A model exits the runway during South Africa Fashion Week in March 2017 in Johannesburg. (Miora Rajaonary)

Voices of African Photography is a 10-part series presented in partnership with the African Photojournalism Database, a joint project of Everyday Africa and World Press Photo, to highlight the work of 10 African photographers and photojournalists.

Miora Rajaonary was a late bloomer in photography. “I grew up in a country where creativity is not valued, and the pursuit of artistic careers is not encouraged in the sense that there is no school, funds or educational resources to do so,” said the Madagascar-born photographer. That meant that she learned about the technical basics of photography at 29, just six years ago, when she moved to South Africa.

At first, Rajaonary was interested in photojournalism, but she quickly realized that the approach was not for her. “I like spending time talking, collaborating with my subjects, and understanding their views,” she said. “I think there is an aspect of me, of my personal story, in every story that I decide to dive in, because it raises questions that affect me personally, the most important being: ‘Who am I?’”

This personal entwinement with her photographic projects comes from her own experience in Madagascar and South Africa, she told In Sight. “I am a person of color, but I was educated in the French education system,” she said. “I value my culture and traditions but have a way of reasoning that is Western. I identify myself as a black person, but for some people, my skin is too light, my hair too curly, my partner is white, our child is mixed race, and we are foreigners in the country we live in.” All of these experiences have led Rajaonary to question who she is, as she said, but also where she stands. “There is a permanent internal conflict in my head and heart, that I am trying to solve. When I start working on a particular subject, it’s because I think it will help me understand who I am better somehow.”

Helene Raheliarisoa, a Betsileo woman from the highland village of Sandrandahy in Madagascar, poses in one of her lamba, a traditional outfit. (Miora Rajaonary)

Hanta, a Sakalava woman, in her lamba garment in Antanimalandy, Madagascar. (Miora Rajaonary)

Lisette, a Sakalava woman, in her traditional lamba outfit in Antanimalandy, Madagascar. (Miora Rajaonary)

That’s what her series Lamba is about. Using the traditional garments of her native country, Madagascar, and inspired by the African tradition of portraiture, the work is an attempt for Rajaonary to go back to her roots, “exploring and reconnecting with my culture and my people,” she said. “It’s also a way to shed a new light on Madagascar, because people hear a lot about the wildlife, the landscapes, but the unique culture of the country remains unknown or misunderstood.”

With this series and all the work that she does, Rajaonary wants to inspire change and encourage people, especially young girls from her native country, “to become great artists too and eventually become more successful than I am.” That has meant fighting against her own shyness around sharing her own work. “How can a young Malagasy girl think it is possible to become a successful female photographer if they know none?”

That success can be difficult to achieve for African photographers, as Rajaonary, and the other photographers profiled in these articles, have testified. “It is much harder for us, African photographers, for many reasons,” she said. “The few times I traveled to the U.S., I realized how important it was to meet editors face-to-face, because editors and curators consider your work but also your personality.” That means that African photographers often get just one chance to make a good impression — and that’s not even a guarantee. “Last year, two friends of mine never made it to the New York Portfolio Review because they were denied visas.”

There is hope though. “I have been fortunate enough to find allies who believe in my work and put my name out there, and mentors whom I can send my work to for critiques,” she said. Plus, Africa-based festivals and art fairs, such as the Addis Foto Fest, are now more common, slowly transforming the industry. But the lack of diverse representation in the photographic industry as a whole still needs to be addressed, she said. “There are more and more African photographers, but I feel the stories and the photos about Africa remain the same, because editors still tend to pursue the same narrative. I wish I could see a more nuanced perspective on Africa, other than the one highlighting war, disease and poverty because Africa is definitely more than that.”

Two couples from a Hira Gasy troupe poses with their lamba and costumes in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Hira Gasy is a tradition and day-long spectacle in Madagascar, combining dance, music and oratory performances. (Miora Rajaonary)

Mamie, Rajaonary’s grandmother and inspiration for this project. Albertine Rajaonary never leaves her home without a lamba. (Miora Rajaonary)

Gen. Désiré Ramakavelo and his wife, Geneviève, pose with their lamba in Antananarivo, Madagascar. They are two of the few members of Anatanarivo’s high society, who still wear lamba on a daily basis and on important occasions. (Miora Rajaonary)

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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Voices of African Photography: At the intersection of identity, power and belonging

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