In the picture

Should photographs be judged on who takes them? Charles Darwentvisits two exhibitions to see for him

Shortly before his death in 1995, the French photographer Robert Doisneau was sued by an elderly couple who, when young, had formed the unwitting subject of his most famous photograph, The Kiss at the Hotel de Ville (1950). Their grouse? That in taking his picture, Doisneau had also helped himself to a moral copyright which, in some unknowable way, had belonged to them. They won their case.

The idea that the taking of a photograph implies a more literal misappropriation from its subject is common to everyone from royal princesses (who insist that it robs them of their privacy) to Haitian shamanists (who maintain that it steals their souls). This belief also ties in nicely with anti-imperialist and pro-feminist thinking, which holds that both Leni Riefenstahl's photographs of African warriors and Hustler shots of naked women are products of a system that gives power (and cameras) to white people and men.

The impulse to make up for this bias is, presumably, behind two new shows of photography, "Africa by Africa: a photographic view" at London's Barbican Art Gallery and "Between Two Worlds: pioneering British women photographers" at the Royal Photographic Society's Octagon Galleries in Bath. The Barbican makes its political point implicit by showing its African work alongside an exhibition devoted to the photography of Pablo Picasso, a well-known white appropriator of African art. The RPS's show, more guilelessly, is accompanied by a talk entitled "How Women Do Colour Better Than Men".

The impulse in both cases is almost certainly a gallant one, but is the thinking behind it right? For there to be a practical reason for treating African photography as distinct from any other kind, it would be useful if the work could be shown to be in some way unique. A quick look at the images in "Africa by Africa" suggests that it isn't, particularly.

The photographs of women in flouncy petticoats and calico prints by the Senegalese Mama Casset or Beninois Joseph Moise Agbojelou are nice enough, but oddly touristic: it is difficult to come up with any sense in which they might usefully be seen as "African" other than that Casset, Agbojelou and the subjects they photographed all happened to be from Africa. The pictures do not seem any more technically unusual, say, or conspiratorial or empathetic than if they had been taken by non-African photographers. Equally, Abderramane Sakaly's poignant study of two friends is both moving and beautifully lit and constructed; but it is the subjects who are African, not the work itself.

You can't help feeling that seeing Sakaly's picture as a good African photograph, rather than more simply as a good photograph, is doing it something of a disservice. Indeed, somewhere in the thinking behind "Africa by Africa" seems to be a faint (but none the less patronising) sense of surprise that these photographs exist at all: that the natives can actually take pictures. And if we are being entirely politically correct, it might also be pointed out that every one of the 20-odd photographers in the Barbican's African show is male.

Not entirely surprisingly, none of the 30-something prewar British women photographers in "Between Two Worlds" is black, but the RPS's show does at least have a more compelling logic on its side. The pictures in it are both identifiably alike and discernibly different from those produced by male photographers of the same period. To look at the work in the show - Agnes Warburg's flower arrangements or Mrs Barton's portrait of an androgynous boy with a jay chick on his shoulder - is to glimpse the world of Hardy's silent, watching woman: a world whose viewpoint is ruled by subjugation and constraint.

If the subjects allowed to women photographers - children, flowers, fairies, fashion - were necessarily narrow, feminist rebellion lay in technique. And rebellion is probably not too strong a word for it. When Yevonde Cumbers, aka Madame Yevonde, signed up with the suffragettes in 1910, she wrote: "I would gladly embark on a career of wickedness and violence . . . but I could not face prison and forcible feeding. I must get a career - that is the only way to help the cause."

Like Warburg (whose apparently anodyne flower arrangements are actually the product of a pioneering polychrom-atic process of her own invention), Madame Yevonde set about subverting photography through colour. While remaining principally a society portraitist - a career open to women - she revolutionised British portraiture through her use of light filters. Colour was, she said, part of the "inherent knowledge [which] women possess to a far greater degree than men". For all the occasionally emetic cutesiness of their subjects, there is a similar streak of subversion running through all the pictures in "Between Two Worlds": a quality that makes the show hang together and gives it a rationale which the Barbican's lacks.

"Africa by Africa" runs at the Barbican Art Gallery (0171-382 7105) until 28 March, and "Between Two Worlds" at the RPS's Octagon Galleries (01225 462841) until 21 March