African Women and Wildlife

Lamide Akinsanya

“The women said I could.” That was the claim of the London, UK,  Hoopers photographic gallery owner. Roger Hooper’s voyeuristic exhibits show that he takes pleasure in photographing naked African women in Namibia and placing them next to photos of cheetahs, elephants and other wild beasts.


Hooper is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and supporter of the World Wild Life Fund (WWF), who says his work is dedicated to the protection of endangered species. But just who was there to  protect the naked African women put on display at the ‘Living Africa’ exhibition in London’s Clerkenwell last month? The WWF, who proclaim themselves to be for ‘a living planet’, ordained the nakedness of these hapless Black women to be gratuitously put on show by backing Hooper’s photography as official sponsor.

Yet the spectacle seriously diminished the self-respect and dignity of the female subjects. No one would deny Hooper’s love for his chosen job. But it is highly unjustified for him to demean any aspect of nature including rural African women. The WWF famously acts against exploitation in the wild. But, on this occasion, they appear to have overlooked their laudable mission in return for the money from the sale of Hooper’s photos which he promised to donate to the organisation.

Hooper poses as a caring charitable man who wants to help. But for me, as an African woman, he is nothing but a voyeur masquerading as an artist. He is living out his fantasies through the lens of his camera. He demurs: “My photographs aim to provide a glimpse of the beauty that exists in the world and we should do all we can to protect it.” Yet, to my mind, he is doing nothing to protect the naked breasts he is photographing.

Cultural critic and journalist, Janet Momo, has highlighted similar issues, in a celebrated magazine feature she wrote about Black women who are used as sexual symbols. It was published in the Black Media Journal in April 2000 and is just as relevant today. Momo exposed the degradation and exploitation of Black women and the use of their naked pictures by white men to depict them as the “noble savage”.

Said Momo: “There are many examples of Black women made to believe it is mandatory for them to reveal their nakedness to be noticed or listened to. Individuals subjected to this, include the likes of super model Naomi Campbell and singer Grace Jones; both of whose modelling careers were steered towards pornography in the end, despite their fame."

Back to Hooper. After returning from his seedy photographic trip to Africa, where is he now? In his gallery surrounded by ignorant snobbish aristocrats of “culture” like himself, who are applauding him? “This man is a genius,” trumpeted Robert Napier, the Chief Executive of the WWF. Such a comment from its boss exposes the WWF as false organisation acting on the promise of stopping the destruction of the wildlife of the planet.

But I am made to believe it is in fact working as a cynical business that has been established in partnership with Hooper. He has done nothing but feed his fetish for Black females.  His planned journey out of the Windhoek capital city of Namibia into the rural areas was in search of the poverty stricken tribes of 20 to 30 people, who live a solitarily existence, in huts and walk around in the nude because they have to.

Vulnerable to a wealthy white man with ready cash, they are in no position to refuse. In Africa, he was on the look out for crypto-pornographic images.

His Himba Girl is a portrait of a young naked girl who has barely reached puberty, so her body is undeveloped. Hooper’s image has exposed the girl’s newly grown breasts; he is fantasising over her pristine parts. The girl has no toiletries to wash with; her hair is glued together to look neat, but she has no comb. Another humiliating picture from Hooper’s collection is called Himba Craft Seller. It depicts an old, frail Namibian woman, whose breakable body and languorous breasts offer a very vivid sight.

I felt sick to think that this exhausted, sedentary elder, who is certainly seasoned enough to be Hooper’s mother, has been reduced to such a demoralising visual state. Would Hooper allow naked pictures of his mother to be displayed in a gallery in Africa, to be ogled at?

In a pathetic attempt to use his matrimonial union to a Black woman as a fig leaf, Hooper told me: “My wife is African.” He thinks all Black women are from Africa. He feigns to be unaware of the motherland of his dear wife who informed this writer that she is from Barbados, though clearly she was of African descent. Mrs Hooper was adorned with expensive jewellery; the glittering spoils of her husband’s work.

