Wildlife film, literature and photography in Africa, 1945-1980
Guest: William Beinart, Emeritus Professor, St Anthony’s College, University of Oxford
Wildlife literature, photography, and film on Africa has long been popular in Western countries and beyond. Academic literature on visual representations of Africa discusses how the camera has colonized and possessed African people, nature, and places. James Ryan and Paul Landau have, for example, developed the analogy of shooting with camera and rifle, comparing the power dynamics at work. This paper draws from a book in progress and article (with Katie McKeown) about some of the key film-makers and photographers operating largely in East Africa from 1945 to 1980. We look across books, feature and documentary film, as well as photography, to expand interpretations of the media being shown and published on African wildlife and their social context. We aim to understand such productions in the context of complex and changing power relationships rather than to focus simply on their imperial and neocolonial dimensions. Visual images included universalist ideas and approaches that in part grew out of scientific concerns. Literature and film found resonance with popular audiences and helped to shape new attitudes and approaches to animals. We suggest that these media representations were a significant, and neglected, element of modern environmentalism. At my boldest, I am arguing that the Born Free saga, in which Joy and George Adamson were central as writers, producers of images, and subjects of film, made an impact on the routes of modern environmentalism equal to that of Rachel Carson – and that their ideas were generated in the moment of political transition in late colonial and early independent Kenya. The images we discuss were generally celebratory of African animals and landscape - and sometimes of its people. This was a new aesthetic arising from a Western vision but powerfully influenced by locations, animals, and people in Africa. It has left a legacy in African countries and globally – a legacy that is both contested and available for appropriation.
William Beinart is Emeritus Professor, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He was Rhodes Professor of Race Relations from 1997 to 2015. He has served as chair of the Board of the Journal of Southern African Studies, Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford, co-chair of the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies and President of the African Studies Association of the UK (2008-10). In 2009 he was elected to the British Academy. In retirement he maintains connection with the Centre and College. Recent books include: With Lotte Hughes, Environment and Empire (Oxford University Press, 2007); With Luvuyo Wotshela, Prickly Pear: the Social History of a Plant in South Africa, (Wits University Press, 2011); With Karen Brown, African Local Knowledge and Animal Health (James Currey, 2013); With Karen Middleton and Simon Pooley (eds), Wild Things: Nature and the Social Imagination (White Horse Press, 2013); With Ed Teversham, South Africa, 1948-94: From Apartheid State to ‘Rainbow Nation’ in Edexcel AS/A Level History (Pearson, 2015); With Peter Delius and Michelle Hay, Rights to Land: a Guide to Tenure Upgrading and Restitution in South Africa (Jacana, 2017); and With Rebecca Beinart. ‘From Elephant’s Foot …to Cortisone’: Boots Pure Drugs Company and Dioscorea sylvatica in South Africa, c. 1950-1963’ forthcoming South African Historical Journal 2019.
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