An African Looks at America: Picturing Racial Integration for Africa, 1956–68

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The global tour of Edward Steichen’s 1955 photographic exhibition The Family of Man, sponsored by the United States Information Agency (USIA), has long been viewed as the defining moment for the medium’s engagement in US Cold War diplomacy and propaganda. Yet the attention garnered by this single exhibition has served to obscure an extensive programme of photographic diplomacy developed by the USIA during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and largely overlooked by photographic scholarship. One strand of this programme was shaped by the twin concerns of racial conflict at home and decolonisation in Africa and Asia. As the US government cultivated audiences in the newly independent nations of the emerging Third World, it became clear that it would need to adapt its message. Racial integration became a pervasive theme in the agency’s photographic output as it sought to picture America for its international audiences and visually refute accusations that the USA was an inherently racist society. In contrast to studies of US propaganda output of the early 1950s, which have suggested a limited repertoire for the representation of African Americans, the photographic records for this period provide evidence that the USIA paid close attention to the micro-politics of racial interaction and endeavoured to create a richer and more complete set of representations. Seen in the context of the time, the carefully choreographed portrayals of interracial interaction that emerge from the USIA archives are remarkable, if always highly partial and selective.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages29
JournalHistory of Photography
Publication statusPublished - 19 Mar 2024


  • Photgraphy
  • History
  • Africa
  • Race
  • civil rights
  • America
  • Cold War
  • decolonisation
  • Diplomatic photography
  • racial integration
  • United States Information Agency


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