A Political Ethnography of the Visual

4379-Simukai_Chigudu_(423586)-1The second post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics. This contribution is from Simukai Chigudu, who is Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford. Simukai is principally interested in the social politics of inequality in Africa, which he examines using disease, public health, violence, and social suffering as organising frameworks for both historical and contemporary case studies. His forthcoming book entitled The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe (Cambridge University Press, 2020) is a study of the social and political causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s catastrophic cholera outbreak in 2008/09, the worst in African history. He has published articles in a number of peer-reviewed scholarly journals including African AffairsGlobal Health GovernanceHealth EconomicsPolicy and Law, the International Feminist Journal of PoliticsHealth Policy and PlanningSeizure: The European Journal of EpilepsyFeminist Africa, and The Lancet. Prior to academia, Simukai was a medical doctor in the UK’s National Health Service where he worked for three years.

Political science as a discipline, including the branch of international relations, has been slow to grapple with the AIDS crisis. It seems that the HIV-AIDS issue has been conceived of as too private, too biological, too microlevel and sociological, too behavioral and too cultural to attract the attention of many political scientists.

Catherine Boone & Jake Batsell, Africa Today, 2001

It is tempting – and certainly not altogether misguided – to think that in our contemporary digital age, the ubiquitous infrastructures of the Internet, of mobile phones, and of cheap audio and video technologies have radically democratised economies of representation in various (global) public spheres. After all, it is often claimed, mobile phones have profoundly transformed how we acquire and exchange information. In Africa, where most have gone from no phone to mobile phone (‘leapfrogging’), many have believed that improved access to telecommunication would enhance everything from entrepreneurialism, to democratisation, to service delivery, all the while ushering in socio-economic development (Archambault 2016). As part of this package of social transformation through innovation, techno-utopians praise communication technologies and social media for opening up important avenues for popular oral and visual circuits of storytelling.

But how far can these circuits of storytelling go? Where do they meet their limits? What are the structures that enable and inhibit storytelling in public arenas? Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics offers a fascinating exploration of these questions through her foray into the commercial world of narrative film production. Film is both a microcosm and a macrocosm of the intimate but also vexed interrelationships between technology, economy and the politics of storytelling. Harman shows in riveting detail how a blind optimism in capitalism’s logic of progress and innovation belies the socio-economic structures, patronage politics and gatekeeping practices that govern the making, dissemination and consumption of narrative films.

A simple illustration. The visual landscape of representations of Africa in narrative film, Harman argues, remains largely defined by Hollywood cinematic tropes of ‘“the dark continent” full of “tribal” conflict (Black Hawk Down), ruthless dictators (Last King of Scotland), inner-city violence (Tsotsi), genocide (Hotel Rwanda), government corruption and collusion with capitalist interests (The Constant Gardener), and resource plunder (Blood Diamond)’ (p. 34). Even Black Panther – and I say this cautiously as an enthusiastic Marvel fanboy – can only subvert these tropes through a computer-generated spectacle that, despite being a compelling comic-book movie, offers little by way of a textured and rich (dare I say real?) Africa while the prolific film-makers of Nollywood, Swahiliwood, and Bongo film industries simply can’t compete with the Hollywood behemoth.

Where might ‘we’ (taken here to mean a global audience) then see ordinary African people, in their diversity and uniqueness, reconfiguring and pluralising images of the continent? Harman’s debut film, Pili, is a place to start.

Seeing Politics chronicles the journey of the making of Pili. In tandem, the book and the film represent a bold undertaking, a multi-layered work of considerable depth and complexity, irreducible to Harman’s manifesto of making the invisible and the hidden visible.

