“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?