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Uncertain trajectories and refigured social worlds: the image entourage and other practices of digital and social media photography.


The formalization of 'informal' customary land rights is at the core of current rural land policies in Africa. The dubious impacts of such policies on agricultural production, and the recomposition of land rights and governance they cause, have been studied widely. But their territorial dimensions are hardly acknowledged. Studying the implementation of a rural land rights formalization project in central Benin, this article highlights the links between territorialization and plot-level land rights formalization. It first unpacks the notion of the village and presents a conceptual framework for analysing the superimposition of and contradiction between customary and administrative territories. Using two case studies, it then examines the conflicts that arise during formalization operations and their outcomes in terms of the mapping of land rights and political and administrative change. This article shows how the political organization of the territory and the socio-spatial inequalities resulting from the history of settlement shape the results of plot-level land rights registration (which explains why large parts of village territories have not been registered), and, in turn, how these registration operations lead to new territorialization processes and increase the heterogeneity of land tenure rights within the territory.


En Afrique, la formation de droits fonciers coutumiers 'informels' est au coeur des politiques foncieres rurales contemporaines. L'impact discutable de ces politiques sur la production agricole, et les recompositions des droits et de la gouvernance foncieres qu'elles induisent, ont ete largement etudies. Mais leurs dimensions territoriales n'ont ete jusqu'ici que peu prises en compte. A partir de l'etude de la mise en ceuvre d'un projet de formalisation des droits fonciers ruraux dans le centre du Benin, cet article met en lumiere les liens entre territorialisation et formalisation des droits fonciers. II discute d'abord la notion de village et propose un cadre conceptuel pour analyser les superpositions et contradictions entre territoires coutumiers et administratifs. A partir de deux etudes de cas, il etudie ensuite les conflits qui ont scande les operations de formalisation et leurs impacts sur les leves parcellaires et les changements politiques et administratifs. Cet article montre que l'organisation politique du territoire et les inegalites socio-spatiales qui resultent de l'histoire du peuplement fa?onnent les resultats des operations de leve de parcelles (expliquant pourquoi de larges parts du territoire villageois n'ont pas pu etre enregistrees) et que ces operations induisent en retour de nouveaux processus de territorialisation qui accroissent l'heterogeneite des droits fonciers au sein des territoires.


Drawn from East, West, Central and Southern Africa, the case studies in this special issue build on several decades of important work on photography in Africa. That work has examined colonial photography and postcards, studio work from colonial times to the present, activist photography, photojournalism, and artists who work with photographic images. It has addressed issues of representation, portraiture, aesthetics, self-fashioning, identities, power and status, modernities and materiality, the roles of photographs in governance and everyday politics, and the many histories and modes of social practice around making, showing, viewing, exchanging, manipulating, reproducing, circulating and archiving photographic images. Yet these articles push such issues and topics in exciting directions by addressing new photographic circumstances emerging throughout the world, initiated through new media's technological shifts and possibilities. In Africa, this has fuelled a range of transformations over the last fifteen years or so, transformations that are still unfolding. As the articles show, digital images, mobile phone cameras and social media (also accessed via phone) constitute the potent triad that has set off these transformations.

The articles capture moments of change, adaptation, reinterpretation and social adjustment. Some happen quite quickly. George Agbo notes that mobile phones with cameras first spread in Nigeria in the mid-2000s, the same time Facebook and Flickr launched there, and Juliet Gilbert records major shifts in her Nigerian research area between 2010 and 2015. On the other hand, Richard Vokes uses a heavily photoshopped 2007 Ugandan billboard of Yoweri Museveni and Muammar Gaddafi to sketch a longer trajectory of governmental visual displays that imagine and embody futures amid political contestation. His analysis reminds us that the effects and implications of these new photographic circumstances emerge in relation to previous practices and histories and will continue to have an impact through social relationships and daily life, reshaping the expectations, meanings and practices that surround photographic images now and in the future.

The interlinked triad of digital images, pervasive camera phones and the rise of social media has led to critical shifts in the visual and political economies of photography, accentuating certain aspects and potentialities of photographic images and practice. The authors in this issue introduce new concepts to capture these novel developments, concepts with traction beyond the African cases presented. Thus we have notions such as the ubiquitous camera (Agbo), the archive of aspirations (Gilbert), the temporarily iconic (Graham), and the historic future tense (Vokes). It is no coincidence that many of these concepts reach for ways to talk about time, space and scale in photographic practice, aspects central to transformations that come with new media. Likewise, the part special issue's title, 'Photographies in Africa in the digital age', points to the imaginings, yet-to-be-defined possibilities and uncertain trajectories prefigured by current visual technologies and practice. These transformative trajectories involve the production of photographic images, the image/object itself, the diverse contexts and means of sharing and circulating images, the uses and work to which they are put, and other such aspects of photographic practice.

