A Photographer Changes The Focus In Africa

Nov 20, 2011
Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:14 am

When photojournalist Betty Press lived in Africa from 1987 to 2009, she wanted to show a continent different than the one usually portrayed in the media — one of poverty, war and famine. Instead, she focused on the beauty, creativity and courage of the people.

These images are now the subject of a book, I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom In Image and Proverb, in which every photo is accompanied by a different African proverb. Press tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish that the photos, along with the proverbs, celebrate life and the concept of ubuntu, the idea of living harmoniously within a community.

The book is self-published in partnership with Books for Africa. Press says it is "dedicated to the African people who were willing to share their lives with the world through her photographs."

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A male weightlifter heaving a barbell of scrap metal on a beach on Nigeria; a healthy bouncing baby giggling on a set of scales in Rwanda; a fisherman fishing in the Niger River. These are just a few of the many images in a new book of photographs celebrating the lives of people in Africa. It's called "I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb." Photojournalist Betty Press spent more than 20 years capturing these movements. She joined me from Mississippi Public Radio to tell me about some of the photographs and why she chose the proverb I am because we are, the title of the book.

BETTY PRESS: I wanted to base it around this proverb, I am because we are; we are because I am, which is the whole concept of Ubuntu, which means that we are all interconnected and we have responsibility for each other. Ubuntu is a Swahili word for humanist. And community is so important in Africa, and they stress working together. So, I felt like this is something we can also maybe learn from and we can also appreciate.

CORNISH: And the proverbs come from many different countries - from Tanzania, from Kenya, from Malawi. Give an example, say, of your favorite two.

PRESS: That's always hard. But one has to do that happy baby picture. Right next to it is this woman in this white nurse's uniform with this hat perched on the back of her head. And she's talking to these six very pregnant women. And she looks almost like a white chicken 'cause she kind of has her hands out there flapping. And the proverb is: every cackling hen was an egg at one time. You know, the next page over is this baby who is just so chubby and healthy.

CORNISH: And, Betty, on page 161, there is a really lovely photo that is in - it's a silhouette of two children dancing on the horizon.

PRESS: This was taken in Eritrea. It was twilight and these children were coming over the horizon, and they had just finished a soccer game. They were just so joyful. They were dancing and playing. And the proverb that goes with it is: the pillar of the world is hope. It's from Nigeria. But the title of the picture is given to me by a Kenyan friend. He calls it "Dancing on the Edge of the Earth," which I thought was so appropriate.

CORNISH: Betty Press is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her book, "I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb," is available now. Betty, thank you so much for talking with us.

PRESS: Thank you.


CORNISH: You can see images from "I Am Because We Are" are NPR.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.