The power of image

34 Nouvelle Semence 20
Giovanni Marrozzini- President and Secretary of a New farmers' Cooperative created with microcredit, Abam Village, Cameroon, 2010
Paul bogle
Presumed photograph of Paul Bogle (Photo credit: Jamaica Information Service)

For some years now, a remarkable black and white photograph of two older Black women, dressed in work clothes and each brandishing a machete, while holding hands, has been circulating on social media. That the women are holding machetes not only marks them as workers on the land, but powerfully insinuates that they are also rebels, warriors and guardians, imbued with a strong sense of social autonomy and self-empowerment. The gender of the figure on the right seems ambivalent and the handholding suggests that they may even be a couple. The symmetrical, formalised stance and defiant expression of the figures gives the image a strong emblematic quality, almost as a Black feminist alternative to Jamaica’s coat of arms, while the grainy black and white quality of the image suggests that it is a historical photograph.

I remember first seeing the photograph on social media a few years ago and the excited discussion it then provoked. It was immediately assumed that the image was historical, from the Caribbean and related to Maroon culture. It has, in fact, become quite firmly associated with the Jamaican Maroons and the figure of Nanny. A simple Google image search will reveal how widely it has been used in that context, although the photo is usually more tightly cropped around the figures than in the original. The photograph has also been used in other contexts: as the lead image in a screen play for a film titled Bayou Goula, set in that community in Louisiana; on a music CD cover; and as an illustration inspired by the photo on the cover of a Brazilian novel. All of this is, of course, testimony to the remarkable power of this image and its potential meanings, which have great currency in the current cultural moment, in the context of contemporary decolonial, race and gender activism.

As it turns out, however, the photograph is of recent origin and not from the Caribbean at all. It is a 2010 photo by the Italian photographer Giovanni Marrozzini, which is part of a commissioned portfolio titled Nouvelle Semence (French, for New Seed) that documents farmers’ cooperatives in central Cameroon, for a microcredit project supported by the International Community of Capodarco in Italy and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You can see the entire Nouvelle Semence portfolio here: The photograph also appears, slightly cropped and in a darker print, on the cover of Marrozzini’s 2011 photography book Human. The portfolio was one of two such bodies of work Marrozzini has shot in Cameroon, and he has also done photographic work in Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, as well as in various other parts of the world, often in association with humanitarian causes.

The photograph, under discussion, as the photo-caption on Marrozzini’s Instagram account explains, represents the president and secretary of a new farmers’ cooperative that was created with microcredit in Abam village, Cameroon. The women are not named, as is unfortunately typical of such photographs, and other than their stated functions in their cooperative, and the consequent fact that they are indeed small farmers, we are told nothing about them.

Subsistence farming is, I understand, a significant part of the traditional Cameroon economy but is being threatened by new, large-scale agro-industries, and acute issues of grassroots land rights, equitable market access, and environmental degradation have arisen in this context. The country has also been racked by internal conflict, violence, and human rights abuses, associated with the separatist movement in the Anglophone south and, more recently, with Boko Haram which has reached into Cameroon. Women and children have been disproportionately affected by these developments. The potent message of female empowerment on a grassroots level, makes perfect sense in that context.

A photograph always represents only one half of a world, however, as what happens behind the camera is as important as what happens in front of it. How people are represented in portrait photographs is typically negotiated between the technicalities and circumstances, the direction of the photographer, and the agency of the persons portrayed. It would be interesting to know how much control the two women in the photograph had over their representation, and how the chosen image compares to other photos that may have been taken of the pair. Did the photographer ask them to hold hands and hold their machetes in the way depicted, or did they decide to do so themselves. They do not appear elsewhere in the portfolio, which consists entirely of black and white photographs, but looking at the other images, a few formal commonalities appear, such as a preference for dramatic symmetrical, mirror-like poses or, conversely, radical asymmetry in the positioning of the figures. These compositional features suggest considerable direction on Marrozzini’s part.

There is, for instance, a photo of a female figure who holds up two naked children by their arms, which seems highly uncomfortable and staged, as this is hardly how mothers would typically hold or “display” their children. While Marrozzini’s photographs are, generally speaking, sympathetic of his subjects, and quite beautiful, he can also be accused of objectification and a degree of exoticization. There is a long history of such representational issues in ethnographic photography, which also appears in photographic representations of “native subjects” by contemporary Euro-American photographers, no matter how well-intentioned. I am reminded of the photographs of people from Sudan and southern Ethiopia by the Spanish photographer Isabel Muñoz which were shown in The Skin of the Children of Gaia exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica in 2008. While visually stunning and charismatic, with attention to complexities such as the social constructions of gender and sexuality, the photographs were also objectifying of the Black body and “ethnographic,” in terms of how they appealed to primitivist, exoticizing sensibilities. We need to ask whether these dynamics are also present in Marrozzini’s President and Secretary or whether that image transcends such limitations.

What this all means, to return to how Marrozzini’s photograph became associated with the Caribbean, is of course that more attention needs to be paid to origins and credits when such images are used. It took me just a few minutes of online research to confirm its correct attribution, and I recall that this had already been pointed out by others when the image first started circulating. But we also need to ask why this particular photograph took on a life of its own, as it speaks to how and why certain images circulate and acquire iconic status in ways that are divorced, to varying degrees, from their origins and intent.

Such appropriation of images often happens in contexts where visual records are absent, regarding events and individuals whose historical existence has been subject to erasure and marginalization. Another instance is the presumed photograph of Paul Bogle, which was retrieved, we are told, from Bogle’s descendants in the late 1950s and quickly became the official image of Bogle, although the attribution was, even then, not conclusive. More recently, the image has been appropriated to represent the African-American inventor of dry-cleaning, Thomas L. Jennings, although he had died before this sort of photography became commercially available. In both instances, and the first far more justified than the second, the attribution was motivated by the desire for a compelling image of the historic individuals in question.

What the Secretary and President represent is, of course, not irrelevant to the Caribbean context, because of the ancestral linkages with West and Central Africa and the shared concern with grassroots and female empowerment. The reason for its appropriation is obviously that the image fits in perfectly with the current efforts to lift the veil on the great silences and erasures in the visual record of African Diaspora culture and it can certainly play a valuable role in such re-imaginations and the discussions that surround this. There is no reason, however, why this could not be done without acknowledging its actual origins and, even, its potential representational problems.

Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. The second, revised and expanded edition of her best-known book “Caribbean Art” was recently published in the World of Art series of Thames and Hudson. Her personal blog can be found at

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