All the articles deal in some way with two fundamental results of the spread of mobile phone cameras and social media: the democratization of photographic production and the resulting proliferation and wide circulation of images. If earlier changes in photographic technology freed the camera from the studio, so that itinerant photographers could work anywhere, mobile phone cameras allowed anyone to be a photographer. This produces not only an enormous number of digital images, but also changes in the way in which people relate to the camera, as they become photographers as well as photographic subjects (Carrier). Further, they become curators, gathering images from other sources into the collections archived on their phones, and visual commentators, making satirical selfies in front of public images (Vokes) and expanding the political role of images through social media circulation (Agbo). In some cases, it is not just the proliferation of images that is striking, but their exaggerated size as well. The six-metre-high billboard that Vokes describes is only one example of how both the images and people depicted take on monumental roles. Graham, Carrier and Agbo all address facets of the proliferation and rapid circulation of digital images, whether facilitating communication across great distance for transnational and diasporic communities and researchers alike, allowing political activists to track election fraud as it happens, or dealing with the dangerous results of careless, ill-considered tweeting of a fraught image.

While everyone with a mobile phone can be a photographer now, professional photographers and studio portrait traditions persist and adapt in various ways. Not only are professional photographers still hired for special occasions, but some studios and commercial photographic printers now offer photoshop services and other ways to 'repair', airbrush or otherwise improve digital images (Gilbert). (1) Similarly, the aesthetics, expectations and spirit of studio photography portraits are very much alive in the playful 'studio-like' interactions and poses common in Goma, DRC (Graham) and the photographic semiotics of success and status noted in all the articles. But with the democratization of photographic production and the proliferation of images, portrait traditions have been elaborated even more. Gilbert describes how people develop personal poses and concept shots, suggesting stories that can be extrapolated from an image. Phone cameras allow practice shots to try these out and digital manipulation can take it further, incorporating fantasy locations and collages. Nwafor (2017) also describes the proliferation of images in Igbo funerals in Nigeria since digital images became common, now featuring elaborate image-filled funeral posters and brochures, and even life-sized renditions. In that situation, such concepts and stories are embedded in young-old image pairings on funeral posters and brochure photo spreads, defining a life and a family visually and performatively as photographs are danced.

These developments in photographic images and objects are examples from the domain of personal photography. Agbo, Vokes and Graham show how that intersects with political and journalistic domains. For instance, activists circulate critical images on Facebook that include politicians' personal images, and that may get picked up by newspapers and the police. And in Uganda, army posts might be established in particular places in part to dissuade citizens from making mocking photographs of the Museveni-Gaddafi billboard and other photoshopped national futures plastered across the landscape as the latest incarnation of administrative photography to inspire citizens. Graham shows how these intersections can be risky and contested when social media urges let journalistic ethics slip and the playful performance of portraits confronts realist documentary expectations.

Some articles also point to particular vulnerabilities of the digital image object, easily lost with a phone (Gilbert), ephemeral and transient in electronic and social media circulations. The proliferation of images and their speed of circulation raise the potential for images to become only 'temporarily iconic' (Graham) before disappearing into the image stream. Similarly, Auerbach (2017) comments on the way in which search algorithms create shifting associations and foreground different images over time, defining Angola through war images at one point, tourism scenes at another. Just as digital images can be manipulated with editing software, search results can be rejigged to some extent and will change over time. Digital images circulated on social media are also vulnerable to radical decontextualization, often associated with minimal textual grounding and open to reinterpretation and ambiguous recombinations.

