African Photographer J. A. Green: Reimagining the Indigenous and the Colonial

Edited by Martha G. Anderson and Lisa Aronson. 2017. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 400 pages. ISBN: 978-0-253-02895-2 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Robert Cochran, University of Arkansas

[Review length: 837 words • Review posted on June 28, 2018]


[Cover ofAfrican Photographer J. A. Green: Reimagining the Indigenous and the Colonial]

The pioneering role of J. A. (Jonathan Adagogo) Green’s photographic artistry is painstakingly resurrected and perceptively examined in this magisterial study, beautifully produced in large format by the Indiana University Press. Green’s professional career was very brief--born in 1873, he died in 1905 at thirty-two, after barely a decade of professional activity. But during this period he was both energetically productive and remarkably adroit in serving both indigenous and colonial clienteles.

Editors Martha Anderson and Lisa Aronson highlight Green’s professional agility in their subtitle, pointing out that the images clearly deployed in the service of colonialist ends were often mistaken for the work of a European photographer. In addition to their editorial labors, they are also responsible for the heavy lifting of the volume’s writing and thinking; each contributes three chapters (discounting their shared “Introduction”), with their total of six making up the study’s descriptive and analytic center. The book’s initial section, Green in Context, prepares readers for Anderson’s and Aronson’s exposition, with E. J. Alagoa’s “Picture of the Niger Delta” providing “a historical picture” of the region “at a watershed moment when trade, missionary activity, and British colonization coalesced to transform the local environment” (12); and Christraud Geary’s “Early Photographers in Coastal Nigeria and the Afterlife of Their Images, 1860-1930” supplying a sweeping survey of “the oeuvre of several of Green’s predecessors and contemporaries active in today’s Southern and Southwestern Nigeria and along the West African coasts” (12). The volume closes, following Anderson’s and Aronson’s central chapters, with Nigerian filmmaker Tam Fiofori’s appreciative account of Green’s restored reputation among contemporary Nigerian artists.

The reference to the afterlife of images in the subtitle of Geary’s essay points as well to a major strength of the volume as a whole, as Anderson and Aronson place great stress on the long shelf-life of Green’s images. Many of his pictures--often cropped, refitted with lurid and sometimes spectacularly inaccurate captions, “The Benin Barbarians,” for example (281), and even combined with elements from very different photographs--circulated as postcards and in British newspapers and magazines for “more than a century” (278). Other (and at times the same) images have enjoyed an even more enduring popularity in the communities where they originated. “Reminders of Green’s photographic work were visible everywhere” (299), Aronson reports of her 2012 visit to Opobo (in the heart of Green’s professional territory). While there, she herself photographed the enthroned current king of the Jaja dynasty in his formal reception hall, with two Green images of his predecessors displayed on the wall behind him (298). Another illustration shows the December page from the 2013 “Grand Bonny Kingdom” calendar, featuring Green’s 1901 photo of the Consulate building decorated for that year’s Empire Day celebrations (302).

The major point of all this careful research and documentation is straightforward enough. Green’s work was used for a long time for their own purposes by colonialist clients, but this use (and misuse) pales in comparison to its continuing service to very different ends by the descendants of the African clients who were also his countrymen. If his surname (and what may have been a strategic use of initials on his business cards and stamps) occludes his African origins, his middle name effectively moves against that current--“Adagogo” means “brother” in Ibani Ijo.

Anderson’s and Aronson’s study is also commendable for a rhetoric that stands out for its restraint. They are, after all, working in a highly charged arena where the racist underpinnings of the whole colonial enterprise are flagrantly obvious to even the most cursory observer under the “please come over and help us” bilge deployed as cover by the merchants and missionaries who busied themselves with the appropriation of native bodies and native souls. So pronounced and so taken for granted are such race-based stereotypes that an 1890 cartoon from a British newspaper labeled “Shooting in West Africa,” depicting two heavily armed European hunters being piggybacked through a swamp by African porters, requires editorial assurance of comic intent--the hunters, we’re told, are being “lampooned” (205)--lest it be mistaken for a straightforward “ethnographic” illustration.

The editors and their co-authors make clear enough their understanding of these foundational tenets, but there is a refreshing appreciation in this volume for the complexities of the world Green and his contemporaries encountered. The “colonial gaze” here is no longer the monocular entity of shallower scholarship, and the study as a whole steps back from the breezy description of Green as a “colonial collaborator” (10), a judgment that obliterates the continent-sized moral and existential ground standing between binary extremes embodied by, say, John Brown and Vidkun Quisling. Almost all people live there, in company with Jonathan Adagogo Green. Born to African elites in a time of flexing colonialist muscle, he found fruitful outlet for his interests and talents in the novel technologies and artistic potentials of photography. When he set up shop his work was appreciated and rewarded by two very different communities. The nuanced appreciation of this aspect of his all-too-brief career may be this beautifully produced study’s greatest strength.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.