Is it possible to photograph Africa clearly, without sentimentality or prejudice? To frame beautiful images without compromising the dignity of individual subjects who, in many cases, are in a state of severe distress, but without patronising them either? In a slice of the world where everyone is familiar with pictures of Aids and famine victims from newspapers, it's a pertinent question that Swiss photographer Didier Ruef tries earnestly to answer.
Despite the book's title, he does not conflate the countries he travels through: there are pictures of the Nhiao's traditional women's day dance, and images of Ethiopian women with lower lips hugely elongated by plates inserted in them. Perhaps he could have included more of this kind of picture (I certainly felt the lack of any writing by Ruef to explain why he did or did not include anything; Professor Joseph Ki-Zerbo's well-intentioned but banal preface, in French, is no substitute), but misery is prevalent and celebration localised and so this book is filled with beautiful monochrome representations of fortitude, suffering and despair.
Through nine countries, he observes ancient traditions and modern plagues, the former faltering while the latter gain in strength and viciousness. He gives us what we expect: Aids sufferers; amputees; gun-toting infants – but with verve and guts. Leg amputees pictured from the chest down present the faceless fallout from interminable violence. In another image, a long thin stick both supports and eerily resembles a shockingly malnourished Sudanese child.
Ruef probes the sutures between old Africa and the new, Western-influenced world. A roll of paper money thrust through a traditionally enlarged ear piercing, which also supports a Lobb key, inverts the Western notion of accessories: this Ethiopian man has made himself into a handbag, while our essentials have become his decoration. Also in Ethiopia, a girl so young her bare breasts are buds, carries – with equal nonchalance – rocks on her head and a rifle over her shoulder.
Wry juxtapositions occur in the section on Guinea, an unpopulated photo of abandoned playing cards seems innocuous, even dull, until you glance across to the facing page where a man without hands sits. Photographed from the waist down, he casts a limbless metaphorical shadow on the neighbouring picture. A card game he cannot play without help would probably not seem so banal to him.
Similarly, in Cameroon, the puzzled attention of young men as the correct application of a condom is demonstrated (on a wooden phallus) is given weight and depth by the beautiful, formally dressed woman in the opposite picture who appears to regard the condom with quiet longing. As well she might: she is HIV positive.
It's as though Ruef attaches as much significance to the space between photographs as to the photos themselves. And this practical mastery is enhanced by an appreciation of the mystical; Ruef is not afraid to photograph the invisible, as the footprints on the cover demonstrate. After all, he is obliged to photograph vanished limbs – do vanished people not deserve as much?
Perhaps he's right to avoid elaborate explanations. These pictures – heavily indebted to Sebastiao Salgado, yet remaining untroubled by that debt – can explain themselves, reinforcing one another in much the same way that a left and right eye together permit clear, three-dimensional vision. Photographs need not stand in isolation any more than the people they portray.