Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Research Pathways in African Studies: An Interpretation of Selected Photographs Depicting Traditional Economic Activities in the Willis Eugene Bell Photo Archive1

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Research Pathways in African Studies: An Interpretation of Selected Photographs Depicting Traditional Economic Activities in the Willis Eugene Bell Photo Archive1

Article excerpt


Photographs do not seem to have received the attention they deserve as primary sources of information for academic study in Ghana. Reasons for this could be that they are not seen as documents in their own right that merit the same scrutiny as that given to the printed word and archival sources. They are usually not included in the collection development policies of libraries and archives (at least in Ghana), and the existence of such collections locally is virtually unknown. They are not recognised as primary sources for academic inquiry and therefore have no place in libraries or archives; and are not considered worth preserving for posterity. Yet their value is well documented and western academic institutions devote financial resources to their collection, documentation and preservation to make their collections accessible to users (Laryea, 1997).

This paper is devoted to the interpretation of randomly selected photographs which depict various traditional economic activities from the Willis Eugene Bell Photo Archive. The eleven photographs depict directly and indirectly trading, fishing, hairdressing and farming, and serve as windows on the past. The paper also looks at the challenges and prospects of using the collection, and makes suggestions on how existing photographic collections may be handled by heritage institutions.

Willis Eugene Bell and the photo archive

The Willis Eugene Bell (WEB) Photo Archive is a collection of more than ninety thousand photographs (prints and negatives) taken between 1958 and 1999 by Willis Eugene Bell (1924-1999). Willis Bell was an American professional photographer who arrived in Ghana in 1957 after stints in other parts of Africa. He arrived during the exciting throes of political activity leading to independence and, apart from brief forays outside the country, lived here until his death. Bell was commissioned to take most of the photographs, which cover various aspects of Ghanaian life - everyday activities, culture, children at play, people involved in economic activities and the construction industry. The WEB collection is now owned by the Mmofra Foundation, a non-governmental organisation.2

Photographs from the WEB collection have previously been used for various publications. Both The Road Makers and Playtime in Africa are publications of Bell's photographs with short write-ups by renowned writer Sutherland (1961 and 1963). Vulture! Vulture! and Tahinta are dramas set in the traditional call- and-response pattern using Ghanaian folklore (1968). In 2007, some of the photographs were published by the Goethe Institut in Accra to commemorate Ghana's golden jubilee anniversary. The one cedi note of the 1973 currency notes has the mirror image of one of Bell's photographs.3 Ghana through the lens: a photo journey by Willis Bell edited by Bremer and Sutherland-Addy (2009) is based on the exhibition by the Mmofra Foundation and the Goethe Institut.

Theoretical framework of interpretation

Two approaches could be employed for the study of symbols and images, as in photographs: iconography, as pioneered by Panofsky and semiology, pioneered by Pierce. Iconography is the identification of specific symbolic content or meaning and a broad knowledge of a work's referential subject matter as a particular variation on or development out of a common stock of images and themes as defined. Semiology on the other hand allows an image to generate meaning, recognising it stands for something other than itself.4 Of the two, the latter is used to interpret the selected photographs.

That photographs are worth a thousand words is an axiom for the semiotic approach of interpretation of images to be used in interpreting them. The method has the following merits in that each photograph, laden with multifarious messages, can be interpreted from different perspectives; it allows one to interpret the visual image from a subjective viewpoint thereby affording the interpreter the flexibility of using his or her intellectual and creative gifts; and ensures that photographs, images and icons need to be both seen and looked at. …

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