Set in rural Tanzania and unfolding over a four-day period, Pili is ‘a feature-length drama that not only focuses on the politics of everyday lives of women living with HIV/AIDS but also is made in a way that allows a particular group of women to tell their own story’ (p. xi). Seeing Politics does a great deal more than walk us through the making of Pili. In this book, Harman lays down an innovative epistemological gauntlet both to defy and to challenge orthodox approaches to the study of international politics and global health; she makes a humanistic plea for the power of visual narrative to reveal the dense linkages between political structures and political subjectivities; and she provides a thoughtful meditation on ‘agency in tight corners’ or what Jonny Steinberg (2016) – another advocate for research as narrative – calls the ‘phenomenology’ of decisions. Herein lies the ambition of Harman’s work.

‘Seeing’ operates through the text and the film fittingly as both heuristic and manifold metaphor. In Pili, we the audience are invited to ‘see’ how the social politics of inequality produce gendered patterns of HIV infection, shape the everyday experience of illness, and determine precarious access to life-saving treatment. All this is delivered through a tight narrative focus on the titular character. Meanwhile, in the book, we the readers peek behind the scenes where the themes of patronage, gatekeeping and inequality that indelibly mark the film’s content are mirrored in its making. As Harman writes,

Gatekeeping by the state and by the political economy of global film governance keeps the stories of women such as Pili in the periphery through gendered and racialised hierarchies. At the state level, gatekeeping is about controlling the stories that are told and the Tanzania that is seen on screen. At the global level, gatekeeping is about protecting profit and monopoly on audience time and spending, and about ensuring the commercial imperative behind what is seen. The only stories that are seen as those that turn a profit (p216).

The notion of gatekeeping, as used by Harman, is derived from Frederick Cooper’s (2002) popularisation of the term to characterise the African state. Harman makes a strong case for re-purposing the concept, away from its attachment to the state as such, to analyse politics on a much broader canvas. In at least one way, this is a welcome intellectual move. As in the quote above, Harman is determined to show that gatekeeping is multi-scalar; it is not a sui generis condition of African politics but a feature of global capitalism.

When it comes to Harman’s account of gatekeeping in Tanzania, she argues,

film as method opens up new ways of seeing the working practices of the state and how gatekeeping and patronage manifest at every level of society. In over ten years of working in Tanzania as a researcher and a trustee of an NGO I was never bribed by a co-worker, extorted by local immigration officials, asked for money, or detained at an airport by police. In the production of Pili all these things happened (p130).

Film is certainly an interesting means of seeing the working practices of the state, but the strength or reach of this claim must be qualified. Harman’s observations about the everyday workings of the state are powerfully illustrated in the book but she is not the first to make them. An ever-expanding literature, that might loosely be termed ‘ethnographies of the state’ (see Hansen and Stepputat 2001; Sharma and Gupta 2006; Hagmann and Péclard 2010; Bierschenk and Olivier de Sardan 2014), has consistently argued against looking at the state as a clearly definable unit of analysis and has instead advocated more granular studies of bureaucracy, public services, and formal and informal processes of democracy as a means to contextualise and explain such phenomena as patronage, bribery, corruption, extortion and arbitrary detentions in quotidian encounters with political authorities. As a contribution to the study of the state in Africa, I read Seeing Politics less as a work of IR and more as an important reminder of the need to study the state ethnographically.

Where Harman breaks new ground is in her use of visual narrative as output. As I suggested earlier in this essay, telling stories about Africa on film with the intention of reaching a global audience is a fraught enterprise not least because of extant cinematic tropes about the continent. Similarly, a film produced and directed by white Westerners about a young black woman with HIV in rural Tanzania runs the risk of reproducing much older colonial views of Africa and the black body as articulated by David Spurr (1993: 22) in his classic work The Rhetoric of Empire:

Under Western eyes, the body is that which is most proper to the primitive, the sign by which the primitive is represented. … They live, according to this view, in their bodies and in natural space, but not in a body politic worthy of the name nor in meaningful historical time. The bodies, not only of so-called primitive people but of all the colonized, have been a focal point of colonialist interest which, as in the case of landscape description, proceeds from the visual to various kinds of valorization: the material value of the body as labor, its aesthetic value as object of artistic representation, its ethical value as mark of innocence or degradation, its scientific value as evidence of racial difference or inferiority, its humanitarian value as the sign of suffering, its erotic value as the object of desire.

