. However empowering this experience was/is for some, it is disempowering for those who do not have control over what is shown through the camera lens or the words that accompany the picture. With the advent of these technologies, a small group of individuals now can construct the identity and mold external perceptions of and about far larger groups with little thought or foresight to the possible detrimental impacts (Thompson, 1995). Hamelink (1995) bolstered this view and stated:

The mass media are equally ill-equipped to enhance global consciousness….leav[ing] whole parts of the globe outside their audience’s reach and report in superficial, often biased if not racist ways about foreign peoples and their cultures, often exclusively highlighting their exotic features (p. 4).

This article attempts to negate the media’s bias-laden descriptions by critiquing still and motion pictures from the last decade. These pictures represent the majority perspective, as portrayed through mass media. This paper will also show still pictures from a minority, yet simultaneously real, perspective of this continent. Written in hopes of showing a more varied and realistic picture of Africa, I hope to dissipate the predominate stereotypes.

The Media’s Portrayal of Africa

The media has much control over the focus of particular stories that reach the public ear. When the print and/or web-based media describe situations or report headlines on Africa, the reports are largely on poverty, war or conflict, sickness and death. The following pictures are illustrations of these stereotypes.

Still Pictures

The still pictures were chosen based on the common images the public sees on television and the internet. Figure 1 shows two pictures reportedly demonstrating the effect of HIV/AIDS (Africa AIDS Watch, 2002). The picture on the right (a woman holding a man dying of AIDS) represents the sickness and despair in Africa. The picture on the bottom left (that of the elder child comforting or protecting the younger) presents a visual image of fear and possible abandonment, with no adults in the picture. Both these pictures are laid atop of a map of Africa, insinuating that the HIV/AIDS and despair are pervasive in this continent consisting of 54 countries and millions of people. Further, the meaning of these photographs is left up to public assumption, for the site does not explicitly state the context or history of these individuals in the pictures. It could be assumed that the children in the photograph are AIDS orphans; it is reported on this site that 15 million children were orphaned due to AIDS in 1999.

Figure 1. Picture from

As in Figure 1, Figure 2 is also purposely in black and white, presenting a darker, more despondent picture. In this photograph, another saddening situation is shown. The woman appears to be crying. BBC News reported, along with this picture:

One of dozens of funerals that take place each day in this sprawling cemetery in Zambia's red-earthed Copperbelt region. Almost 17% of Zambian adults, or a million people, are HIV-positive. “Four years ago, there was a steady tempo of burials,” said Don McCullin. “Now there seems to be a crescendo” [picture taken at] Kawama cemetery, Ndola, Zambia, 2004 (BBC News, 2004).

Life Interrupted
Figure 2. ‘Life Interrupted’ by Don McCullin on

Both Figures 3 and 4 are from the same site and represent many of the pictures shown in commercials on television and advertisements on the internet. Figure 3 presents one young African child sick with starvation, malnutrition, and poverty, while at least 40 children living under the same conditions are shown in Figure 4 – both images projecting a lugubrious story of Africa. Similar pictures are often displayed on the television with reports of millions of children living daily under these conditions and, therefore, dying at young ages. ‘For many children like ________, life is a desperate existence’ (World Vision, 2006) is a quote that many times accompanies the pictures of these children.

These photographs only give a glimpse into the large field of myriad digital representations of an impoverished and sick Africa. The motion pictures of the last decade on or involving Africa released in the United States corroborate and exacerbate the messages conveyed by these still images and the depictions and subsequent thoughts and suppositions made about Africa.

Figure 3. A photograph from

Figure 4. A photograph from

Motion Pictures

In my search for movies in the past decade that were either about or filmed primarily in Africa and publicized and released in the US, I found 19 non-animated movies. One movie portrays a Caucasian woman’s struggles in Africa (i.e., I Dreamed of Africa, 2000); five of the movies (26%) are about animals (e.g., Prey, 2007); and fourteen (74%) reveal war, violence, and/or corruption in Africa. Thus, much of the film industry in the US focuses on Africa’s negative aspects. I chose the following exemplars based on popularity demonstrated by award nominations, awards received, and viewer ratings.