No woman should be put through the degradation of having to expose her nakedness unless she actively consents to it. In the western world such exploitative activities are unlawful and would surely raise controversy and penalties. So, why should Hooper's action be seen to be normal in Africa? And why should an English man who travels with his camera to my great continent, breaking the law of his own country, be allowed to photograph naked, vulnerable African women without criticism or penalty?
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14 Responses to "African Women and Wildlife"

Chrishosein

Sat, 01/28/2006 - 17:51
I agree, it was truly disgraceful to see the expolitation of these hunble women. I was also present at this exhibition, it is funny, how no one was paying any attention to the art. They were all too busy talking about them selves.
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admin

Tue, 02/21/2006 - 15:59
In an attempt to see both sides objectively, I accept Hooper took those pictures with the womens' consent - whether implied or expressly. I also perceive that he took those picture with the intention to display them as an "art form" (nudity has long ago being considered so - whether or not we all agree). Africa is a continent rich with art, culture, music, in diverse varieties, and African women make a huge part of that. Yet this pictures do not convey that image. As an African woman, it is perfectly understandable why most African women would object to this pictures. Despite, its intention, i cannot help but be concerned by the perception it conveys on African women. It would have been more of an "art form" if Hooper showed the African woman in all dimensions - rather than through nudity. Surely, that does not portray all of an African Woman's attributes?

lamidea

Tue, 01/31/2006 - 18:01
It was very undignified and highly humiliating to see the body of black women exposed and put on show beside wild animals, in a respected exhibition gallery in the City of London. 

Gary Roberts

Tue, 01/31/2006 - 23:14
This is clearly a contentious issue that has strong arguments coming from&nbsp;both sides of the 'struggle'. What is also clear is that African women are offended by the exploits of the photographer. But should Hooper be a scape goat for what is essentially a worldwide issue? Far from pioneering photographs of semi-naked subjects, Hooper is&nbsp;dealing in&nbsp;a well documented and widely participated act.<br /><br />Perhaps it is the fact that Hooper sells said photographs for money - a transaction in which the African subjects play no part and from which they gain no reward. It certainly isn't the moral issue of snapping naked women in itself that is a problem here. One click on an Internet search engine will reveal endless shots of similarly posed women but curiously, far fewer critiques of the photographers' principles.

lamidea

Wed, 02/01/2006 - 11:16
It is certainly a worldwide issue, so is pornography and prostitution, but that does not make it right.&nbsp; There are specific places to go&nbsp;and see nude women,&nbsp;who are normally present to expose themselves, not pictures taken on their behalf.&nbsp; It is unfortunate that you feel Hooper is being used as a scape goat, but that seems to be&nbsp;your only concern, you&nbsp;fail to see the indecency and downgrading of the women pictured.&nbsp;&nbsp;How many exhibitions have you been to, where you have freely seen&nbsp;naked women on show, for over a month?&nbsp; In Hollywood, celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt&nbsp;have sued the press for taking and using unauthorised nude photos of them.&nbsp; Whether you choose to accept it or not, it is wrong to take nude pictures of any women or man&nbsp;without their consent and full understanding of what the images will be used for.&nbsp; So let us not become ignorant to imorality because it is not directly related to us.

Paul

Sat, 02/04/2006 - 01:26
<em><p>Surely the&nbsp;operative word in your claim is &quot;unauthorised&quot;. You seem to have based a large proportion of your argument on the premise that the pictures were taken without consent, which you can neither prove nor disprove without actually asking the African women involved.</p><p>Why is it that you seem to have taken such a negative perspective on Hooper's exhibition? Surely if the African women shared your view on the naked body, they would dress accordingly. In order for Hooper to illustrate their culture he was required to show African life in its true form. Wouldn't it be wrong to make them wear Western clothes? I'm sure that would be much more offensive to the African women.</p></em>

Paul

Sat, 02/25/2006 - 20:03
<p>I fear you have misunderstood my point. In fact nakedness <em>is&nbsp;</em>quite clearly a true form of African life, certainly not for all, but for those photographed it is and for Hooper not to show this would be offensive also. <br />As for your statement &quot;it's exploitation, plain and simple&quot; this is an assertion based on no real facts as you have no idea that the women involved are actually being exploited as you do not and can not know whether or not Hooper sought their permission prior to taking, and later exhibiting, the pictures he took. </p><p>The suggestion that they would shop at Zara and Topshop had they the money is also offensive, as should you care to research African dress within the general populace it is a far cry from Western fashion. Do you see how the things people say and do can be misunderstood and/or misinterpreted by differing audiences out of context? Do you not think that Hooper's work is being judged unfairly? Those with no real knowledge of his work are criticising him prematurely, automatically condemning him as exploitative. </p><p>Personally I sit on the fence as I have no idea whether or not he asked for permission, so rather than make brash criticisms I choose to take his work at face value and assume that he <em>was</em> ethical enough to<em> </em>seek permission.</p>
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admin

Wed, 02/01/2006 - 16:59
I agree, we should not stand for this. For years now, African women have been depicted in very similar ways. You also find this in documentaries concerned with African issues. Image leave a lasting impression on the mind. I wish photographers would celebrate the image of African woman in more honourable roles eg an older woman farming, cooking, fetching water rather than balancing the water on her head. Also, the Afican women are very talented in the arts and crafts department. Most of the equipment they use is handmade. What about that?

