I’m coming late to this because I’ve been away but…
The Kony 2012 project is a film that ‘seeks to make Joseph Kony famous’ and in doing so, expose his deeds to a wider world. All very laudable but the entire thing makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Certainly, exposure for such dreadful stories are generally to be welcomed however this enterprise bears all the hallmarks of an emotionally manipulative Hollywood fantasy that a crazed warlord just appeared from nowhere. I’m all for people changing the world but perhaps we might have prequel (I’m not sure that’s a word either) explaining exactly how something as awful as Kony came about. Perhaps we might talk about how Kony fits into the post-Amin world of Acholi politics (Kony’s early pronouncements on Museveni and his ‘Tutsi empire’); we might talk about disengagement in American Foreign policy in the nineties in Africa shaped in part by the New Barbarism thesis. We might talk about the allegation that the Ugandan security forces had an incentive to keep the war going to keep themselves in power. We might also talk about how the discovery of potentially billions of dollars worth of oil has made (especially) the US sit up and look at how the situation might be pacified.
Crucially we might try and work out why the film makers are doing this now when in fact the LRA aren’t currently operating in Northern Uganda. A cursory glance at the African and NGO press show that people who have worked in Northern Uganda on development and reconstruction are generally surprised; this story has moved on (and that’s not to deny the suffering involved). Not only that, they are arguing that efforts should be made to rebuild and that rather than these children being ‘invisible’, they are, certainly to people like Glenna Gordon (the author of the notorious and extraordinary photograph of Russel, Poole and Bailey holding weapons) and others who knows the situation, ‘pretty visible’. It is certainly true that this story was difficult to place in the mainstream media – although that didn’t stop a stream of Western photographers in the early 2000′s going and photographing the ‘night commuters’ as the children were called. In that respect the film certainly manages to circumvent traditional media outlets that wouldn’t want poor African kids getting in the way of their advertising. My point though is that if you want to defeat something, you have to understand it. And that is where this film, devoid of a good deal of context and seen through the distorting sentimental prism of a well meaning white film maker and his child (At 07:35 the white narrator says that ‘we are going to stop them’) falls down very badly indeed.
Something strikes me as deeply patronising in portraying this as a fight between good and evil. I spent a few years in Africa in the late 1990′s trying to make the point that the perpetrators of disgusting violence in the guise of child soldiers – were as much sinned against as sinning. An attempt – however flawed – to expose the mental landscape/legacy of exactly these situations of Post Colonial devastation that led to the rise of people like Kony and Taylor and Sankoh rushing in to fill a space that the State could not (or didn’t want to) hold.
I’m sad to relay to those people urging others to be ‘awesome’ and blindly support this campaign that if we blunder in, as well meaning as we might be, we might just make this situation worse. If a generation of American youth think that by capturing Kony and giving him up to the Hague, we can sort this out they are very much mistaken. Doesn’t that sound like the warnings that we were fed about the ‘madmen’ Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden? And didn’t that turn out well? Kony is clearly a product of the political situation in Post Independence Africa. You deal with that by dealing with the ramifications of poverty, politics and corruption. If you take away the justifications for Kony, you take away his legitimacy and his means of survival. And no, that isn’t as sexy and as easily reduceable to sound-bite length for the YouTube generation – but maybe that means the YouTube generation is the one that needs to remove itself from the tit of ‘info-tainment’ and decontextualised explanations. Ugandans aren’t stupid – they aren’t waiting for the White man to come and save them – they are, against very great odds trying to save themselves. They just need the tools to do that without people either exploiting their country or their situation.
As I sit packing in Delhi waiting to go to the South on a story, a good friend, Martin Beddall emails me about a programme (‘Overexposed’) he was interviewed for on BBC Radio a while ago. Martin was a postgraduate student on the photojournalism course at the (then) London College of Printing nearly twenty years ago. Another former student, Miles Warde has retraced the fate of some former classmates. As the BBC has it:
“Miles Warde presents the story of a group of photojournalists who set out to witness world events. They went to Yugoslavia, Angola, Chechnya, Gaza and Iraq. Two of them were shot dead. A compelling portrait of youthful ambition and the power of photography to change the world”.
The programme, originally broadcast on Monday 25 Jan 2010 is available on BBC iPlayer for another week.
Although I wasn’t a student on the course, I was around the same time finding my feet and as I’ve written previously, was friends with and worked alongside two photographers, Paul Jenks and James Miller who were both subsequently killed.
An odd feeling listening: my friend Gary Calton is featured as well and his and Martin’s comments ring very true. As a generation we seemed to have wanted to change the world. Was it because we had come through the politics-stained 1970′s that were in turn coloured by the 1960′s? I don’t know but I sense something now has changed. The myth of the great days of the magazine photographer has been exposed. There are no great magazines left to run work: TV, video and now the internet has won. We live in a more cynical age and we are all a little older, if not a little wiser.Many of us are struggling to find a way to say the things that still need saying. Perhaps it will not be through photography.
And the world needs changing more than ever…