Redirecting the Western eye

The photos of the Majority World exhibition, organised and hosted by Dubai’s Gulf Photo Plus, are debunking Western perceptions of the East

While the act of taking a photograph can be over in seconds, what lies behind the images we see in the media is a lifetime of accumulated social, political and cultural knowledge. In short, how and what photographers take pictures of is unavoidably informed by the way they interpret the world around them.

“Even in the 21st century, Africa is still viewed by westerners as a ‘Hopeless Continent’,” says South African photographer Neo Ntsoma. “Poverty, famine, darkness, corruption and tribal wars are still the only thoughts one would have when gazing at images associated with Africa in most western media.”

Ntsoma is one of five international photographers showing in the Majority World exhibition, organised and hosted by Dubai’s Gulf Photo Plus. While all hail from different countries and their work is hugely different – from Dominic Sansoni’s documentary street photography in Sri Lanka to Shadi Ghadirian’s exploration of the role of women in modern Iran – they are linked by their non-western origins. They also share the same photo agency – the Majority World of the exhibition’s title, which exclusively works with photographers from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Nhlanhla Nciza
One of Ntsoma's most striking portraits is of Nhlanhla Nciza, a member of the Afro- Pop duo Mafikizolo

Set up in 2004 by Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam, Majority World – the term Alam uses to describe the regions the agency represents – supports and promotes photographers while also challenging western perceptions. Describing the work in the Dubai show, Alam says: “Collectively they provide a more complex, nuanced and sensitive reading of their society and question the media’s penchant for oversimplification.”

Alam believes that most mainstream photography props up a particular worldview that is hugely detrimental to the majority of the planet. Born out of the success of long-established Drik picture library in Bangladesh, he has big ambitions for Majority World: “We hope to overturn the western hegemony in global visual media.”

For Ntsoma, Majority World has been a hugely positive force in her career. But, she says, there is plenty more untapped talent still struggling to get work from international agencies. “We need more agencies to promote and nurture these talents. A lot of photographers in these regions still battle to find paid assignments mainly due to the influx of foreign photographers assigned by international photo agencies.”

Even in the 21st century, Africa is still viewed by westerners as a ‘Hopeless Continent’

Neo Ntsoma, South African photographer

As for her own photographs, Ntsoma predominantly works in portraiture and has a strong interest in the fashion and music culture of South Africa. In Dubai, she’ll be showing pictures from her Generation of Change series, which focuses on the new stars of the country, including the Afropop singer Nhlanhla Nciza of the group Mafikizolo. While on the surface this might sound like rather light, even trivial, subject matter, Ntsoma – who grew up under apartheid – considers her work to be charged with cultural significance.

Crucial to the photographs, she believes, is the fact that it is a black South African woman behind the lens. “Their story is my story,” she says. “Together we share a common historical journey.”

The Majority World exhibition is at Gulf Photo Plus, Dubai, 15 September – 25 October. On 16 September, Neo Ntsoma will be joined by Shahidul Alam and Khaled Hasan for a free talk and discussion.