Gary Roberts

Thu, 02/02/2006 - 23:33
I am sure even without the need to check that there is as much positive representation of African women as there is negative.&nbsp;The key is&nbsp;knowing where to look for it. Hooper's exhibition is a drop in the ocean within the category of photography, quite apart from television, literature etc.<br /><br />I am sympathetic to the issues that this article's author and her&nbsp;peers have raised. But I think we need to be explicitly aware of Hooper's intentions before we can criticise him with a weighty enough&nbsp;attack. After all, it is very easy to scrutinise the&nbsp;actions of an undesirable by questionning his or her moral standards. It is harder to do that when we take the time to digest his full and relevant&nbsp;defence.

Jemma Tipping

Thu, 02/02/2006 - 13:07
<p>How can you be completely sure that the women in the photographs did not give their permission for the photographs to be taken? They may have consented and may even have been paid in some way.&nbsp; As you state yourself Hooper asserts that he was given permission by the women to take the photographs.</p><p>Having seen the exhibition myself I believe Hooper's main concern was capturing the wildlife in their natural environment.&nbsp; In order to depict the natural African setting he included pictures of the local people.&nbsp; The fact that they are naked is a reflection of the society in which they live.</p><p>To say that Hooper is &quot;fantasising over&quot; the pictures seems a bit presumptuous and unfounded.</p>
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admin

Thu, 02/02/2006 - 15:05
As an african woman, I am very proud of my heritage and culture. I am also an artist, so I appreciate the expression of life in the form of photograpy. I understand that Hooper was trying to capture the natural state of rural women in the remote areas of Namibia, but why is it that this kind of potrayals seem to be always depicte? Why are African women always seen in this way? I am not oblivisious to the fact, that people actually live unclothed in some parts of the continent. But what ever happen to dignified portrayals of these vulnerable women? The picture of the craft seller: was it necessary to see her nakedness, when she had something much more to offer, like her skill? A comment was made about these women possibly excepting payment. Well I put this to Jemma: the picture of the girl still in puberty - would she have clearly known what she was doing and have accepted money for it?

lamidea

Thu, 02/02/2006 - 17:07
<p>Hooper claimed the women said he could, but where is the evidence?&nbsp; He provided no&nbsp;substantial or written confirmation any where, to clarify this.&nbsp; &quot;They may have, or may even have&quot; appears in your arguments, but no factual evidence to support what they may have done, admits his claims are false.&nbsp; I await proof that the women&nbsp;gave<strong> </strong>thier permission, or that&nbsp; they knew thier nude pictures were exhibited, for over a month, and priced at hundred's of pounds.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; </p><p>I am not sure the issue at hand is fully understood.&nbsp; Is it right to exhibit nude pictures of any&nbsp;person in a&nbsp;public&nbsp;exhibition gallery or anywhere else,&nbsp;without thier consent?&nbsp; It is demeaning enough to have seen the&nbsp;photos exhibited beside wild animals, which is surprisingly, not concerning.&nbsp;They do not live in harmony with cheetahs, and other wild beasts, as it was depicted, to give a wrong impression of how Africans live.&nbsp; &quot;The natural African setting,&quot; as you describe it, &nbsp;is not similar to one of Tarzan's movies, where&nbsp;he lives in partnership with wildlife.&nbsp; Do you&nbsp;believe these women would refuse to accept clothes, if they were given them?&nbsp; </p>

bauhaus

Tue, 05/15/2007 - 13:49
ban the book! burn the witch! declare a fatwah! nudity = sex = evil!&nbsp;  beauty is a disguise for Satan!&nbsp;  Let&#39;s impose our superior morality on the rest of the world before it&#39;s too late!

andreea123

Tue, 08/05/2008 - 11:28
<p>This idea seems wonderful to me. If I were in his places I would so find it great to take such pictures.</p><br />