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Top 5 Historic Female Photographers in Africa

Feb 23, 2022 10:00AM ● By Anand Subramanian

Although the photographic record in Africa started about 1863, women image-makers have been mostly excluded from the mainstream. Photography has played a significant influence in broadening Western perspectives of Africa and its diaspora during the past decade. In parallel, the female gaze in photography has continued to challenge and alter notions about identity and representation.

Felicia Abban (Ghana)

Felicia Ewurasi Abban, Ghana's first professional female photographer, was born in 1935. She followed in her father J.E. Ansah's footsteps, becoming his photographer's apprentice at the age of fourteen. Abban established Mrs. Felicia Abban's Day and Night Quality Art Studio in Jamestown, Accra, in 1953. James Barnor's Ever Young Studio and J.K. Bruce Vanderpuije's Deo Gratias were also nearby. During the 1960s, she worked as a photographer for Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Abban also worked at the Guinea Press Limited, now known as the Ghana Times, which was Nkrumah's Conventions People's Party's publishing firm. Her career extended sixty years, and she retired in 2013 due to arthritis. Abban is well-known for her studio photos, fashionable styling, and journalistic photographs. She was the go-to artist for post-production services, meticulously applying color and highlights. Even though her work was shown on the international stage at the Ghana Pavilion of the 2019 Venice Biennale, her contributions to scholarship have yet to be well-documented.

Figure 1 - Portrait of Felicia Abban. Source - Google

Ruth Motau (South Africa)

Ruth Seopedi Motau (born 1968) was the first Black female photographer hired by a newspaper in South Africa after the end of apartheid (circa 1994). Her photography, influenced by photojournalism and the marginalization of Black communities, focuses on social documentation. Motau was born in Soweto and developed her interest in photography in 1990 while studying at Johannesburg's Market Photo Workshop. Motau worked as an intern at the Mail & Guardian newspaper after finishing the three-year course, and later as a photographer and photo editor. She has worked as a picture editor for various publications such as The Sowetan and City Press. "Shebeens," "Sonnyboy's Story," and "Women and Municipal Service Delivery" are among her photo studies. Motau's award-winning work has been displayed both nationally and internationally, with institutions recognizing its effect on South African documentary photography.

Figure 2 - Portrait of Ruth Motau. Source - Google

Vera Elkan

Vera Elkan was a South African photographer who is famous for her photos of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. With mixed South African and German heritage, Elkan trained as a photographer in Berlin in the 1930s and worked as a photographer in Germany and South Africa. While stationed in London, she got financing from the British campaign in favor of the International Brigades to travel to Spain to photograph the activities of the Brigades. She proceeded by ambulance to Albacete in December 1936 where she photographed German, French, and British recruits at the training station. Other photographs depict foreign journalists, a Valencia hospital, blood transfusions, and air-raid wounded in Madrid. Her photographs also featured shots of Mikhail Koltsov of Pravda, Claud Cockburn of the Daily Worker, and of the surgeon Norman Bethune. Elkan later worked as a portrait photographer in London but her studio was destroyed in the war, coupled with the majority of her work. After the war, she concentrated on family life.

Figure 3 - Vera Elkan - Portrait of Vera Elkan. Source - Google

Mme Agbokou, Mlle N’kegbe, Jacqueline Mathey, and Chantal Lawson (Togo)

While little to no picture archives are available, references of Togolese women image-makers emerge as early as the 1970s. ​Mme Agbokou, a freelance journalist, and Mlle N’kegbe, who worked for Togolese Information Service, both featured work in a 1974 edition of Amina magazine. N’kegbe began her career as a professional photographer in 1964 after finishing an apprenticeship in Lagos. Mlle Jacqueline Mathey was another Togolese lady who worked for the Togolese State Television Service. ​Chantal Lawson was one of the early Togolese women studio photographers, pictured above at her studio in 1968, in a rare shot acquired by Evelyn Bernheim. 

 Figure 4 - Portraits of Chantal Lawson. Source - Google

Neo Ntsoma

Neo Ntsoma is a South African photographer recognized for her reportage, portraiture, music, and popular culture photography. Born in Vryburg and growing up in the rural districts of Mafikeng in the North West Province, her curiosity for cinema was aroused at an early age. Growing up in the apartheid era and seeing the negative portrayal images of Black South Africans and the lack of participation of Black women in a media industry dominated by white males, this reinvigorated her to want to make a change, however, it was not an easy dream to fulfill due to race restrictions at the time. Ntsoma attended St Mary's High School where she would be exposed to music, dance, and theatre, this is when she recognized her professional path was different from her friends. Despite multiple disappointments throughout her life, she persevered on pursuing her passion of becoming a photographer and achieved. Ntsoma is noted for her images that stand out for the strange angles from which they are shot and the way she plays with what is in focus in the photos and what is not. Besides being an award-winning photographer she has become an eager coach for new photojournalists.

Figure 5 - Portrait of Neo Ntsoma. Source - Google 

 Anand Subramanian is a freelance photographer and content writer based out of Tamil Nadu, India. Having a background in Engineering always made him curious about life on the other side of the spectrum. He leapt forward towards the Photography life and never looked back. Specializing in Documentary and  Portrait photography gave him an up-close and personal view into the complexities of human beings and those experiences helped him branch out from visual to words. Today he is mentoring passionate photographers and writing about the different dimensions of the art world.

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