Pili brings out the themes of suffering and illness, exploited labour, patriarchy and sexual desire without ever being voyeuristic and without reducing any of the characters to their bodies or caricatures of their gender identity. As Harman states it plainly in Seeing Politics, the ‘role of male characters had to strike a balance between what the women told us about the men in their lives and their experience of living in a highly patriarchal society, and at the same time not contribute to the essentialist and often racialized metaphors about African men being hypersexualized, polygamous, uncaring’ and ‘in the same way, not all women living with HIV/AIDS are virtuous victims’ (p84).

Harman is hyper-reflexive, ever conscious of her own social identity and always transparent about her relationships with all involved in the making of the film. Thus, she gives us a subtle treatment of identity and power throughout the book. Harman is alive to the intersecting social structures that shape the lives of the Tanzanian women with whom she worked, but she is never deterministic in explaining what this might mean for agency and emancipatory politics. Moreover, she does not shy away from reflecting on and discussing the inevitable discomfort that a project of this nature evokes in multiple stages of its life from inception through production to mass dissemination.

This leads me to what I consider to be the most radical and striking aspect of the project, both book and film. Pili, the character, is confronted with tough choices in the four-day glimpse we have into her life. How and why does she make certain decisions and not others? To argue that – as young woman with HIV, heavy responsibilities and relatively little support – she is motivated by a desire to flee an intolerable situation or that she is desperate is in no way adequate. This would be to take a ‘terribly etic perspective’ (Steinberg 2016: 140). The co-produced nature of the film allows us to observe Pili from close quarters. From this vantage point we become aware that Pili, like all of us, is the bearer of complex psychology. Her journey is shaped by both chance meetings and flash decisions and by deep calculations and her conception of her personhood.

Seeing Pili as an agent is then reflected in how we see Harman’s negotiations with the Tanzanian cast about the nature, meaning, making and outcomes of the project. Multiple agendas are constantly at work. Telling stories and making the invisible visible sit alongside different calculations about investment, risk and reward. These dynamics exist in a larger political-economic matrix and play themselves out according to different temporalities.

If, at the turn of the century, political scientists were too slow to grapple with the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa then Seeing Politics is as strong a case as any for serious contemplation about the social and political life of the disease. Moreover, the Harman’s innovative use of method advances the study of HIV/AIDS politics in Africa far beyond traditional IR concerns of security, statehood and development. This project is a remarkable accomplishment in interdisciplinary work – a fine political ethnography of the visual. Plaudits must be given to Harman’s vision and courage for daring to produce a film without prior experience and then to do so brilliantly. Most importantly, Harman achieves her fundamental aim: her work allows us to see politics in great complexity and intricacy at macroscopic and microscopic levels.


Archambault, Julie Soleil. 2016. Mobile Secrets: Youth, Intimacy, and the Politics of Pretense in Mozambique. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Bierschenk, Thomas, and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan. 2014. States at Work: Dynamics of African Bureaucracies. Edited by Thomas Bierschenk and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Cooper, Frederick. 2002. Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hagmann, Tobias, and Didier Péclard. 2010. “Negotiating Statehood: Dynamics of Power and Domination in Africa.” Development and Change 41 (4): 539–62.

Hansen, Thomas, and Finn Stepputat. 2001. States of Imagination: Ethnographic Explorations of the Postcolonial State. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sharma, Aradhana, and Akhil Gupta. 2006. The Anthropology of the State: A Reader. Edited by Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Spurr, David. 1993. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Steinberg, Jonny. 2016. “The Vertiginous Power of Decisions: Working through a Paradox about Forced Migration.” Public Culture 28 (1 (78)): 139–60.


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