Film photography as a means of showcasing a contemporary Zanzibar


Words and Photos 

By Carl van der Linde


My plane became smaller and smaller as I traveled with connected flights from Cape Town to Zanzibar, one of the few destinations open for travel during the pandemic. I arrived in Stone Town, the historic capital of Zanzibar, in a small six-seater Cessna - a quick flight from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Navigating the maze of narrow streets and alleyways in this UNESCO World Heritage Site is like a walking history lesson. Fruit cart vendors in traditional Omani uniform haul coconuts and street merchants sell fresh seafood from their shopfronts - harvests from the rich, East African fishing water. 


I was soon introduced to another history lesson when the labyrinth of passageways led me to a tucked-away shop in Shangani Street. Displayed on the wall were numerous darkroom printed photos and postcards featuring portraits of old customers and street scenes from Stone Town that interested the lens of the shop-owner. Many of them were mounted informally, with yellow curling edges and sunbleached from the late afternoon sunsets that breach the windows of his shop.   


He educated me in a brief history of photography in Zanzibar and the Greater Swahili coast. In the late 1800s, Stown Town was one of the main hubs of the East African slave trade under Omani rule. Along with its logistically ideal location as a link between East Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, Zanzibar was also a major exporter of spices (mostly cloves) which lured traders and merchants from across the globe. This resulted in the islanders being fluent in adapting different global views and cultures like the newly emerging photography trend. 


Studio portraiture was introduced to the area from the turn of the 19th century, mostly used by the affluent colonists and settlers as displaying black and white family portraits were a show of wealth and stature. Colour film photography was introduced in the early 1900s, pictures of East African scenes and inhabitants were often transformed into postcards of staged scenes and scenarios that were distributed as purely decorative touristic souvenirs. The result was a misconception of actual perceived circumstances and culture as these postcards were inaccurate and staged depictions of life on the Swahili coast. 


I observe the same occurrence that globalization has on the portrayal and perception of Zanzibar. A quick Google search will show you photographs of lavish expensive resorts with palm trees, white sands and turquoise waters. The social media influencer era illustrates a picture of Zanzibar as a playground for the wealthy, western world. The island does boast many of the above mentioned attractive allures, but in reality, Zanzibar is a rural, East-African archipelago and has about a third of its population living under the poverty line. Knowing this about the island, a picture should be painted that fuses both the actual current Zanzibar as an appealing, exotic international travel destination with one that captures its historic significance.


Through exploring the present-day Zanzibar with film photography, I aim to showcase a contemporary window of this modern, African Shangri-la, while staying true to the fundamentals that make up its spirited, traditional heritage. The island's ancient, cultural significance is much too often overshadowed by the effects of world media. By bringing this visual diary to life, I am pairing the island's natural aesthetics with its long-established history and retaining the identity of the island and its inhabitants.


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