Africa is a massive continent that is complex, dynamic, and ever-changing, and yet so often tourists to any part of it sum it up with a few very similar photos. Outsiders tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to try and seek out and reproduce what they grew up seeing in National Geographic, but even a publication like that only has seen a slice of what this place has, is, and offers. And just this week, Nat Geo took a look at their colonial biases through the last century, reminding us that we, as outsiders, who turn our cameras to this diverse, multi-faceted continent tend to do so with a very specific lens, one that sees Africa through a fairly narrow scope. Furthermore, many roundups of African photographers are largely dominated by men — some lists featuring no women at all, others featuring just one or two. Here are 14 massively talented female photographers who are African, African-descent, or living in Africa, who are taking to the streets daily to show us there is overwhelmingly more to this land, its people, its history, and its future, through their lens, their words, and their experiences.
1. Sarah Waisa
Ugandan-born, Kenyan-raised Sarah Waisa’s work swings from color to black and white and back again, and is a beautiful mix of portraits and scenes. Even the portraits vary: some are bold, colorful, intentional portraits where someone is sitting for her, and others are candid. She made OkayAfrica’s list of 100 influential women, with good reason: her work is poetic. Expect to see significant lines and colors at play here. She co-runs the Instagram account African Cityzens which furthers her efforts to change the lens Africa is seen through.
2. Laylah Amatullah Barrayn
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora. MFON is part of the inspiration for this list; it is a book highlighting over 100 female photographers of African descent that wants to create awareness around these women and their work, lend them a louder voice, and shout into a void that is largely white, colonial, and male. It is named in memory of Mmekutmfon Essien, “Mfon,” who was a sharp photographer who died of breast cancer, and there is a grant for emerging black female photographers in her name. Barrayn’s work is people-driven, empowering, and colorful. Though she is based in New York, her images largely focus on Senegal, Ghana, and South Africa.
3. Maile Tadese
Maile Tadese is based in Ethiopia and explores life there through the everyday. Small scenes and portraits, often with significant backstories, line her Instagram. She contributes to Everyday Africa and runs Everyday Ethiopia. She has words about tourists respecting the culture they are visiting (such as visiting holy sites like Lalibela and not removing shoes or covering up) and about images and accounts that promote the White Savior complex. All that to say, to really appreciate her work, you have to read the words too.
4. Ngadi Smart
Ngadi Smart is a photographer and visual artist currently based in the Ivory Coast. Her feed is part photography, part illustration. She is contributing to MFON, and has been published in places like World Press Photo, CNN, and True Africa. Her focus, other than illustrations, is portrait work.
5. Yagazie Emezi
Yagazie Emezi is a photographer from Nigeria making waves. She was one of six to win the 2018 Creative Bursary Award from Getty Images, and was recently photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue. She’s been published in Newsweek, The New York Times, and Huffington Post. She contributes to the Instagram account Everyday Africa. Her work heavily involves people, color, portraits, textures, and projects like exploring standards of beauty (or lack thereof) in poor communities, or re-claiming your body after it’s been changed — by an accident, scarring, or other people. Emezi is on the rise, and rightly so. Her work is poignant, smart, and asking excellent questions.
6. Ley Uwera
Ley Uwera is a Congolese photographer based in the DRC. Her work has been seen in the New York Times, Upworthy, and more. She explores issues and developments in the DRC as the country evolves and grows and changes. As with many on this list, her work focuses on people and their stories as they unfold around her.
7. Joana Choumali
Joana Choumali is an award-winning artist and photographer from the Ivory Coast. She contributes to Everyday Africa and has done dozens of exhibitions of her work. Most recently, she participated in “Africa is No Island” which opened at the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden, in Marrakech, a non-profit seeking to promote African art. She does conceptual portraiture and mixed media, along with documenting everyday life in her city Abidjan.
8. Sara Zaki
Sara Zaki is a photographer in Cairo who started an account called Cairo on Foot. She went abroad for school and found herself exploring new cities with delight, and came back realizing her city of Cairo deserved the same treatment. She began to really explore her home and inspiring others to do the same, and Cairo on Foot was born.
9. Khadija M Farah
Khadija M Farah is a photographer based in Kenya who also explores the island of Lamu, Tanzania, Somalia, and more. She was born in Nairobi to Somali parents, then raised in the USA for her teenage years, before returning back to Kenya, where she seeks to understand the people around her better by learning their stories. Her Somali roots, she says, are part of her need for storytelling, as Somali history is very much an oral one. From Kanga projects to fishermen to interviewing camel herders in Somalia, she truly meets the people she photographs and tries to retell their story as best she can.
10. Stefanie Jason
Stefanie Jason is an award-winning journalist based in South Africa and editor of the cultural magazine 10-and-5 which showcases South African creativity. She’s in Johannesburg and has been a featured writer for Marie Claire ZA, is a fellow for the International Women’s Media Foundation, and writes on topics like women’s issues, race, and culture.
11. Sara Jabril
Sara Jabril was born in Berlin but has East African roots. After attending university and studying social and political science, she headed to Tanzania and began to put her education to work. Along the way, she picked up a camera and has fused her two passions: public affairs and photography. This plays in projects like ‘Dhulka Hooyo’ Project highlighting images of Somalia from the 1980s, celebrating the otherwise war-torn country’s “rich history, stunning landscape and its beautiful people.”
12. Nasrin Suleiman
Nasrin Suleiman grew up on the island of Zanzibar, and then went to North America for school. She’s now a graphic designer and photographer who is back in Zanzibar exploring her home island, her roots, and the beauty found here. Her work is especially upbeat, colorful, and the most “insta-famous” of this list but she’s still highlighting her home, normally seen through the lens of a tourist.
13. Eyerusalem Jirenga
Eyerusalem Jirenga is a freelance photographer and fashion designer based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her images are bright, full of color and texture, and have received significant praise. She was exhibited in 2016 in New York, as well as around Addis Ababa. She is a contributing photographer to MFON.
14. Nicky Woo
Nicky Woo is an editorial photographer who splits her time between New York and East Africa. Her work has explored Swahili sex workers, garbage pickers, climate change and female seaweed farmers, and drug trafficking in Zanzibar, but also portraits, fashion, weddings, art, and more. Her work isn’t afraid of harsh sunlight or harsh issues.