Speak for yourself

With a love of academia, this local journalist exchanged his camera for teaching, completed his doctorate and won an award.

05 May 2019 | People

Windhoek • Yolanda Nel

Etched in Namibia's history are images of proud German troops, standing at attention next to the hanged bodies of Herero prisoners.

Photography played a major role in justifying the massacres, and according to research, Namibia's Dr Hugh Ellis, media lecturer at the Namibia University for Science and Technology carried out for his PhD thesis, colonial authorities tried to portray a gentler side of white rule.

He feels photography is still misused in the country, he says.

“Imagine a world, where members of the community can speak for themselves without the need for big businesses, the state and their agendas to mediate the process,” Ellis said in an interview. This was one of his interests that sparked his thesis. “My thesis was the result of the coming together of two of my interests,” he said.

One interest was community, in 'new' ways of doing media that maybe involve 'bottom-up' approaches. Ellis wondered to what extent this could be done with photography. The second was how people learn, or fail to learn, and concerned what happens, both in the university and often in community-based movements, when very privileged teachers, like himself, teach people who have very different backgrounds.

Investigating photography

Ellis's research involved him investigating photography in three community-based organisations in the country, through interviews, but also investigating immersively by being a volunteer trainer in these programmes.

In his article with The Conversation, based in South Africa, he says that the organisations he worked with seek to 'take back' photography from its historical and present misuse. “They aim to get marginalised Namibians involved in telling their own stories and document their own communities through photography.”

He was embedded in some of these projects as an ethnographic researcher, along with some of his senior students.

“We were all relatively privileged Namibians and had to take this into account when trying to help people empower themselves through images without centering our own experiences, especially when acting as teachers and experts,” he said.

Ellis explained that the role of the teacher and the role of the expert are both traditionally imbued with a degree of power. Such ways of thinking about knowledge are problematic because they imply that for every expert, there is a non-expert who needs to be 'given' information. This implies a powerful, involved expert on one hand and a passive receiver of knowledge on the other.

On being awarded

Ellis was recently awarded the William and Ntihila Kupe prize for his research as the best PhD thesis at Wits University's Department of Media Studies. “I feel great, not just for myself but for the many participants in my study. It's nice to see research into the media in particular, and the humanities in general, get recognition, because sadly it often does not get much,” he said.

He is also of the opinion that more studies on Namibian media should be done.

“Much of the research that has been done, including mine, only scratches the surface.”

Interesting media projects at NUST and the University of Namibia currently, include looking at gender representation, and on the relationship between the media and indigenous knowledge systems. Some are looking at how the English language is developing and changing in Namibia, including through its use in the media.

As a researcher himself, Ellis thinks more needs to be done to tackle the difficult issues of how race and class are portrayed in the Namibian media. NUST has just begun a Masters' Degree in Journalism and Media Technology, and hopefully the graduate students in this program will do research into some of these subjects.

Educating the next generation
As a well-known journalist in the field, Hugh wanted to find a way to give back and use what he had learned to help educate the next generation of media professionals. “With both my parents involved in education in various capacities, I have had an interest in academics for many years,” he says.

The media has undergone many changes in the past two decades and with the growth of technology and social media, the media in Namibia might look a lot different in the next ten years.

“I think some media houses will thrive in the new, more digital environment, and others will struggle, maybe even close down,” Ellis says.

According to him, this will doubtless intensify as more of the population gets online cheaply, through mobile phones. “Key to survival will be to speak to the youth using language they are comfortable with, finding new revenue models including subscriptions and small-scale advertising, and finding ways to deal with the power of large internet companies like Facebook and Google.”

He also thinks that multimedia newsrooms are already becoming more common, and this will only increase.

He is of mind that the days of being only a writer or only a TV cameraperson, are coming to an end. “I think if Namibian media want to survive they will have to interact more with poor and rural communities. Journalism will have to be more about the ordinary person, and less about elite politicians and businesses.”

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