Recently, I published an article on Wired.com about the opulent interiors of private jets. The owners of these jets remain anonymous as photographer Nick Gleis must protect client confidentiality.

For Gleis’ most recent and high profile showing, The Brighton Photography Biennial (BPB) described Gleis’ photographs as aircraft of African dictators. Gleis refutes outright the suggestion. “There are NO African Dictators that own any aircraft I have ever photographed. My clients are hard working people that have been fortunate enough to acquire wealth,” said Gleis via email.

Gleis and BPB need to get on the same page.

THE WEAKNESS OF THE VIEWER, MYSELF

In my mind, the term ‘Dictator’ (applied to any continent) brings up notions of human rights abuse and blood money, and of constructed and contested narratives. There are many contested narratives about African government in the fourth quarter of the 20th century.

My naive understanding of a continent’s countless ruling structures would be ridiculous enough, if I didn’t then try to guess if any of my limited-knowledge-based narratives were to be applied to the lavish interiors of aeroplanes.

I will not apply such narratives to Gleis’ then, but others likely will – especially as long as BPB and other institutions make use of questionable captioning.

MANIPULATING THE IMAGE, MESSAGE

The unavoidable information-gap in Gleis’ imagery is its Achilles heel. My basic point is that that if we as Westerners are suspicious of wealth, we are really suspicious of wealth originating in a developing country.

My argument here is not about Gleis’ imagery, nor about the specifics of any imagery. My argument is about the innate bias of viewers and about how “the Other” is  consumed and constructed based upon such biases in the context of image.

EL HADJ MAMADOU KABIR USMAN, Emir of Katsina, Nigeria © Daniel Laine

Think back to Daniel Laine’s African Kings series. It is old work now (completed between 1988/91) but I am still impressed by the access Laine secured – based, I presume, on respect between photographer and subject ruler. But, due to exotic costumes Laine’s work is open to misinterpretation and misappropriation. In the light of BPB’s description, Gleis’ work too is being peddled as something it is not.

Often when I look at photography, I feel as though I am loading an image with my own baggage, criticism, emotion desires to see what I want to see in and about the world.

I am increasingly certain that images are boons to our own narratives and as more and more images fall into our laps and onto our laptops, I worry we are able to create the world we want and avoid the one we don’t.

Ambiguity in images is sustenance for the egos of men and women (but mostly men). Can we escape ourselves enough to view images unbiased?

We might never see Africa, unless, of course, we get on a plane and go there.

HALIDOU SALI, Lamido of Bibemi, Cameroun © Daniel Laine

AGBOLI-AGBO DEDJLANI, King of Abomey, Benin © Daniel Laine

ABUBAKAR SIDIQ, Sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria © Daniel Laine

DANIEL LAINE

Daniel Laine is a former storekeeper, professor, and hotel concierge turned photographer. Between 1988 and 1991 he made twelve trips to  the African continent tracking down and photographing figures of royalty, and leaders of kingdoms.  During this time he managed to photograph 70 monarchs and descendants of the great African dynasties. The book, African Kings: Portraits of a Disappearing Era was published in 2000 by Ten Speed Press. Laine lives in France.