For Lou Jones, photography is a medium to give voice to those who lack one. He is a pioneer in his profession and is beyond merely “capable.”
Jones visited the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) to talk about his latest work, “panAFRICAproject,” on Sept. 27. It is a photography project that, according to Jones, took over his life—a project in the continent of Africa.
His aim was to redefine preconceived notions of Africa and to highlight how culturally diverse the continent is. The presentation addressed several aspects that overlap in many African countries, such as education, social mobility, religion, culture, traditions, public health and medicine. Jones’ photographs are solid proof of how complex and enriching each and every country in the African continent is.
The first photo he showed is one of a group of black men chained, all walking in line in the state of Texas. Along with the photograph, he threw at the audience an interesting fact to start a provoking conversation: Texas executes more people than any other state.
This image, along with three other photos that he displayed at the beginning of his presentation, belonged to one of his older exhibitions. He chose to show photographs of black men on death row to emphasize how most of his work is about giving voice to those who are marginalized and left voiceless.
Another photograph from his “Downtown Crossing Project” exhibition features men working in construction. The photographs were taken from outstanding and thrilling angles, leading the viewer to question if the photographer’s life was not put in peril when taking these shots. What resonated so strongly with these photos is what Jones had to say about them. He explained that these are the faces of the people whose lives and work are invisible: When looking at a building, who thinks of the people who toiled with all their strength and sweat to reach the skies and lift these gigantic constructions? Not very many people.
He then moved on to discussing his “panAFRICAproject.” There are 54 countries in the continent of Africa; Jones pointed out that it is important that people do not refer to Africa as a single country, especially because every country is very particular.
In addition, he said that the African Union wanted to censor whatever happens in African countries from news outlets in the Western media. He argued that photojournalists are only chasing their next Pulitzer when taking photographs that solely focuses on poverty and underdevelopment, relentlessly alluding to misery and meagerness. Jones believed that journalists only use Africa for their form of yellow journalism, oftentimes neglecting the many interesting and unique facts and history that makes the continent what it is.
The “panAFRICAproject” was intentionally made to demonstrate to outsiders what it is like to live in different areas of the continent. Jones’ pieces are so awe-inspiring because they are all authentic, bright and capture an often neglected reality of Africa.
It is possible to see this authenticity and African pride in his everyday shots. “I have to approach this as boots on the ground. I have to be there,” Jones said about his method. He used the example that a photographer cannot be like Herman Melville, the author of “Moby Dick,” who wrote a novel which takes place at sea even though he had never stepped foot on a boat before.
One of the countries that Jones visited for the project was Ghana, where he photographed a nightclub. He said that while the viewer would not relate a nightclub in Ghana, the fact is that music from different parts of Africa has had a major influence on American music, such as the blues, jazz and rock and roll, just to name a few genres. Another country that Jones visited was Egypt. There, he photographed a doctor’s office, highlighting the importance of public health for many groups of people across the continent.
He also went to Swaziland, a small country that is located in eastern Africa adjacent to South Africa. During Apartheid, people crossed from South Africa to Swaziland and were able to go to bars or have sex with people of different races. He had several photographs inside wire factories, which had a huge impact in Swaziland’s economy.
Most of Jones’ pieces from his “panAFRICAproject” take place indoors. This is Jones’ attempt to redefine the preconceived notions that outsiders have about Africa as nothing more than open spaces occupied by wild animals. The only way to achieve this is if he excavates beyond the surface of the soil and finds a way to evoke the significance behind the African experience.