Most of the authors consider social media's role as a prominent mode of sharing and circulating images today, although they focus on different platforms: WhatsApp (Carrier), Instagram and BlackBerry Messenger (Gilbert), Facebook (Agbo), and Twitter and Facebook (Graham), and mutual online observation across social networking sites and apps. They offer glimpses of how different sites and apps are viewed and used: for example, Facebook and Instagram are more public compared with the more personal messages on WhatsApp and BBM, and Facebook is the venue where community reactions and threats arose in response to the image tweeted from the DRC. Some people differentiate the quality and range of images they post on different platforms, being more deliberate about self-promoting aspects of more public profiles (Gilbert), while lower-quality images sometimes posted by activists might be taken as eyewitness verity (Agbo). Agbo tracks likes and comments on the activist sites of Nigeria, but otherwise the articles do not consider to any great extent the various ways in which such online commentaries or recirculations via retweetings and shares expand and transform the meanings of images by recontextualizing them in other social networks and biographies. Future work might examine such topics more closely--how people combine, differentiate and use different platforms in particular settings, for particular communicative goals, shaping particular social relationships. (2) At the same time, image circulation via social media has far greater potential reach and speed, allowing new circuits within visual economies (Agbo) and visual conversation and exchange across great distance--although infrastructural weaknesses may introduce odd interruptions and limit content. Different senses of timing, pacing and performativity have also emerged through the use of digital images, mobile phones and social media, modulating when and how images are created, shown, posted or withheld.

Infrastructure and access challenges are just some of the ways in which virtual image circulation and sharing connect and interact with 'real-world' circumstances (Gilbert, Graham, Agbo). Digital editing and manipulation of images themselves can create the ambiguous blurring of interpretive modes between 'real'/'documentary' and 'curated'/'constructed'/'fake' that was at issue in the case Graham describes, although Gilbert found only a few people concerned that photoshopping would 'over-beautify' or 'edit the soul' of photographic subjects. Digital images might also motivate actions, ranging from visiting shops to produce images of fashionable outfits (Carrier, Gilbert) to riots and court cases (Graham).

Some of the articles also consider new or adapted forms of offline, 'real-world' circulation, sharing and display and their associated social contexts, conventions and relations. Vokes, for instance, highlights the way in which fantastic future landscapes and projects appear on signs throughout Uganda. Gilbert's opening vignette of getting acquainted by viewing mobile phone images shows how album-viewing practices have shifted, no longer just physical albums shared in home visits or government offices (Vokes). As with material albums and visits, digital phone albums also offer occasions and resources for creating narratives of self. (3) As Gilbert notes, the phone as portable album is also a private but ephemeral archive (see also Carrier). Young people have clearly developed social protocols and expectations around such sharing, as well as around posting images online (for example, the decorum and respectability of delayed posts). Generational differences in such practices would be well worth exploring, as would home display practices in the new contexts of digital images.

The articles show both continuities and new developments in the practices surrounding albums and portraits, as digital images, mobile phones and social media take hold, as well as in the kinds of social work and play facilitated by photographs. Embedded in various situations of social interaction and communication, they continue to be resources for diverse modes of self-making, for working out and representing identities and biographical narratives, for claiming and proclaiming certain kinds of social status for the living, the dead, and for families, and for constituting and maintaining social relations and networks among family and peers. Carrier summarizes this as 'visual sociality'. But, as noted earlier, an expanded range of images is now included to create what might be called an 'image entourage' of people, objects, favoured celebrities, meaningful places and other screenshots, the curated combination creating a more layered and future-facing 'archive of aspirations' (Gilbert). Conducted in the flux of social media interaction and the universe of photoshopping, this can sometimes take on an air of self-promotion, arouse the suspicion that someone is showing a 'fake life', or foster the kind of social anxiety and pressure described by one of Gilbert's interlocutors that is elsewhere called 'fear of missing out' (FOMO) (Vedantaam 2017; Sapadin 2015).

At the same time, the vigilant attention supported by social media might also enhance commerce and trade networks through images (Carrier) or heighten a sense of citizen responsibility among activists by altering assumptions about who sees and watches whom (Agbo). Researchers' own relationships and the images others form of them have always been interactive and co-constructed, but the possible connections enabled through social media, the ubiquitous camera and digital images can both augment and complicate processes of knowledge production even as they diminish (if not quite erase) certain distinctions, hierarchies and distances (Carrier).

The democratization of photographic production, the proliferation and omnipresence of mobile phone cameras and images, the diversification of contexts and ways of sharing and using images, and the social worlds opened up, extended or reoriented through social media are significant transformations enabled by new media in the last fifteen years. (4) Through these developments, African photographic practices have become more deeply embedded in daily life and more common and consistent as a means for negotiating identities and relationships. This may be why, in part, Miller (2015; also cited in Carrier) identifies an orientation to the present in the use of social media photography, with the more immediate, conversational flow enabled by quick circulation and ubiquity.

