There has been increasing interest to unearth and understand Africa’s photographic history in recent years. Whether this is driven by the growing treasure trove of black and white images from the continent resurfacing; a need to dispel myths about what Africa is and is not; or a growing interest in photography for storytelling purposes in the Instagram-obsessed age, this journey promises to be an interesting one.
The latest treasure to be revealed on that journey is the Saint-Louis Photography Museum in Saint-Louis, Senegal, which opened last November. The museum hopes to eventually build an extensive collection of historic portraits, but has started off with the impressive personal collection of its founder, Amadou Diaw, a Senegalese businessman and founder of Groupe ISM, one of the region’s most respected business schools. The striking collection, mostly dating from 1930 to 1950, highlights the country’s rich and deep photography tradition.
Many of the most well-known photographs from West Africa were captured by Malick Sidibe, an internationally renowned photographer from Mali who captured iconic black and white images of the region in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Sidibe died in April 2016. But the history of photography in West Africa stretches further back. It begins in the coastal town of Saint-Louis in the north of Senegal, where a photo camera, believed to be the first to be used in West Africa (link in French), was sent by the French Minister of Marine and Colonies in 1863.
Saint-Louis was a leading urban center established by French traders in the 17th century. To maintain their stronghold, French colonists relied heavily on the establishment of a metis (mixed race) society. This society was born out of a union of French traders or soldiers (who usually had their own families in France) marrying local women (usually of a high class) to further their business interests. These women and their female descendants, known locally as the Signares, are an important part of Saint-Louis’ culture and history.
The metis population benefited from their connection with the French, which conferred civil status, education opportunities, gold, real estate, and slaves. They also emulated the bourgeois ways of life of their counterparts in France. Senegal already had a tradition of creating sculpture of their ruling classes. After the arrival of the French, Saint-Louis families rapidly adopted the Western form of portraiture, done in the French style of the day. Once photography technology become available in the second half of the 19th century, it became the new status symbol for bourgeois families to have photos that showed the families decked out in royal attire.
The main portraits and photos of the city’s early days are on full display in the Saint-Louis Photography Museum, as well as its hotels, restaurants, and homes. They show the Signares in stoic positions, adorned with clothes and jewelry befitting of their status.
Then, just as now, there were pictures taken of everyday people without their consent or knowledge. The photos would often be printed for sale as postcards in the West to shape the narrative of the dark and savage continent, or to exoticize African women. But the original Saint-Louis’ bourgeoisie, mostly consisting of the metis families, were active agents and proud consumers of their photographs, and their images are powerful reminders of the role they played in Senegal’s history.
As photography became more accessible to a growing population in the 20th century, the images taken became more diverse, and much like the social media images of today’s generation, more aspirational. The subjects are still always dressed in their very best—indeed, the Senegalese pride themselves in dressing well for public appearances (you’ll often see people going to work looking as if they’re going to a wedding)—but given how mainstream the technology had become at this stage, it is difficult to distinguish if what they were portraying in the images was what they wore in their everyday lives, or the best clothes and jewelry they had at their disposal. Either way, it is clear people were tapping into photography’s eternal gift of allowing people to show the world the way they envision themselves to be.
Even though the Saint-Louis photographs were inspired by Western bourgeoisie norms, they still very clearly show a unique Saint-Louisian culture, fashion, and way of life. Saint-Louis, a UNESCO world heritage site, has a deep cultural heritage as a three-centuries-long meeting place of tradition and modernity, Islam and Christianity, Europe and Africa. Even the city’s geography is fascinating, ensconced as it is between the savanna, the desert, the ocean and a river.
This identity plays out in the city’s photographic record. “From the Senegalese dress of signares, to the mixture of style in the contemporary era, for many the choice of garments, hairstyles, and accessories illustrate an affiliation with a multifaceted cultural identity,” writes Shailee Wilson in a 2014 paper on how portraiture has historically informed and recorded identity in Saint Louis.
Saint-Louis was Senegal’s capital city from 1673 to 1902, and French West Africa’s capital from 1895 to 1902, when the regional capital was moved to Dakar. Its cultural influences, including its love of photography, would spread throughout the rest of the country.
In a society where oral tradition played a major role, photography was transformative. Hudita Mustafa, a photographic writer and author writes about a concept called sañse, where Dakorois women collect and display photographs of themselves dressed in elegant dress. In this way, the women craft their social persona by capturing themselves dressed in embroidered boubous, gold jewelry, elaborate coiffures and headscarves.
For many Africans, seeing a black and white image of a family member—maybe a great-grandmother we never met—strengthens kinship ties, and our sense of who we are and where we come from. Homes still keep dusty albums that are brought out every tabaski or Christmas to show all the pictures we ever had of those who went before us.
The new museum in Saint-Louis and others like it open up such experiences to the world, while also educating people about a place and time they might not know about. Its portraits showcase the intentionality and care with which the Senegalese took pictures, and best of all, provide us with an interesting viewpoint rarely seen in mainstream media: that of Africans in full control of how their images are captured and how they are represented.