by Jennifer Bajorek. Duke University Press, February 2020. 352 p. ill. ISBN 9781478003922 (pbk.), $28.95.
Reviewed May 2021
Jane Darcovich, Liaison for Architecture and Art, Richard J. Daley Library, University of Illinois Chicago, email@example.com
Jennifer Bajorek’s Unfixed: Photography and Decolonial Imagination in West Africa explores the growth of photography in west Africa, centering on the former French colonies of Senegal and Benin from roughly 1945 to 1970, the period leading up to and following independence from colonial rule. Using many carefully selected illustrations, the book skillfully demonstrates how west African photographers visualized social, political and cultural transformations during a period of major change.
An ethnographic study, the book examines African photographers’ work as portraitists, identity-card photographers for newly independent states, and as official and unofficial recorders of political figures and events. Drawing on extensive in-person interviews, Bajorek provides valuable insights on photography’s roles in shaping west African popular culture, identity and political consciousness. She interweaves a discussion of relevant theoretical frameworks, critiquing those positing decolonial photography as one that acts only in one way in response to the colonial state. Instead, she argues for the existence of a wider expression of agency in photography and for a nuanced understanding of responses to colonialism. The bibliography, index and copious endnotes for each chapter supplement this theoretical grounding.
The book is organized into two major parts, each with three chapters. The excellent introduction sets the stage and argues for the African understanding of plasticity of photographic meaning as opposed to fixity. Part One’s engaging narrative places west African photographic practices within their vibrant social and cultural context. An in-depth look at the illustrated magazine Bingo demonstrates how it visually represented and helped shape the postcolonial world in the region. Part Two considers this photography as an explicitly urban medium and explores the implications of its movement and dissemination.
The author, a professor at Hampshire College whose current work focuses on the intersection of literature, art, and media in contemporary Africa, reflects on her research methodologies, including her own biases and factors around gender, acknowledging her status as a white researcher from the “intellectual North”. In the second part of the book, Bajorek discusses archival work, the dangers of impermanence in archives, and the need for decolonialization in archival settings.
The book is important for its exploration of the democratization of photography in west Africa, and demonstration of how factors behind its changing accessibility and uses differed from European and American models. As such, it contributes to the dismantling of the notion of a monolithic canon of photography history.
Unfixed is a richly layered book that explores a wide variety of concepts, raising thought-provoking questions along the way. It would be most suitable for upper-level and graduate work in photography history, cultural and decolonial studies, and in Black Studies programs.