Prof Minkley wins prestigious HSS Book Award for co-edited Visual History book

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Prof Gary Minkley who is our SARChI Chair in Social Change has won the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences’ prestigious HSS (Humanities and Social Sciences) Book Award for a book co-edited with Prof Patricia Hayes, SARChI Chair in Visual History at the University of Western Cape.

Titled: Ambivalent: Photography and Visibility in African History, according to Prof Minkley the focus of the book is to argue that Africa has its own histories of light, rather than continuing to be seen as the ‘dark continent’ and as a laboratory for northern and Eurocentric approaches and interpretations that continue to relegate knowledge and the visual to its own forms of subjection and dominant mastery.


“That is why in our subtitle we refer to photography and visibility – of wanting to make visible the important ways in which this new generation of African scholars challenged and overturned many aspects of these Eurocentric paradigms and offer alternative forms and histories of visibility and photography on the continent in an ‘expanded milieu’. As such, the book and the authors aim to ‘unfix’ race and visuality and to offer new, cross-disciplinary and innovative alterative African readings and interpretations of photography and visibility on the continent,” he explained.

In its seventh year, the awards are open to South African publishers, scholars based in South African universities and independent artists linked to universities.

According to Prof Minkley the project originated in a newly established postgraduate Visual History course developed at UWC by Prof Hayes and himself while he was still at UWC in the late 1990s.

“After I moved to UFH, we have continued to work together and jointly developed a strong focus on visual history and photography at both UWC and UFH In particular, the postgraduate courses and subsequent masters and doctoral research undertaken by emerging scholars attached to the Visual History focus area and through the Chairs enabled the emergence of new approaches and interpretations of photography and visuality on the continent and we wished to showcase some of this important new work done by African scholar located on the continent, rather than in the ‘North’.”

The book was first published at the end of 2019 by the prestigious Ohio University Press in their New African Histories Series. However, partly due to Covid 19, and a concern for it to be available locally, it was subsequently published by Jacana Press in May 2021 as a local edition.

Giving an outline of the argument and approaches to the book Prof Minkley said: “Going beyond photography as an isolated medium to engage larger questions and interlocking forms of expression and historical analysis, Ambivalent gathers a new generation of scholars based on the continent to offer an expansive frame for thinking about questions of photography and visibility in Africa.

“The volume presents African relationships with photography – and with visibility more generally – in ways that engage and disrupt the easy categories and genres that have characterised the field to date. Contributors pose new questions concerning the instability of the identity photograph in South Africa; ethnographic photographs as potential history; humanitarian discourse from the perspective of photographic survivors of atrocity photojournalism; the nuanced passage from studio to screen in postcolonial digital portraiture; and the burgeoning visual activism in West Africa.”

“As the contributors show, photography is itself a historical subject: it involves arrangement, financing, posture, positioning and other kinds of work that are otherwise invisible. By moving us outside the frame of the photograph itself, by refusing to accept the photograph as the last word, this book makes photography an engaging and important subject of historical investigation. Ambivalent’s contributors bring photography into conversation with orality, travel writing, ritual, psychoanalysis and politics, with new approaches to questions of race, time, and postcolonial and decolonial histories.”

The book's contributors are largely postgraduate students in the Visual History Research programme.

In the award letter from Prof Sarah Mosoetsa, the CEO of the National Institute for the annual HSS Book, Creative and Digital Collections Awards stated that: “to honour outstanding, innovative, and socially responsible scholarship that enhances the Humanities and Social Sciences’ she states “Thank you for the exceptional role you play in redefining the Humanities and Social Sciences landscape in South Africa”.

Congratulations Prof Minkley.