Born in 1956, Boubacar Touré Mandémory is a Senegalese photographer whose work has crossed borders and been exhibited internationally. Highly instrumental in garnering recognition for both photography in his country and the status of Senegal’s photographers, he and other colleagues established the country’s first private photo agency in 1989 and the Dakar Photo Month in the 1990s. Since, he has set up and run collective projects such as “The Backstage Africa Project / L’Envers du Décor”, the aim of which is to bring together photographic gazes focusing on contemporary West African urban issues. In this same spirit, and as part of a residency at Kër Thiossane (an independent art and new technologies research centre in Dakar), he’s currently working with writer Jules Souleymane Ndiaye on the Sicap neighborhood in Dakar, which sprang up in the heyday of Senegalese independence in 1960, and on the historic town of Rufisque.
In this interview, Boubacar Touré Mandémory discusses these different projects, his experimentation and the specific aesthetic he has developed to serve his photographic investigations.
Q: You define yourself as a “photodidact”. When, how and in what context did you get involved in photography?
A: Ever since my childhood, I was determined to practice photography. This desire was accentuated by my great attraction to the cinema, and notably to the “Spaghetti Western” genre, which made a big impact on me. Later, I rigorously learnt to carve out a place for myself in an isolated context where there were no accessible channels to learn photography academically and advance.
When I was in secondary school, I started carrying out my first black-and-white experiments with a 120 mm film camera given to me by a friend. Most of the time my results were the haphazard, as I had no idea of light measurement. With experience over the months, then years, my mastering of the camera settings improved, thanks also to changing from a 6×6 to a 24/36 reflex. I continued on this path until I met a doctor friend who taught me how to develop roll film and print my black-and-white photos in the darkroom.
Thus began my unending photographic study based on systematic experimentation. That encouraged me to read a lot about photography and to learn more about technique: exposure, framing, developing and even the “Zone system” introduced by Ansel Adams. This intelligent method based on pre-visualization enables the photographer to control his or her photos – from the choice of film stock, to developing, the source of light and taking into account the developer and other parameters. To reach such a level of perfection (still relative), I had to cross-develop all the films and developers available at the time on the market. This was so I would know the behavior of each film in each developer to then be able to adopt the best combination. After multiple attempts, I finally opted for TX 400 Kodak film and Kodak D-76 or Ilford ID-11 developers. I was really satisfied with this association in my photo work.
As soon as I finished studying, I managed to enter an advertising agency. That enabled me to enrich myself with images and feed my imagination working alongside graphic artists and other creative people. It was an important stage in my life because I had to cultivate myself and prepare for a career that would enable me to express myself autonomously and in complete independence.
Q: The Senegalese street is one of your favorite subjects. You often work low down, taking low angle shots, often of movement, which gives your pictures a certain dynamism, further enhanced by your stunning palette of colors. How did you develop this signature, which makes your photos immediately identifiable among others?
A: The street is rich in “disorderly” and random events. For a photographer, it’s an excellent space to master the framing, composition, and even the mise-en-scène. Things move in all directions in African streets! That’s what forces me to often work with a fish-eye lens.
However, after exploring the world of black-and-white, I realized that it wasn’t suitable for all subjects. For me, black-and-white is made for things that are orderly, graphic. So, quite quickly, I decided to move into color, trying out really colorful subjects. Color thus became a subject unto itself in my works. I only photographed an image if it presented interesting colors. Then I managed to saturate my colors by deliberately underexposing certain classic films, such as the old Kodachrome 25, 64, 200 ISO or Fujichrome D, later replaced by the more saturated Velvia.
Over time this technique of systematically experimenting with color made me a colorist and, combining this with quality wide-angle lenses, I obtain images that resemble me.
They are more often than not photos taken from ground level because I cannot imagine photographing the top without the bottom. This “distortion” comes in part from the influence of Westerns: their 16/9 framing and their very alluring fore and backgrounds.
Q: Other than the street, and what it shows of the socio-political context in which its inhabitants live and interact, you’re particularly attentive to Senegal’s urban architectural patrimony. Can we say that you practice a militant form of photography, which archives and denounces in order to awaken your fellow citizens’ consciousness?
