Invisible Cities is the latest project by acclaimed Northern Irish photographer Paul Seawright. It is based around a startling fact.
“The fastest growing cities in the world today are on the African continent,” he says. “By 2015 Lagos will be the second largest city in the world, following closely on the heels of Tokyo.”
Seawright came to prominence as a photographer with his Sectarian Murders project in 1988. It consisted of a series of photographs showing the sites where civilian victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland died.
Each picture was accompanied by a piece of reportage that excluded the victims’ religion to focus attention on the human cost of the conflict.
More recently, Seawright’s Hidden series exhibited photographs of a post-invasion Afghanistan. It sought not only to display the terrible destruction wrought upon the country, but also explore the “hidden malevolence” of the landscapes that war creates.
In both these exhibitions Seawright attempted to use photographic art as a corrective to mainstream media representations of conflict.
Invisible Cities is an admirable attempt to apply this technique to explore a new way of visualising a rapidly urbanising Africa.
Seawright’s portrayal of Africa avoids clichés of “backwardness” and focuses on the unevenness of the continent. Soaring skyscrapers sit side-by-side with urban slums. Cars and taxis rush over huge bridges, underneath which whole communities have formed. In Untitled (Pylon), an enormous electricity pylon dwarfs a shantytown, its wires rolling overhead without making any contact with the homes below.
Thankfully, Invisible Cities does not try to idealise the development of these slums by portraying the residents as living happily or carefree.
As Mike Davis, author of the excellent book Planet of Slums explains, these lives “more closely resemble the struggle for existence in a squalid concentration camp than any romanticised vision of heroic squatters and micro-entrepreneurs”.
Seawright does, however, show the ability of African people to adapt to their harsh environment. The electricity pylon serves as an anchor for fishing boats, while the community under the bridge uses abandoned parts of cars to pen in animals.
Another strength of Seawright’s work is his ability to stress aspects of urban life that Westerners have in common with people in Africa – without glossing over the differences.
We are confronted by decaying highrise apartment buildings that would seem all too familiar to people living in inadequately maintained council housing in Britain.
In Untitled (Hospital), an exhausted woman waits with her son in a lonely, antiquated hospital waiting room – a scene many people all over the world will have experienced.
Underdevelopment in Africa has created huge problems for its populations. For the past two decades, the neoliberal IMF and the World Bank have forced “structural adjustment plans” on African nations.
These have allowed Western multinationals to carve out the sections of Africa’s economy that are profitable to them. This has led to a collapse in living standards on the one hand and the flooding of Africa with Western consumer goods on the other.
This contradictory situation is well portrayed in Invisible Cities. Crowds of Africans in Western clothing sort through rubbish on a tip. A billboard proclaiming that Lipton Tea makes you “feel good” looms over an almost empty highway.
Seawright believes that “a city is less defined by its physicality and more by the way its inhabitants move within; something unseen that hums between the cracks”.
In this respect, Invisible Cities works very well. But one can question whether Seawright succeeds in completely breaking from what he describes as the “largely pejorative imagery” that surrounds Western representations of Africa.
Too often his portraits concentrate on tired and sleeping people. The spirit of dynamism that has underpinned the African struggles for social change seems missing from these pictures.
Without this, Seawright’s imagery could seem to imply that the unevenness development that is the legacy of colonialism in Africa is too dominant and exhausting to ever be changed.
Neverthless, Invisible Cities is a terrific selection of photographic art. It skillfully uses seemingly prosaic scenes of urban life to present an startlingly new image of Africa – one that is not dominated by violence and famine, but rather by human beings engaged in a day-to-day existence that is not a million miles away from our own.
Invisible Cities by Paul Seawright is published by Ffotogallery, priced £25, and distributed by Cornerhouse Publications. For more on the photographs go to www.ffotogallery.org or to order a copy online go to www.cornerhouse.org