As many as 500,000 Chinese have immigrated to Africa, lured by its oil, copper, uranium, wood and other natural resources. Many have thrived, creating large conglomerates. To serve them, other entrepreneurs have opened palatial restaurants. Or karaoke halls. The infusion of a distinctly different culture into African society — again — is turning out to be a critical chapter in the continent’s post-colonial history.
This is a big story. And it was the toughest story that the photographer has ever pursued. It demanded two years of preliminary research and infinite patience in obtaining access. Mr. Woods and his collaborator, Serge Michel, a Swiss journalist, finally arrived in Africa in 2007. Now they have a book to show for their efforts: a Safari: On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Afric (Nation Books, 2009), written with Michel Beuret. Mr. Woods’s photographs are also being shown at the Open Society Institute in Manhattan as part of its series.
“We are trying to show a very important phenomenon which is changing the face of Africa,” Mr. Woods said.
“The challenge with this story is that it was not immediately photogenic,” he said. “Photographing businessmen can be difficult. I had to think about new ways to make the story photographically appealing. “
Logistically, his main concerns were time pressure and limitation on what he could photograph. In one instance in Zambia, Mr. Woods had to wait three weeks to shoot a few frames.
Mr. Woods deliberately invoked some of the conventions of colonial-era photography. This is most evident in a picture of a Chinese businessman and an African employee who is holding an umbrella over his head . But he also invites our attention to the interactions among the cultures.
In one photo, a Chinese laborer poses with his African girlfriend — an interracial relationship that is often prohibited . Perhaps the most powerful image is of a Zambian woman, Vivian Kalunga, with her son Jonathan . Ms. Kalunga was employed in a Chinese restaurant. Jonathan’s father disappeared. The boy, now 5, was rejected by his family for being half Chinese and has moved to his grandparents’ home in a remote village where he has contracted malaria.
Negative repercussions to Chinese development in Africa include deforestation and other environmental exploitation. On the other hand, the Chinese have built needed highways and railroads. Mr. Woods and Mr. Michel sought to document rather than comment.
“The pictures defused this issue immediately, placing this work in a documentary, fact-nourished context,” Mr. Michel said. “Africa is often a very emotional topic, with strong ideological positions. The book managed to avoid appealing to a partisan readership. I know that between our readers there are anti-globalization activists, C.E.O.’s of international companies, Chinese investors and African ministers.”
The text has been translated into 10 languages and the book is sold worldwide, including China. Mr. Woods believes it is crucial this work has a wide, diverse audience.
“The way photography is used is extremely important,” he said. “I would not be happy if my images were only in magazines or just in trendy galleries in New York. I want my images to cross borders, to live as many different lives as possible.”
--Written and published by & in the New York Times