Blackhawk Down (2001) is a perfect illustration of how the Western world perceives the African continent. This movie extends a narrative of Africa as starving, helpless, hopeless, violent, and at some points, inhuman or animalistic. Although based on a true story, the conveyance of this experience is sprinkled with racist or nationalist speech and rhetoric of a hopeless nation. In the opening scene, the audience sees a lean African man kneeling over a dead body, covering the body’s face. The camera pans out to see numerous lifeless bodies spread out on the ground. The text accompanying the images reads that ‘years of warfare among rival clans cause famine on a biblical scale’ and ‘300,000 civilians died of starvation.’ In the next scene with Africans, or ‘skinnies’ as the American soldiers referred to them, the audience sees them with guns, driving around and shooting in the air. Much of this film shows Somalis either shooting other Somalis or shooting American soldiers. At one point, a large crowd of jumping and yelling Africans with guns go and pull a dead soldier out of a helicopter, raise his body in the air, and dance around. Another scene shows an American captive with a Somali militia leader. The leader says to the captive, ‘There will always be killing, you see. This is how things are in our world,’ projecting an image soaked with despondence to audiences.

Kigali Releasing Limited released Hotel Rwanda in theaters in 2004. This movie also exhibited the violence and utter corruption of, yet another, African nation. Similar to Blackhawk Down, this movie was also based on a true experience – the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Here, the audience views the mass destruction of a group of people, the Tutsi, by another tribe, the Hutu. Violence and killing are major themes throughout this movie. Helplessness is also an evident theme amongst the Tutsi. However, dissimilar to Blackhawk Down, in Hotel Rwanda, we see a family that stands up for themselves and for others and protects Tutsi citizens. While this is an encouraging aspect of this film, the predominant message is that of ferocity and mass murder in Africa.

Lord of War (2005) contributes to the perpetuation of a harsh stereotype. In the opening scene of this film, the audience sees the manufacturing and path of a bullet. The camera follows this bullet into a gun. The camera shows various people with guns. The camera then follows the bullet shot out of this gun and into the forehead of a child. Where does this opening scene end? Africa. Most of this film is concentrated on an international arms dealer, Yuri Orlov, played by Nicolas Cage. He spends much of the movie making arms deals with the Liberian President and warlord. This movie, again, shows the propensity of Africans to fire guns and scramble for anything free (i.e., helpless). In one scene, Yuri attempted to rid himself of the evidence by giving the guns to African civilians. At his mere announcement of ‘guns,’ these civilians, including eager women and children, run up to seize the weaponry, and then they scatter. Thus, the war in Africa continues.

Blood Diamond (2006) depicts Sierra Leone. The title itself connotes brutality and bloodshed. In this film, the audience witnesses not only African men committing violent acts, but also African children trained to be killers. However, similar to Hotel Rwanda, there is an African man, Solomon Vandy, who shows courage, conviction, and love. A positive image is projected with his character; albeit, he is the only Sierra Leonean man exhibited in this light. Nevertheless, this supposedly encouraging image of this man is tainted by the fact that he is also helpless without the aid of Danny Archer, the protagonist played by Leonardo DiCaprio. This tainting further bolsters the projection of a helpless Africa. 

Finally, The Last King of Scotland (2006) narrated the experience of Idi Amin, one of the most violent dictators in history, and the Ugandan citizens during his ‘reign.’ Violence is an evident theme in this movie. Not only does it promulgate the vicious image of Africa, but it also adds another image, one of African women presented as adulterous, promiscuous, and erotic. In contrast to these dark-skinned women, the one Caucasian woman whom the main character, Nicholas Garrigan, has a relationship with refuses to commit adultery, while one of the other (married) African women in the film succumbed to her desires and was unfaithful to her husband with Nicholas. Continuing with the string of abhorrent acts, this woman is grotesquely punished, yet another instance of violence.

A Personal Encounter with Africa

Each still and motion picture bears some truth as evidenced throughout history and the present day; however, a deep void of other truths is extant in these and other media depictions. In each movie, relatively little resilience, sense of community, work ethic, or welcoming attitude exists, common characteristics of many African cultures. There is a vast display of the negative, while avoiding the presence of positive attributes. In the summers of 2005 and 2006, I visited East Africa, including Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. The majority of my time was spent in Tanzania, working with a non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides HIV/AIDS education. Some of the evidence I will present is from an evaluation of this NGO’s work in rural Tanzania along with my personal experience with the people. Throughout my experience in Africa, I personally encountered the above cultural assets. I found many of the people there to be kind, loving, peaceful, protective, communal, hard working, and welcoming. I saw many healthy individuals and smiling faces. Figures 5 through 10 represent much of my encounter with the people in Africa.