That immediacy threads through these articles as well (Carrier, Graham, Agbo), yet they introduce caveats and complications that undercut any such neat characterization. When the present is precarious and uncertain, how do the practices around digital photography also capture, express, provoke or manage anxieties about the future (Gilbert, Agbo, Graham)? When the present demonstrates that past projected futures were fantasies, how does an affective shift from enthusiasm to anger and satire colour notions of the national past and current aspirations for the future (Vokes)? What ambiguities about past, present and future are introduced by photoshop airbrushing and unforeseen circulations, recirculations and responses on social media (Vokes, Gilbert, Graham, Agbo)? Past, present and future are all plural yet interwoven--personal past/present/ futures, family past/present/futures, national past/present/futures, and more. Through digital images and new media they are also bound up in particular ways with politics, claims and contestations of status and value, and both anxieties and optimisms.

These interweavings continue to emerge as Africa's photographic futures take shape and build on contemporary and past histories and photographic practices. Whatever digital images and new media ultimately bring and whatever other new technologies might be on the horizon for mass use (for example, virtual reality, social discovery, or other yet-to-be forms), their roles and meanings will have roots in the kinds of photographic circumstances, meanings and practices described in these articles. Further ethnographic work can help explore how digital images relate to other photographs and images in contemporary African contexts, how photographs and mobile phone cameras work as relational objects to help define other modes of social practice and meanings, and how differences of generation, region, education and gender inflect photographic practice and the transformations that Africa's photographic futures will bring.

doi: 10.1017/S0001972019000032


Auerbach, J. (2017) 'The selfie and the other: fieldwork and photographic equality'. Unpublished manuscript.

Behrend, H. (2003) 'Imagined journeys: the Likoni Ferry photographers of Mombasa, Kenya' in C. Pinney and N. Peterson (eds), Photography's Other Histories. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Behrend, H. (2013) Contesting Visibility: photographic practices on the East African coast. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Buckley, L. (2000) 'Self and accessory in Gambian studio photography', Visual Anthropology Review 16 (2): 71-91.

Buckley, L. (2006) 'Studio photography and the aesthetics of citizenship in the Gambia, West Africa' in E. Edwards, C. Gosden and R. Phillips (eds), Sensible Objects: colonialism, museums, and material culture. Oxford: Berg.

Graham, A. (2016) '"Take this picture": humanitarianism and the politics of photography in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo'. PhD thesis, Emory University.

Haney, E. (2010) Photography and Africa. London: Reaktion Books.

Kratz, C. A. (2012) 'Ceremonies, sitting rooms, and albums: how Okiek displayed photographs in the 1990s' in R. Vokes (ed.), Photography in Africa: ethnographic perspectives. Oxford: James Currey.

Miller, D. (2015) 'Photography in the age of Snapchat' in Anthropology and Photography. Volume 1. London: Royal Anthropological Institute.

Nwafor, O. (2017) 'The superfluous image: obituary photographs in south-eastern Nigeria and the allure of public visibility'. Unpublished manuscript.

Sapadin, L. (2015) 'Fear of missing out', PsychCentral < blog/archives/2015/10/12/fear-of-missing-out/>, accessed 31 May 2017.

Vedantaam, S. (2017) 'Why social media isn't always very social', NPR, 2 May <>, accessed 31 May 2017.

Vokes, R. (2008) 'On ancestral self-fashioning: photography in the time of AIDS', Visual Anthropology 21 (4): 345-63.

(1) See also Graham (2016: 108-10). Some effects of digital manipulation were prefigured in photomontage and collages, as described by Haney (2010: 84-9, 167-9).

(2) Miller's study (2015) of how British youth use social media photography shows the potential of tracing how different platforms are understood and used through time, with clear differences by gender and age and shifts as different online platforms became available.

(3) On pre-digital photo albums and other modes of display and how they figure in forging narratives of self and social relationships, see Behrend (2003; 2013), Buckley (2000; 2006), Kratz (2012) and Vokes (2008). Citations in Richard Vokes' introduction to this part special issue and in Miller (2015) provide an entry to the literature on digital photography and social media that has burgeoned within the last decade, where these questions are beginning to be considered.

(4) Some of these reorientations may also entail limited or closed access for some or decreased interaction and engagement for people and communities with limited access to mobile phones and social media. Some limitations may be associated with differences in age. wealth, education and literacy, and other factors.

Corinne A. Kratz is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Anthropology and African Studies at Emory University and a research affiliate at the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Museum of International Folk Art. Email:
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Title Annotation:Afterword
Author:Kratz, Corinne A.
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:May 1, 2019
Previous Article:Signs of development: photographic futurism and the politics of affect in Uganda.
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