Finding An Accurate Picture Of Africa

Posted on 12/15/2014 by Margi Sherad | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Margi Sheard of the Greatstock ( agency in South Africa recently published a story that raised an important issue about the world’s perception of Africa and the African people. The news media’s focus on tragedy and problems often provides an inaccurate picture of the real Africa, but it raises the issue of whether there is any way for photographers to do more to show the world the real Africa of the 21st century.

Perpetuating African Stereotypes

Margi Sheard
    The way Africa is depicted in mainstream media is constantly criticized — and for good reason. Far too often, the varied and diverse lives of people on this vast continent are simplified to the point of being represented as a single story or image that matches existing preconceptions.

    Stock photography and footage are one of the major culprits in the over-simplification of the African reality. As a South African company operating in this industry, visual solutions company Greatstock is acutely aware of the pervasive narratives that feed the constant demand for the same type of “African” content.

    A simple Google image search for “Africa” or “African people” confirms the very worst of society’s patronizing stereotypes. Going on the results alone, you would be forgiven for thinking that Africa can be reduced to stunning scenery and wildlife on the one hand and poverty and despair—with the occasional group of white people enjoying Cape Town—on the other.

    The “African people” image results even suggest refining the search to “dancing,” “poor,” “happy” or “starving,” because those are the most common characteristics the rest of the world seems to ascribe to Africans.

    While not fabricated, the images of struggle and poverty in Africa have been distorted through their overuse, perpetuating the idea that there can be no other African reality.

    In “Rewriting Africa”, a scathing parody of the dominant African narrative, renowned author Binayavanga Wainaina defines “taboo” subjects when it comes to talking about Africa as ordinary domestic scenes, references to African writers or intellectuals, and mention of school-going children who are not suffering from Ebola.

    “Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances,” writes Wainaina.

    Stock stereotypes

    There are two very clear extremes when it comes to the visual representation of Africans in the realm of stock imagery. There are either images of starving people and children in abject poverty or there are highly posed pictures of African-Americans trying to pass off as being representative of Africans.

    There is a complete dearth of the “everyday” content that truly reflects African life—and life in each of Africa’s very unique, diverse countries. It’s a conversation that the industry as a whole needs to have with itself and its clients, because we are ultimately the ones who either perpetuate or counter the stereotypes in the content we put out into the world.

My Additional Observations

Africa today has a very diverse mix of cultures, a burgeoning middle class, and modern industry. Many African countries have consistently posted GDP growth in excess of 5% for several consecutive years, and have vibrant societies.

To get a sense of the new Africa check out Greatstock ( and search the aFRIKA collection. Greatstock represents many collections from the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world, but Greatstock’s African clients see many of these images as lacking authenticity. As a result Greatstock has expended a great deal of effort in creating, and constantly adding to, its aFRIKA collection, which has been widely praised by clients across the continent.
Of course the news media is often filled with images of poverty, ravages of war etc. and this is clearly a scourge that is still regrettably part of the African landscape.  aFRICA collection images largely portray middle-class settings and may provide a more realistic picture of the continent.

While the aFRICA collection is largely from Southern Africa, it does contain image content (stills and footage) from many other parts of the continent where the growing confidence and progress is clearly discernible. Even poor people in Africa increasingly have access to devices like internet-capable mobile phones, and this promises to bring new markets.

There is always the question of whether the market would use the images if photographers produced them. In order to survive self-employed photographers are usually forced to produce what the market will buy. An important question to consider is whether, in this changing technological society, there a better way to present information that gives an accurate picture of today’s realities, rather than reinforcing age old stereotypes, and generates enough revenue to support the photographers and writers who produce it?

Copyright © 2014 Margi Sherad. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz


  • Staysean Daley Posted Jun 11, 2016
    Is there a contact info for Margi Sherad you could share? I have a Caribbean stock photo company that aims to change the stereotype of Jamaica and Caribbean region and essential we are Africans and would love to have a chat with her. If you could facilitate I would appreciate it.
    One love

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