Archive for May, 2010

Urban Africa – it’s not a jungle out there

May 26, 2010

Given my tendency for Afrilove I was really looking forward to going to see David Adjaye’s photographic journey of Urban Africa.

His aim: To photograph all 53 capital cities on the African continent.

His success: All except Mogadishu in Somalia.

His words: “I hope this project will make people look at people from Africa differently. Just because you come from New York doesn’t make you a more sophisticated city person than someone who is from Kigali.” True – and something more people should realise. Especially as according to a 2007 Monocle article, “Kigali is fast becoming East Africa’s communications hub.”

My thoughts:

By depicting everyday life, David’s photos are trying to normalise Africa. Showing that business, family life and making a living happens in Africa too. That it’s not all about giraffes walking lackadaisically across the African savannah against the backdrop of the setting sun.

I like the fact that his photos aren’t the brightly-coloured guide book classics of famous places and close-up faces. They show the gritty, raw reality of people’s lives, the cared-for and crumbling buildings, the huge billboards advertising western products, the rows of single-room family-run shops with hand-painted signs and wonderfully descriptive names, life unfolding on the streets and garish meccas to imported fast food culture.

Yet I had to look really closely to find this – and I’m a willing consumer of this kind of thing – and it left me with little emotional reaction.

If David Adjaye wants to change perceptions of Africa with this exhibition then I don’t think it will have been that successful. For a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the way the pictures were presented. In the main room (the third of three in the exhibition ) the photos – all 6×4 prints – were pasted on the wall in city clusters. They looked like a collection of holiday snaps without any of the famous landmarks or the holidayers posing in front of them. And they had little visual impact.

Secondly, the pictures lacked clear descriptions or a story to accompany them. You had to really want to stand there and stare closely at the pictures to actually see anything. And there was no direction as to where to start looking. You could easily get confused which city you were looking at.

A bit reminiscent of the red room from Twin Peaks – I half expected something surreal to happen.

I think it would have been far more powerful in challenging assumptions to:

> Have a couple of the photos for each city blown up big for people to stop and properly lose themselves in  – like the National Portrait Gallery does so well with its portrait award exhibition every year.

> Provide more information about the cities, the personality behind the places – and the experiences David Adjaye had in each place. Compared to David Beckham’s recent visit to Afghanistan and the attention that attracts to tell the story of a totally different place, this exhibition’s messaging is continents (if not poles) apart.

Urban Africa for anyone who hasn’t been to an African capital city isn’t so different to what you’d imagine. There are trees and parks, there are high office buildings and squatter settlements, there are roads and railways, there are markets and malls, there are traffic lights and the occasional roundabout (“keepy lefty” in Swahili!) and there are people, lots of them, going about their lives.

It’s not a jungle out there, but a diversity of places shaped by culture, religion and geography. If it doesn’t come to you, I recommend going and looking a bit more closely.

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Learning from lurgy

May 12, 2010

I spent yesterday lunchtime in the company of a group of ladies from the University of London Intercollegiate Luncheon Club. With most sentences beginning “In London in the 50s…” I lowered the average age quite considerably. It was great though! All of them have, or had as they’re now retired, medical careers in London hospitals and they get together every so often to have lunch and listen to an invited speaker. My godmother – a former theatre nurse and midwife – took me along as her guest. “In Mile End in the 50s” where she did home births it was the prostitutes who were the best source of local info she told me! Perhaps they still are.

Hookers aside, the lecture topic was very apt considering my imminent departure for South Africa: ‘A history of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)’ given by Professor Anne Johnson of UCL.

What really interests me about this is not the biology of disease (cause that’s far too complicated) but the spread of infection because of the behaviour of people and how that’s been influenced (or not) through campaigns over the 20th century. Also, seeing what behaviour change tactics have been used by public health campaigns compared to environmental messaging.

Saatchi’s Pregnant Man poster – their first famous ad that launched the agency in 1970 – is a striking image aimed at men to pointedly say “Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?” Nice. Simple. Good timing after the swinging sixties when STD rates increased. And now the name of Saatchi’s in-office pub in London. The model’s expression is pure Rodney Trotter in my opinion!

The pregnant man approach is in stark contrast with an earlier war time campaign aimed at troops let loose on R&R warning of unclean ‘good time girls’, that Prof Johnson talked about. Oh yes, good idea, blame the women! The campaign can’t have been effective as there was a surge in STD rates attributed to soldiers frequenting the ladies with the best local intel, even if they couldn’t understand what language they were speaking.

Then in the early 80s along came HIV. I don’t remember them, but Prof Johnson mentioned the AIDS Iceberg adverts with the straight and to the point strap “Don’t die of ignorance”. Pretty stark, but as Prof Johnson said, scare tactics do seem to work with these kinds of health issues. Possibly not the same for smoking campaigns though.

She heads up a research project surveying the sexual behaviour of the UK population and is often used as an expert to answer questions about STDs. I managed to get the following tidbits:

> One of the most effective ways of raising awareness of STDs in the UK was when someone on Eastenders got HIV. Soli at Futerra has been saying the same thing about normalising positive environmental behaviours like recycling for a long time.

> Peer education among young people has no negative effect on risky sexual behaviour (i.e. it doesn’t make them have more unprotected sex at an earlier age) although it wasn’t as successful at influencing a change in behaviour as they had hoped. Peer to peer influence in environmental campaigns is widely considered to be an effective approach – possibly because positive green behaviours are more public than intimate sexual experiences! And people are more influenced by what other people are doing than they realise they are, as evidenced by research reported in this Ecologist article.

> It’s a classic and communicators should know it well, but information alone will not change sexual health behaviour. The same goes for environmental campaigns.

> Scare tactics around sexual health risks do work. I guess as long as they are backed up with information, advice and support. Whereas, if you scare people with apocalyptic, world-ending doom and gloom imagery and scenario profiling it’s most likely to encourage them to bury their head in the sand and revel in ignorance.

I’d love to look more into the similarities/ differences/ lessons learnt from health and environmental behaviour change campaigns more… and perhaps will follow it up with some research. But if you’re interested, I can recommend checking out the work of Matchboxology on the South African government’s HIV/AIDS public behaviour change programme. And please do recommend any good reading on the matter.

It’s official though, there is definitely a lot more learning to be had from lurgy – like prostitutes, there’s intel behind people’s sexual health behaviour to be had!