Figure 5. A happy family

Figure 5 presents a photograph of the first family that I resided with in my first visit to Tanzania. Upon the initial encounter and throughout my entire experience with them, they were very kind, welcoming, and generous. The family allowed a stranger to reside in their home, fed me three meals a day, and upon leaving, gave me gifts of material and art. The father owns a bagging company. The mother is working towards opening her own salon. The child currently attends preschool. Their subvillage (i.e., neighborhood) is very collective. Each member plays a role in the maintenance of their subvillage and the health of the other individuals. The collection of these characteristics displays peace, unity, and the capability and manifestation of self-reliance.

Figure 6. Students a play
Figure 6 demonstrates the humor and gregariousness of some of the students in another rural village, who appeared healthy, active, and playful. In two focus groups that a Tanzanian facilitator and I conducted at the students’ schools after they received HIV/AIDS prevention education, the students supportedpositive cultural characteristics defying purportedly omnipresent conflict and hopelessness. When asked if the change in attitudes towards HIV were sustained seven months after the program, the students answered with:

Yes, now I know the impacts of HIV/AIDS here in our village and take action about it.

Yes, the effects have stayed the same since we continue to teach each other.

These statements are indicative of their collectivistic culture and their propensity to care for each other. Statements like these paint a hopeful picture for the future and one where even children and adolescents help themselves and their communities.

Figure 7. The leader & the herder

In Figure 7, the leader of one rural village jokes with a child for whom he cares that is not biologically related to him. This village leader or mtendaji conveyed that he views his position as one who protects the people of the village and acts as a father figure in guiding them and helping those in need. The leader also asserted his commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS in his village and used his power as mtendaji to try to make a change in this area, such as holding community meetings and educating people about HIV/AIDS. He and his family were also welcoming and showed kindness. They welcomed me into their home and were generous with their resources, such as a food and a resting place.

Figure 8 presents a young girl and her younger sibling. She appears to be healthy and strong, having the ability to walk   carrying her younger sibling on her back, while smiling for a picture.

The man pictured in Figure 9 also is healthy and strong. He is a manifestation of the opposing image of the media’s Africa. He has built his own student organization that actively opposes constitutional injustices and abuses to human rights. As President of a secondary school organization promoting HIV/AIDS education, he taught other students about the virus and its modes of transmission. Soon after graduating, he worked with an NGO in their fight against HIV/AIDS. Currently, he attends a law school with aspirations to be a civil rights attorney. His trajectory is quite hopeful, while his past and current behavior is far from helpless.

Similarly, the man portrayed in Figure 10 has also disseminated HIV/AIDS knowledge in northern Tanzania. He heads several groups of community healthcare workers voluntarily caring for people in their community who are living with HIV/AIDS. This man has led peer educator groups in secondary schools in rural Tanzania, organizing and encouraging them. Peer educators are students trained to teach the rest of their community about HIV/AIDS, and because of individuals like him, they are equipped to do so. While juggling his duties as a leader of these voluntary groups, he also has facilitated focus groups in a program evaluation, helping to enhance program functions and further program goals in alleviating the impact of HIV/AIDS in communities. His characteristics contest any images of ever-present violence, a lack of ability to be self-reliant, and a despondent future.

Each of these pictures contradicts photos and images on the movie screen of overwhelming and pervasive tragedy in Africa. There are happy, smiling faces in each photograph and these photographs were taken in two different locations with two disparate cultures, however, with similar attributes. These pictures convey a brighter life and provide more aspects that can be of focus in future media.

The media’s intentions behind the use of these still and motion pictures may be similar to the intentions of qualitative and quantitative research. The roots of both qualitative (Erickson, 1986) and quantitative (Kronbach, Ambron, Dornbusch, Hess, Hornik, Phillips, Walker, & Weiner, 1980) research lie deep in social justice and advocacy. The history of these methods delineates the utility of these tools in bringing voice to the poor and marginalized (qualitative research) and spotlighting major issues, such as poverty, disease, and the need for public sanitation (quantitative research). Mass media’s use of these photographs and films may stem from wanting to publicize the atrocities that have and are occurring in Africa and galvanizing aid for the people. However, when inundated with negativity about African people, the task of overcoming such conflict and dis-ease may be overwhelming and have the opposite-than-intended effect. When coupled with facts and images that are hopeful, the still and motion pictures, along with their stories, may better accomplish the goals of motivating help. For instance, Rwanda has had many successes since the genocide. The current government has demonstrated their commitment to building democracy and sustaining and increasing further peace, as well as growing and maintaining a national dialogue. Through structures like this government, Rwanda has relatively restored national stability (Rugumamu and Gbla, 2003) through increasing economic growth and gender parity. In 2006, Rwanda received higher economic growth rates, up to 6.4 per cent, due to productive construction, trade and manufacturing (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 2007).  They now have free press, organizations for women and workers’ associations, demonstrating a ‘functional civil society’ (Rugumamu and Gbla, 2003). Further, gender equality has substantially increased through acts of the government, such as constructing the Ministry of Gender and the Promotion of Women. This ministry established laws that allow women to own and inherit property, and has reserved seats for women on legislative bodies. These milestones have shown that Rwanda was not helpless or hopeless and the people of Rwanda do have the ability to live in peace. However, none of the above is mentioned in Hotel Rwanda, even with the ease of adding text to the end of a movie.

