Africans in Guangzhou photography

[Photography / documentary] Some thoughts on Daniel Traub’s ‘Little North Road 小北路’ project

‘Xiaobeilu’ is a photographic and film project that explores ‘the social life and economies of a pedestrian bridge in Guangzhou that functions as a symbolic gateway into China from Africa and the Global South’. Daniel Traub, a photographer and ‘curator’ of this project, is a half-Chinese American who lived in China for several years. In 2009, Traub met two souvenir photographers that were working on a bridge in the area of Xiaobei, in downtown Guangzhou – the area that has come to be know as the ‘Chocolate City’ or, more recently, ‘Little Africa’. The two photographers -internal (transprovincial) migrants themselves- were offering A4-size prints to foreigners passing by, and had the most success with Africans who would buy the photographs as souvenirs of their time in China.

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When Traub saw this, he sensed that what the photographers were doing was creating a visual archive of a significant moment in the history between China and Africa. So, he convinced the photographers to collaborate with him and create an archive – from where Traub’s curatorial/photographic project emerges.

I met one of the photographers (Zeng) long time before I knew of Traub’s project. As a researcher doing ethnographic work in the neighbourhood, I was very interested in different types of exchanges between Chinese and foreign individuals; and when I came across the photographers on the bridge, I thought something similar to what Traub describes. I thought of the photographs as material evidence of the kinds of exchanges that I was trying to investigate. I befriended Zeng, and explained to him that I was working in a university, and that I was interested in African presence in the region, and I got some 80 pictures from him – he carefully chose the pictures so as to not give me any recent photos (i.e. of people actually living in the neighbourhood at that time), they were all from two or three years back (see image above).

Around a year after I met Zeng, he told me that an American photographer (Traub) had also asked for his pictures and that Traub would  take them to the US – I was a little suspicious. Zeng always spoke about the pictures as ‘his’ pictures, so he had a sense of ownership. Later he told me that the pictures would be in an exhibition in the US and possibly in a book. When I asked him about what he felt about having an American photographer taking his pictures to the US and publishing a book, he explained that he was not so sure about the whole process but that he was very happy to have his pictures shown in an exhibition. At that point, he gave me the impression that he was thinking of himself as a photographer – one that had had his pictures exhibited internationally.

In the video below, you can see Traub’s recording of Zeng’s activities on the bridge:

The project has so far generated very exciting (and sometimes acidic) discussions around issues of representation, law & rights (authorship / property rights); the complex histories of portraiture in Africa’s colonial past and post-colonial present; the tensions between the private (and intimate) and the public; and the ethics of opening to the (global) public an archive of souvenirs that were intended to be mere personal mementos.*

What are the laws, rights and ethics that apply for a project such as Traub’s? Think about this: Africans (from all over the continent) buy photographs of themselves in an informal exchange in China, in a public space (the street). Chinese internal migrants/photographers get involved with a half-Chinese photographer from (and based) in New York and use the photographs (over which the Chinese photographers have (technically) ownership) to create a visual project of the ‘social life and economies’ of the area. The American photographer thinks of the photos as visual/material evidence of an exciting historical moment that needs to be preserved, and uploads the pictures to a website. The reception (and critique) of the project becomes ‘global’. The small proceeds coming out of the project have been split. Who’s responsible for publicising the images? The photographers, the curator, all? Zeng has consented to the publication of the book containing his photos – it will be published by a Germany-based publishing house for the American and European markets. <– goddam!!! This is such a transnational i-m-b-r-o-g-l-i-o! Isn’t it?

What type of (transnational) financial relationship is this? How to think of authorship (and property rights (or any kind of right)) in these exchanges? Which laws apply here? Chinese, German, transnational (if any)? What ethical standards can be applied here? German? Eurocentric? Chinese? Global? ‘African’? ‘Western’? Igbo ethics? Academic research standards? Art ethics? Are the internal migrants artists, btw? How to understand their intentionality?

Some other thoughts that keep coming back to my mind when I think of Traub’s project are: Is this an artistic project? Who (and how) decides this? Is this a social documentary? Is this a sociological project? Is this journalism? Who owns these photographs? How should the project be analysed, and most importantly, criticised? Should it be banned – should the publisher retract from publishing? Or should we openly discuss this? Also: how would I feel if my photo appeared in a book without my consent? Would I be outraged? Not so sure… (I’m also a post-colonial/colonised (whatever!) subject (i.e. people that look like me are sometimes exoticised in Nat Geo and the likes, so I think I know what I mean by being or not being outraged). What to do (or how to deal) with the residual colonial gaze in contemporary global (visual) culture? Finally, since I don’t have the consent of the ‘subjects’, should I stop taking pictures of strangers for my Instagram? Somebody is definitely profiting from my instagrams (and we all know who!), don’t be naive! 🙂

So, maybe Traub should do this?:

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Anyway, this is not over yet and there will be further discussions on this. Meanwhile, listen to Traub, Wazhmah Osman and Aaron Levy discussing the project and it’s ‘problematic ethics’

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Finally, academically, those of us interested in #SinoAfrica should start discussing seriously what do we mean by ‘ethics’ within the transnational/transcultural spaces of China Africa relations. How to ‘triangulate’ (or ‘quadrangulate’ 🙂 ) this? ‘Decolonial’ ethics? Roundtables? Comments below?

*In terms of debates around ethics and the private & public see also these photographic projects: Beijing Silvermine, and The Taliban Artbooks

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