BY Sean O’Toole in Opinion | 01 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 143

Studio International

Does digital media spell the end for portrait photographers in Africa?

BY Sean O’Toole in Opinion | 01 NOV 11

Cheikh Diallo, Model test shoot, c.2005-7. Courtesy the artist

Midway through our conversation, I ask Madou Diarra, the 27-year-old proprietor of Studio Bambera, a small photographic studio in the punishingly hot, far-western Malian town of Kayes, if he knows of Seydou Keïta or Malick Sidibé, two countrymen who indelibly left their mark on African photography. ‘No,' he replies. It’s just after Isha, the last of the five daily prayers for the Islamic faithful, and it’s still light when our conversation turns to art. Diarra is seated on a wooden bench outside his studio, a simple structure with a tin roof and stucco walls adorned with murals showing the implements of his trade. The studio is on a busy arterial road used by decrepit trucks plying the rutted 1,200-kilometre route between Dakar and Bamako (which is currently hosting its photo biennial).

Diarra promptly tells me how tradition is less important than a reliable customer. ‘The best people to photograph are the ones I know will collect their photos,’ he says in reference to the contents of the shoebox sat between us. In the manner of Keïta and Sidibé, the uncollected prints in Diarra’s box record the way ordinary Malians ideally wish to remember themselves. A young girl in a tailored batik dress stares directly at Diarra’s lens, her righthand shyly pinching a green leaf; woman in a halter-top stands next to a large bass speaker. The dusty tone of the images reiterate the distance between now and Mali’s silky monochrome days immediately post-independence.

Keïta, who in his later years as a professional took his cameras to Sidibé’s studio and repair shop in Bamako’s Bagadadji neighbourhood, stopped photographing in 1977, around the time ‘colour photography took over’ and machines started ‘doing the work’. Diarra’s box of unloved photographs are all machine printed. One postcard-sized portrait shows an expressionless young woman in a full-length white dress lying on a bed with a pink throw. It is an unremarkable image – and yet, unmistakably, there she is, the heir to Keïta’s reclining Bamako women. The photo was shot on location; sitters also have the option of visiting Disneyland, which is the pithiest way to describe the mural inside Diarra’s studio.

In everyday Kayes, goats rummage through roadside junk piles. Every afternoon, young men in football shirts walk bound pairs of White Fulani cows from the market across the Senegal River to the abattoir near Diarra’s studio. Inside his studio, however, the animals are ladybugs, giraffes, herons, tortoises, antelopes and colourful birds equal to the imagination of Henri Rousseau. The two muralists who created the scene now live in Bamako and Paris. It is a common story: Diarra’s older brother gave him the studio when he left town in 2001. Despite the aspiration projected by Diarra’s many portrait subjects, Kayes is not a metropolitan place – it is a town you leave for elsewhere.

But even elsewhere things are often the same. Cheikh Diallo is a self-taught photographer. ‘I worked as a car mechanic for 12 years,’ explains the 30-year-old Dakar resident. After quitting the job – ‘I loved the work but the salary wasn’t any good’ – Diallo decided to have a crack at photography, his interest sparked by the gift of a camera. In the manner of Sidibé in Bamako and Santu Mofokeng in 1970s Soweto, Diallo walked everywhere. ‘It was difficult,’ he recalls. ‘I had to wake up early and walk around looking for places where I could take pictures. Sometimes I would walk around the whole day without taking any pictures.’

Entrepreneurial by nature, Diallo established a small studio; he now owns two. Clustered along a concrete sidewalk on Rue 63, in the working- class neighbourhood of Fannhock, sits a collection of wooden lean-tos. Diallo’s neighbours here include the Koranic teacher Alione Faye and a group of tailors. Similar to his nearby studio, the entrance to his original studio features a display of fashionable young Dakar women posed against changeable backdrops, including leopard print fabric and a snow-covered Christmas idyll.

Keïta changed his batik backdrops annually, but it was only when Ghanaian portrait photographer Philip Kwame Apagya started making pictures at his studio in the town of Shama, west of Accra, that the imaginative possibilities of scenography were revealed. Apagya’s studio backdrops allowed customers to inhabit fantasy bourgeois living rooms stocked with technological appliances or to board planes that would never fly anywhere. ‘Truth is not my major concern,’ Apagya has said. ‘I am more interested in creating prestige, fantasy and beauty.’ For all intents and purposes, though, Africa’s independent studio tradition is being supplanted by a new way of making and sharing constructed images of self.

In June this year, Facebook had 30 million African users. While the figure represents a mere three percent penetration rate in a continent of just over one billion, nearly half this population has a mobile phone, many with digital cameras. The spirit and pose of Africa’s youth, which Keïta and Sidibé drew on to make their absorbing portraits, is now increasingly being captured by non-specialists and archived in digital photo albums, not in numbered folders, uncollected white envelopes or shoeboxes on which dust breeds.

Sean O’Toole is a journalist in Cape Town, South Africa. He edits Art South Africa.