African cities are complex. They are overcrowded and chaotic cities, lacking good infrastructure, that to a large extent have grown out of their peripheries without planning. For many of the city’s inhabitants life happens on the streets. Public and private are intermingled. A sidewalk often also functions as a store. A traffic jam means stoppage to some, while to others it means work. To a greater or lesser extent African cities are marked by their colonial histories, informal structures, bad governance and large social inequality. Belgian anthropologist Filip De Boeck, who did research in Kinshasa, talks about the “invisible city”. On the one hand he means the lack of attention to and establishment of a certain image about the African city, on the other hand the invisible urban patterns and networks that arise mostly informally. Theories about the African city expanded enormously in the last decade. By using western models in the analysis of African cities, one jumps to the conclusion that they must be dysfunctional. This conclusion does not provide for answers about how these cities actually do function. These are cities in which millions of people live their daily life, giving rise to urban cultures different from the ones with which we are familiar.
In my project Africa Junctions – Capturing the City I show the African city and its developments by focusing on the everyday street scenes of the city. I walk through African cities and notice the chaos of the fragmented, segregated and hectic cities, but first and foremost I notice the everyday life that takes place amidst this overwhelming bustle.
The ‘commonplace’ remains my point of departure in my constructed images. Within an African context this proves to be a deviating view. In most documentaries about Johannesburg we see armed robberies. In Lagos ‘area-boys’ run the show. It is true, but it is part of a larger context that remains largely unseen. Apparently the quotidian is not fascinating enough. I choose for a panorama image of the city. From Vinex, central business district up to the slums. In these different areas I look at street life and the urban space. I ‘de-dramatise’ the image.
Since beginning my work in African cities, I ask myself new questions about the term ‘documentary photography’. In this project I started seeing my role as a documentarian and as storyteller, as documentary photographer and as an artist. The story about the commonplace in African cities is capable of surprising us. It can touch us through the otherness of its urban culture and its multifaceted complexity. It can give us an idea about a possible future for our own cities, because globalization, crisis and our aging populations will undermine our securities in the future. What kind of urban development is awaiting us?