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Africa's Crowds and Solitude on show at French photo festival

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In South Africa an Albino maiden among other youngsters before what has become a tradition, the Reed Dance ceremony, in front of Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini. Royal Palace, Enyokeni, Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal, September 2014. Marco Longari/AFP

Elation and grief, fear and pride were on show in an Africa-based press photographer's exhibition at the Visa pour l'Image festival in south-west France this month. They record elections, conflicts,extra-judicial killings, xenophobia, demonstrations, HIV and albinos.


Each of the 25 or so photos Marco Longari's show, Crowds and Solitude, tells a story, whether a portrait or a single figure is the focus, or a bigger or smaller crowd.

Longari the Johannesburg-based chief Africa photographer at the French press agency, AFP.

The photos in the exhibition were selected out of roughly 1,000 and were taken in Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, Gabon, Gambia, Kenya, Liberia and South Africa in 2015 and 2016.

The selection procedure took a long time, Longari recalls.

“What we came down with were photos that were coherent with the title … We are putting our attention and the accent on single moments or single people and single crowds in larger events."

One telling example of the exhibition's focus is in a series on the conflict and tension between religious communities in the Central African Republic. It shows a young man alone in prayer in front of a wall riddled with what appear to be bullet holes.

All in the pose

Another is a rare photo from South African of an initiation ritual, the reed dance for young about-to-be women, who are bare-breasted and decked out in traditional Zulu costumes. In the centre of the group is an albino woman, who stands out, not only for the colour of her skin but for her particuarly assertive, proud pose.

“We were working with other photographers in the region about albinism and the plight of the albino people in Africa," Longari says. "When I arrived in this area I was wondering if by chance I could photograph an Albino girl undergoing the rite of passage to womanhood. It would be nice contribution to the wider story we were doing. In spite of albinism, she is included. And she, wants to take part. I think it’s an important message.”

A little further on in the wood and marble 19th-century salon of Perpignan's Hôtel Pams the viewer is faced with contestants in the 2015 Miss South Africa Body Building and Fitness contest. The sense of pride of the women here equals those in the Zulu ritual ceremony, even if the visual context is very different. It's all in the pose.

Echoes of Vietnam War protests

Student demonstrators clashed with police over tuition-fee hikes in South Africa in 2015 and Longari's pictures tell how violent the confrontations was. He also witnessed a student offering a flower to a police officer, a 2015 version of the student protesting against the Vietnam War in Washington DC captured by late French photographer Marc Riboud in 1967.

“Like all pictures, it just happened," Longari says of his shot. "You can’t really make comparisons between the two. The context is different but the action is the same. The policeman accepted the flower. There is one, impossible-to-exclude mobile phone in the frame that shows the contemporaneity of this picture.”

These singular and crowded photos’ capacity to inform and stun at the same time is the fruit of a deep interest and professional commitment.

Before talking about himself Longari acknowledges the important contribution made by the 50 or so photographers to the agency's photo work in Africa.

Paris-based AFP operates in 47 out of the 55 African countries and sends Longari and his team’s work around the world to illustrate news stories in newspapers, magazines and online.

“Especially in a complex and diverse area like the [African] continent, you can’t pretend to have a unified or comprehensive understanding of what happens in front of the camera," he comments. "You have to accept that you are only scratching the surface.”

Longari and his team dig quite deep and simultaneously reveal to the viewer unfamiliar situation-specific dramas and the universal.