Todd Webb in Africa: Outside the Frame

Saturday, January 02, 2021 - Sunday, June 13, 2021

Colonialism + Independence

European colonialism in Africa proliferated in the late 1800s. Expansionary world capitalism created an insatiable need for raw materials and new markets. By 1914, 90 percent of Africa was divided among a handful of European nations. The colonial regime entailed territorial conquest, economic exploitation, and state-sponsored racism. After its creation in 1945, the United Nations monitored several former colonies, known as U.N. trust territories, which included Togoland (Togo), Somaliland (Somalia), and Tanganyika (Tanzania). The world organization had a vested interest in their stability.

When Todd Webb accepted the U.N. assignment in 1958, he visited nine African countries. Two were newly independent nations (Sudan and Ghana); six would soon gain independence in the early sixties (Togo, Somalia, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Kenya, and Zambia); and one would remain ruled by a white minority until 1980 (Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe). Many of Webb’s photos convey a sense of political hope and optimism. Yet, in light of the continued economic and political dependence that some African countries experience today, more critical voices speak of them as remaining in a state of “perpetual neocolonialism.”

Portraits + Power Dynamics

Todd Webb’s pictures of individuals provide glimpses into the dynamics between the photographer and those he photographed during his United Nations assignment. Though we may never know the true texture of these encounters, or what the people in the photographs were feeling as Webb clicked his shutter, it is possible to consider what Tanzanian artist and theorist Rehema Chachage called “two tales”—an outsider’s and an insider’s perspective.

As a white American man, Webb was an outsider to the cultures he visited. And while his photographs differ distinctly from those of earlier outsiders, who understood their work in line with the anthropological study of cultural “types” rather than of individuals, they nevertheless give material and visual form to unequal power dynamics. We might consider whether individuals, like the man in a red suit walking down a Mogadishu street, willingly or unwillingly participated in these exchanges.


Today, 41 percent of Africa’s population—over 500 million people—lives in cities. When Todd Webb visited Africa in 1958, about 18 percent—less than 50 million—were urban. At the time, many policymakers and politicians considered urban development necessary to “modernize” Africa, together with schooling, industrialization, commerce, and political reform. Webb made these the principal themes of his photography, as his United Nations–financed mission aimed to show a continent changing in ways that Americans and Europeans considered progress.

“Modernization,” an ideology of the Global North, was based on the false assumption that Europe provided the sole model of social advancement. In fact, large urban centers prospered in many parts of Africa long before the arrival of Europeans. One city photographed by Webb, Mogadishu, dates back to antiquity. For over 2,000 years, Somalia’s capital was part of a vast trade network connected with Phoenicia, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, and India. This historical depth tends to fade in Webb’s photographs, which primarily focused on a Western-looking future.


Throughout his assignment, Todd Webb sought to build a visual record of advancements in Euro-American educational systems across the nine African nations on his itinerary. Taking his camera into classrooms, agricultural settings, medical facilities, and cultural institutions, he recorded the activities of students and instructors to fortify a growing archive of images of post-colonial “progress” for the United Nations’ diplomatic publications. Though often less dramatic than his photographs of busy factories, ports, and shopping centers, these images were crucial to Webb’s photographic construction of modernization in Africa, as they revealed the social and cultural effects of industrialization. Photographs of students, classrooms, civic museums, and murals reveal Webb’s focus on education, cultural heritage sites, and public health campaigns as evidence of a “changing Africa.”

Trade + Transport

In his imaging of African nations, Todd Webb documented their infrastructure, including the transportation systems upon which industrial economies relied: passenger planes, railways, and ports. Well before the arrival of colonial powers, Africa has been a hub of transcontinental, overland, riverine, coastal, and maritime trade, supporting local and global economies alike.

Seeking images of a dynamic, interconnected Africa flush with governmental and corporate investments, Webb amassed photographs of economies built upon local labor and extractive practices. In Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Webb shot from a mining shaft, a worker and his vehicle silhouetted against the dazzling light of the entrance. In Accra, Ghana, and Togoland (Togo), he photographed laborers at busy ports loading flour and other agricultural products onto boats. In Somaliland (Somalia), he photographed passengers stepping into a corporate jet for Sinclair Somal—an American oil company prospecting Italian-controlled territories. These and other photographs supported the United Nations’ goal of displaying a continent in transition through its trade and transportation, capitalizing upon its resources (human and environmental) to power its emerging democracies.

Built Environment

Todd Webb’s photographs explore the relationship between the natural and the human-made worlds. The environments pictured here result from colonial occupation and capitalist enterprise. Indigenous residential architecture coexists with mosques, stores, oil refineries, tents, and worker housing. Webb’s photography of the built environment illuminates the colonial effort to control African topography and resources in 1958. The horizontality of a street in Ghana and the symmetry of factory smokestacks in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) underscore the capitalist, industrial aesthetics of the Global North, a term that highlights priorities and disparities around wealth, housing, education, digital access, and other factors of developed societies of Europe and North America.

Industry + Economy

In 1958, the United Nations Office of Information hired Todd Webb to document industry and technology on the African continent. His itinerary focused on emerging African nation states on the cusp of independence. As part of this photographic commission, Webb was charged with representing these countries as modern, industrial, and globally networked commercial entities. At the same time, as a successful white American photographer, his cultural experiences and economic privileges distanced him from some of the people and cultures he portrayed.

Webb’s photographic record fulfilled a diplomatic vision, documenting both large- and small-scale industry. Luscious images from colonial department stores in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), the working harbor in Accra, Ghana, and fishing on the beach in Somalia aestheticize diverse economic practices. As representations of a modernizing Africa, Webb’s photographs assert optimism and possibility. But much of this progress was based on the colonial imposition of extractive industries, as seen in images such as the Sinclair oil rig (Somalia) and Texaco filling station (Togo).

Impact on the Environment

While photographing for the United Nations, Todd Webb documented the colonial legacy and its impact upon diverse landscapes. His photographs record the ways that industry and commerce etched the environment, at times in paradoxically beautiful ways that deny their deep imprint on local ecologies. Such visual tension is evident in the deep-red molten liquid running down the slag heap at a copper mine in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and in the zigzag of the hill carving out the enormous Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River, which displaced over 57,000 Tonga people and killed thousands of animals caught in the flooding waters.

Many of Webb’s photographs feature gleaming new technologies, such as the freshly built hydroelectric power station at Pangani Falls in Tanganyika (Tanzania), where a man pushes a lawnmower behind a chain-link fence. This image resists touristic or romantic visions of the continent to illuminate the profound effects of colonialism on the environmental landscape.

Archival Materials

Todd Webb collected a variety of ephemera, from tourist brochures to hotel stationery, as well as gifts presented to him by dignitaries, schoolchildren, and colleagues in the field. These objects, in addition to his own journal and letters to his wife, provide insight into his everyday routines and experiences while he photographed diverse cultural regions of Africa.

Webb had never been to the continent, and his activities as a professional often converged with those of a sightseer; he saved ticket stubs along with official invitations as souvenirs. In addition to prints developed by Webb himself, the exhibition cases display drawings made for Webb by schoolchildren in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and the only United Nations publication in which 22 of his photographs in Africa appear.