The Man Behind the Lens: Travelling the continent with Nana Kofi Acquah

In the introduction to your project “Opusculum” you talk about how your soul dances with light and darkness, hope and pain, decadence and purity as you travel the continent. What do you make of these contradictions? Where do they stem from, in your opinion?

Africa is a tough terrain to travel on. You meet the kindest, most beautiful and hospitable people wherever you turn but quite often, these beautiful souls are surrounded by extreme levels of poverty. It is amazing to watch how well adapted they are. How content they are. How can anybody be so happy with so little? It’s always a wake up call when you travel through Africa and decide to engage with the peoples and cultures. Whereas the people themselves are often a source of hope, the heart breaks at their fragility also. Poor medical care, access to clean water is a challenge, pockets of political strife here and there; and you see so much suffering that can be solved with a little common sense, empathy and just a few dollars. People suffer unnecessarily, and that is a real shame.

What have you learnt from your travels as you memorialize people in their elements?

I have photographed presidents of nations and I have photographed paupers with no hope. I have learnt people are all the same. When you get to know someone, you forget their colour, age, gender, class, position. All those are artificial. People are just people. We all hurt. We all love. We all have fears. We all dream.

Do you see common threads in culture, economic or health structures and life in general as you travel? Do you see huge differences?

The single most common strands most Africans share is skin colour. We are more different than we look. In spite of colonialism’s attempt to unsuccessfully sum the continent up into French and English, we still are a continent of over a thousand languages. Each language represents different gods, different cultures, different belief systems, different diets and different political systems. Our diversity, in spite of its beauty, has also quite often, been our biggest weakness.  During the period of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, traders were often instructed to buy only a few slaves from each port so that they can’t plan revolts on the ships. We look alike but we hardly understand each other. This is still a challenge for Africa.

What is the role of photography in the development of the continent?

The camera was introduced to Africa by colonialists, who had their own agenda. A lot of the early photos made of the continent presented the African as savage, uncultured and primitive. Mission organisations, including the UN still love to present photos of malnourished African children overwhelmed with flies, in order to provoke sympathy and raise money these children will never see. These prevalent images have done great damage to the image of the African. I use photography as a tool to correct the misconception, start new conversations, to challenge perceptions and to present to the world, the true image of Africa.

Let’s expand on that, what is the role of the arts in the development of the continent?

Africa is yet to understand the power of the arts. In fact, a lot of governments on the continent are busy cutting budgets for arts education, and channelling the funds into science and business education. We need to understand that if we want to heal the sick, we must train doctors. If we want to build factories, we must train entrepreneurs but if we want to transform minds and souls, we must train artists. What will America be without Hollywood? How come every African child knows about London Bridge and Snow White? Show me a place in the world where they’ve never heard a Bob Marley song?

What is your view on the “Africa Rising” narrative? Does your experience from travelling across Africa support it?

Africa is indeed rising. In Nigeria, the country is rising at the speed of light. In Ghana it is at the speed of a duck. In some other places it is at the speed of a snail but one cannot deny the fact that the continent is rising.

In your view, where are the biggest opportunities for pan-African impact i.e. which industries or sectors? How do we harness the challenges and opportunities?

Africa is a continent of opportunities, wherever one turns. The continent has many problems and to the entrepreneur, every problem is a business opportunity. You can choose to invest in agriculture, mining, education, technology, construction, manufacturing, war, peace or whatever tickles your fancy and there will be room for growth. The single biggest challenge we face is the perception that everything that is made in Africa is of mediocre quality. Unfortunately, it is quite easy to justify that perception. I see great opportunities across the continent for those for whom world class quality is the only standard.

In this post on Instagram, you said that by breaking illiteracy, we can break the perpetual cycle of poverty that plagues Africa. You also often speak about education in your posts. Why is it so important to you? Also, apart from education how else do you think we can break cycle of poverty?

The only thing worse than illiteracy, is bad education. When a few wise people met and decided to end the world’s problems by 2015, their goal number two was to get every child in the classroom by 2015. Unfortunately, a lot of kids are still roaming around outside the classroom; and they actually might be better off than most of their colleagues in the classrooms. Poor quality education creates graduates who feel too proud to do blue colour jobs, but are actually not qualified for any job at all. Africa is infested with these kinds of people because schools are predominantly a function of colonial curricula that most of these children, and the teachers who teach them, cannot relate to. To truly break the cycle of poverty, we must ensure that our children are educated to be relevant adults in the societies they live in; then they can make intelligent decisions that will raise their communities out of poverty for good.

Adding on to that, you’re a photographer, a career that is very skill and talent driven. How has being educated expanded your reach or brought opportunities that may have otherwise been bypassed if you weren’t?

A lot of the times, it is not photographs people need. They need a problem solver. They need a story teller. They need a brand strategist. Clients often come to me asking for photographs, hoping that it will help them solve their problem. To them, it is just one more potion they are trying to help save their business. Being educated and well trained means I can listen to a client and professionally help them with the perfect solution they need, even if it’s not a photograph. Clicking the shutter is the least of all the things I get to do.

Please complete these phrases:

  • Lead the change means … Change begins with self
  • Africa rocks because … Its resources, especially intellectual resources are mostly untapped
  • ALU rocks because … It is raising the perfect leaders for the most promising continent.

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