Review: African Arenas by Thomas Hoeffgen


Book Reviews, Photobooks


Given how popular many types of sport are, I’m always a bit surprised how little non-specialized photography is produced around it. Of course, there are all those photographers with their fancy cameras and huge zoom lenses that produce the images you get to see in newspapers or in dedicated publications. But those photographs typically are “action” shots that, at best, tell you a lot about some particular sports event - some game or competition - but very little, if anything, about the cultural value that is attached to the game or sport in general. Regardless of whatever you might think about any given sport, there usually is a large and often surprisingly complex cultural component to it, which is where interesting photography can be produced. Just to give an example, I really could not possibly sit through a curling match, but a photography project about the people who play curling might actually be interesting. (more)

At the time of this writing, the Soccer World Cup is happening, a major event in most parts of the world. Even though I grew up in Germany, I never played soccer, and I have never enjoyed watching it. But I do know about its role there and in many other places all over the world. Thinking about photography, there’s Hans van der Meer’s European Fields, which shows amateur-league soccer matches - and their surroundings - in different European countries. This, of course, is pretty much the polar opposite of the World Cup in pretty much every way except for the fact that, well, there are still two teams, using the same rules etc. - but it does provide surprising insight into not just the sport itself.

Thomas Hoeffgen’s African Arenas fits right in the mold of European Fields. It portrays soccer in Africa, in its various forms, ranging from completely improvised playing fields to the fancy new stadiums used in South Africa for the World Cup. Unlike Van der Meer’s book, the approach is a bit more varied, with landscapes, portraits, even aerial shots, and with photographs taken not just in South Africa, but also in Nigeria, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Malawi. Photographically, this makes the book easier to read than Van der Meer’s, but it also results in things ending up slightly uneven. Needless to say, this reviewer’s personal preferences play a role here.

All in all, Thomas Hoeffgen’s African Arenas is a welcome addition to a growing canon of photo books about Africa that try to expand our view of the continent by looking at something other than poverty, war, or famine (or the usual combination of those). If you’re a soccer fan you’ll experience the added bonus of seeing the game in its different environments there. Just in the case of European Fields, non-soccer fans will probably enjoy African Arenas just as much.

African Arenas, photography by Thomas Hoeffgen, essays by Ian Hawkey and Nadine Barth, 144 pages, Hatje Cantz, 2010