A: My first works focused on industrial subjects. On advertising, they dealt with fashion and portraits, but I quite quickly realized that that would lead to nothing other than earning a little money and pleasing those photographed. What to do, then, for photography to become an effective means of communication that can bring awareness and have meaning? That was why I preferred to launch into this photographic genre, which is much closer to reporting, while at the same time having something extra. It gave me access to the press, which became my main source of distribution in an African context where galleries and exhibitions were nonexistent. Later, these same works gave me access to museums and to being published in the international press.
This ambivalence between information and systematically seeking an aesthetic is at the heart of my concerns: to show society with a more fitting perception of its realities – people, their environment, and different lifestyles – while remaining as creative as possible. For me, it’s still a question of remaining in the realm of the aesthetic even to show the decrepit state of the world. That’s what founds this style.
Q: A few years ago you organized a collective photography project focusing on the town of Guédiawaye where you live. Today, you’re doing the same thing with the town of Rufisque. You are also at the origin of “The Backstage Africa Project / L’Envers du Décor”, a group project between photographers observing problems in Africa’s rural and urban milieus. You appear to attach a lot of importance to collective photographic undertakings, which isn’t necessarily self-evident.
A: Group projects don’t stop you from developing your own activities. It’s necessary for photographers working in an under-developed context to get together from time to time around a project like the Rufisque one, to share their points of view and thus to gain the benefits of new experiences.
Q: These more recent group experiences have their antecedents: the creation of the Ecomar Visuel agency in 1989, then the Dakar Photo Month in 1994. In all these projects, the question of the status of photographers and photography in Senegal, or even in the sub-region, has always been present.
A: Having left advertising, where I earned a decent living, to devote myself exclusively to photography in a completely under-developed context wasn’t easy. Yet, with other photographers, we were aware of one thing: that photography is in part backed by the press, advertising, industry, patronage or corporate sponsorship and that none of that had been developed in Africa.
So, for me, it was a matter of regrouping photographers with an artistic bend in order to create a research group focusing on photographing the black body which would culminate in the setting up of a photo agency. This organization needed to belong to us and to serve as a means of distribution, locally first, for a type of photography that thus far was only destined for export – its only places of distribution being overseas. Its production was to focus on advertising, fashion and industry, and, in the next stage, this agency was meant to become a tool to highlight the photographer and his/her work.
It was a challenge to regroup the best independent photographers in the country to rethink the rules of the agency game. This alternative organization was meant to be based on our synergy and profiled according to ethical and economic criteria to found a new photographic moral code. Ecomar Visual was born in 1989. Although it didn’t last long, it was a really interesting experience for us all.
Later, the Photo Month was co-organized by Dakar photographers and the French Cultural Centre in Dakar, with the backing of our Senegalese cultural journalist friends, filmmakers, visual artists and the Revue Noire journal from Paris. In a context where there were no structures in which to meet, concert and reflect on photography, we felt it was time to create this framework to make ourselves heard by our authorities and so that photography and photographers could obtain an honorable status in a country where the medium was frowned upon (no state body was in charge of it officially). We succeeded in imposing ourselves and got photography accepted in the visual arts category in Senegal. A breach was opened, in prelude to the Rencontres de Bamako.
Q: Today, you are very active on social networks where you regularly circulate and comment on your pictures and projects. Do you think that the new digital tools can be of help in this struggle for better recognition and visibility for Senegalese, and more generally African, photography?
A: I’m very active on Facebook because I think it’s an effective and free way to exhibit your work and all the more so for all those who gravitate in a context not suited to exposing photography. By building a significant network, we can benefit today from the same visibility as a photographer whose works are exhibited in American museums or European galleries.
With well-done and well-targeted publications, we can now be certain of being visible to all the collectors and gallery-owners across the five continents.
Thank you for your time, Boubacar!
-Leica Internet Team
Read the interview in French here. To see more of Boubacar’s work, visit The Backstage Africa Project’s website.