Sierra Leone has also made great strides in re-establishing peace and building democracy.  This country held successful District and Local Council elections in 2004, the first democratic elections in over 20 years (United States Agency for International Development, 2005). Additionally, communities have been rebuilt. Schools have re-opened, while students report being happy to be participating in academic activities again. Nearly all of the internally displaced and 27, 755 of the internationally displaced refugees have returned to their home places (Lartigue, 2004). These events have demonstrated the fulfillment of hope and shown that Sierra Leone can have a stable, functioning society with a lack of violence and corruption. Again, none of this information was provided in Blood Diamond.

In Lord of War, the character that represented Charles Taylor, the violent President and warlord of Liberia, is left unchanged and un-punished. However, in reality, he is no longer President, was sent into exile, and has been charged with war crimes. The United States Department of State (2007) describes the organization of the new government, a representation of progress of Liberia:

The October 11, 2005 presidential and legislative elections and the subsequent November 8, 2005 presidential run-off were the most free, fair, and peaceful elections in Liberia’s history. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf defeated international soccer star George Weah 59.4% to 40.6% to become Africa’s first democratically elected female president. She was inaugurated in January 2006 and has formed a government of technocrats drawn from among Liberia's ethnic groups and including members of the Liberian Diaspora who have returned to the country to rebuild government institutions. The president's party, the Unity Party, does not control the legislature, in which 12 of the 30 registered political parties are represented (¶ 23).

Although room for great progress still exists in Uganda, where Idi Amin dominated, Uganda’s governing body has moved far from a violent despotic organization. The current President, Yoweri Museveni, demonstrated dedication to the citizens of Uganda through his national HIV/AIDS campaign, where he advocated for increased HIV/AIDS awareness (Frontline, 2006). This campaign has led to a dramatic decrease in the HIV prevalence, from 15% in 1991 to 5% in 2001 (Avert, 2007; US Census Bureau, 2006), making this one of the greatest success stories in world history, regarding the pandemic of HIV/AIDS (US Census Bureau, 2006).

Unfortunately, Somalia does not have a great success story to tell at this moment. However, no understanding of the cause or root of the past conflict was received through viewing Blackhawk Down, as it is through watching Hotel Rwanda. The only allusion to the cause of conflict is the violent nature and proclivity of Somalis. Scott, the director of the film, does not allude to the reason for the state of this country in the 1990s. He does not discuss how Italy and Britain separated three unified clans of this region of Africa. Nor does he narrate how Somalis fought against Italian rule and won only for the United Nations to direct Italy to return to Somalia to prepare the country for ‘independence’ in the 1960s (Fage, 1995). These historical moments could very well have led to long bouts of conflict.

In studying the history and current state of African countries as well as having a personal encounter, a more well-rounded and realistic story emerges. This story has many sides instead of one with skewed negativity. Thus, when narrating about Africa, multiple images and slants should be included.

There are many facets of Africa, as there are on every  continent. This article does not advocate a cessation of publicity regarding the tragedies Africa has and is still experiencing; however, it is contraindicated to completely focus on the negative while there are strong and positive facets of this collection of nations. In looking through a strengths-based lens, one would see the profound value in highlighting and building upon the extant and past assets of a person, a group, a culture, a nation, a continent. For how can an individual grow if she/he does not know the intrinsic goodness that already exists? How can others help if they do not see the good within people? As humans, we are built with the tools to live, to survive, to contribute, and to love.  If these inherent human characteristics are not used, then of what use are they? Therefore, it is imperative to be aware of the humanity in every nation and to respond and relate to that humanity in the face of slanted stereotypes, which cause further separation.


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