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In Africa, the Art of Listening

This article, In Africa, the Art of Listening, the author decides to go on an expedition and was so compelled by his observation of a different culture that he decided to stay. Now what could be so compelling as to take a man from his home for the indefinite future?


HENNING MANKELL describes Western storytelling as primarily linear and henceforth a bit boring and predictable. However, in Africa, their stories contain peaks and valleys, rivers and desserts, spirals spikes. It requires a different capacity to listen in order to understand. One that he differentiates as knowledge vs. information. The ability to hear is the ability to receive information, but the ability to listen is the capacity to interpret what you hear into knowledge.

This knowledge and capacity is represented throughout their culture. The African natives are slower to speak, better at listening, and all around more generous as a people. On one hot day, the author takes a lesson from his newfound culture, sits and listens, and learns enough to satisfy him for a lifetime: we are story telling beings. Our ability to create and interpret these stories are what make us uniquely human.


"...the storytelling will go on until the last human being stops listening"

This story made me think about our cultures inability to really listen. We are in such a polarized community that when we speak to someone who we assume is on the opposite side as we are, we listen for cues that they are wrong. We listen to find the faults in what they say and not to find our congruencies, our common ground. Our listening habits force us farther and farther away from each other because we use their own words against them. We do not listen to learn, we listen to win. We do the same thing within our own selves. We often times ignore the biological signs our body gives us; stress, anxiety, depression, and we end up overwhelmed and depressed. We need to listen to our bodies and gain the knowledge we need in order to quell our pain. We should do the same for our fellow man.


"Who knows? Maybe someone is out there, willing to listen ..."

Listening is crucial for a documentary photographer because we are acting as the voice of our subject. If we listen for what we want to hear as opposed to what they are actually saying, it is a very real possibility that we will end up distorting their truths. We need to be ethnographers which means we need to emerge ourselves in the experience we seek to encapsulate. We need to truly understand and be knowledgeable about the reality of someone else situation. To be cliche, we need to place ourselves in their shoes if we want to be truly representative of their experience. Often times we are documenting people who have been under represented and need their voice amplified. That is where documentary photography comes into play.

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