The Man Who Built The Biggest Photo Library In Africa

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By Whitney Johnson

“It was hard to find a single photography book in Ghana,” Paul Ninson (pictured above) told me when we met at the International Center of Photography, where he was a student before the pandemic.

He also told me what a fan he is of National Geographic.

When Paul began taking pictures in Ghana, he was determined to learn everything about photography. And as he told Humans of New York in an extraordinary blog post, he looked everywhere for inspiration, including old National Geographic magazines. The two issues pictured below, he told us, inspired him to tell African stories through an African lens and to advocate against wildlife trafficking and exploitative forms of wildlife tourism.

During his time at ICP, Paul began collecting photography books to bring home to Ghana. His single shelf of books quickly grew–to more than 30,000. By year’s end, Paul had filled a shipping container; he had enough books, he says, to build the largest photo library in Africa.

But “as my collection has grown, so has my dream,” Paul told Humans of New York. “I want to build more than just a library. I want to build an entire learning center. A home for photography in Ghana.” He has even chosen the name: Dikan, which in the Asante language means “To take the lead.” (A rendering of the center is below.)

RENDERING COURTESY DIKAN CENTER

His biggest dream for the center? As he says in a Reddit AMA that we hosted:

“My goal is to make visual education accessible to every African.”

Below are two photos from the wildlife tourism issue Paul admired, and three from our special Africa issue:

PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE

Baiting dolphins: Tourists on the Rio Negro in Brazil swarm an Amazon dolphin lunging for a baitfish dangled by the tour operator. Many of the numerous scratches on the dolphin’s skin are from brushes with other dolphins vying for bait. Hands-on wildlife encounters are popular in the region.

PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE

Elephant ‘play’: A British family enjoys a photo shoot with juvenile elephants at Lucky Beach on the island of Phuket. Many travelers, unaware of the training the captive elephants endure, view such picturesque experiences as the highlight of their trip.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PASCAL MAITRE

Chad: Searching for signs that Chad’s oil pipeline project helps local people, Roman Catholic clergy tour the oil-producing region around Doba.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ED KASHI

Nigeria: Drying cassava paste by gas flare, a market woman risks her life to earn a living in Afiesere. If a sudden flame surge doesn’t harm her, airborne toxins eventually might—risks that prompted activists to demand an end to gas flaring.

PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN JOHNSON

Zambia: “They are all my friends,” Mariate Banda, standing at center, says of the laughing women who fill the Cinderella beauty shop in Mfuwe. Her small salary makes saving difficult, but Mariate tells photographer and Nat Geo Explorer Lynn Johnson she has a goal: “My life’s ambition is to have my own equipment.”

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