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Astou the Photographer

By Wendy Soref

 
I had always loathed taking pictures. My tolerance for the photo shoot was limited to staged scenarios like award ceremonies, family portraits, and the gossamer covered photo station at the junior prom. In bouts of extreme laziness I could not bear to pick up my camera, load it with film, and interrupt the flow of time to demand that everyone freeze and smile. To substantiate my lack of camera initiative, I claimed that my devotion to the genuine, pure moment precluded me from artificially prolonging it. Whatever mileage this stance won me before, when I went to Senegal to study post-colonialism and sunshine, my friends and family pleaded with me to take pictures, and I surrendered my professed principles, counting on pictures to flush out the blanks in their imaginations and the inevitable gaps in my memory. 
 
It was not so simple, of course. Perhaps I had been right all along: A camera is not a neutral device; it has the power to shape experience, not simply to record it. Under the specter of a camera’s presence, people may self-consciously censor their lifestyles, and I was not looking for photogenic inventions. Besides, as I attempted to sink into a foreign land, I had to avoid maneuvers that screamed “outsider” and the point-and-shoot action hollered it. A prominent camera is not only a signal to pickpockets that you are fair game but also a red flag of separation. The tourist does not live life in , he merely takes pictures of it. And I assure you, as I assured myself, I lived the life. I was part of a family and my friends were Senegalese. My host sister said I could waxale-- bargain for fabric as well she could. I strode through the chaotic mesh of hecklers and hustlers in downtown Dakar with my bag tucked tightly between elbow and chest. I looked straight ahead as taxis honked their horns at my white skin, and merchants called out to me, “Toubab, kay fii! White girl, come here!” I had struggled to negotiate this position, as a legitimate foreigner with the right intentions, respected by Senegalese people, unlike the token toubab, an out-of-touch embassy worker or a cowry-shell sporting tourist; if I were to wave that red flag so brazenly, the deal would be off. I couldn’t take the risk.
 
An old man with a red fez atop his baldhead and a skinny frame lost in a billowing robe, a half-naked toddler with cornrows and pierced ears rolling an empty, plastic bottle back and forth with fascination, a throng of boys kicking a deflated soccer ball in the sand, a young woman in a pink wrap skirt slicing mangoes to be sold on the street, a cluster of beggars with cerebral palsy and missing limbs stationed in front of an old colonial government building-- these images tempted me, but I only gave in once. Several blocks down the road from University Cheikh Anta Diop, on the sandy plot to the side of the hot, cracked sidewalk there were young boys and men weaving intricate red, black, and yellow patterns, threaded with traces of silver and gold into pieces of fabric on enormous looms, employing every finger and toe. I asked one of the young weavers, whose arms were skinny and scabbed, if I could take a picture. He said I could if I paid him. I huffed, “No, thank you”, and continued on. The idea of making such an exchange stirred my latent sense of separateness. As I hurried down the street I realized the shrewd young weaver had been right to demand his price. He’d read the situation instinctively; no matter how nonchalantly I exchanged salutations with strangers and sucked purple bissap juice from a plastic bag, I was an outsider on that street. The experience we shared was that he sold and I bought.
 
I had to flee the scene in order to escape the cheap, crude reality of the moment. After that, I only took pictures of my host family and friends and the occasional scenic shot because I could not go around capturing, in my scratched Olympus point-and-shoot, all that I experienced and witnessed. It had already been exploited and enslaved and colonized, and now it was not mine to capture so cheaply.
 
My reluctance to take pictures had little bearing on my host family’s expectations of me. They had already opened their Dakar home to a slew of American students and, as a result, their plastic photo albums were bursting with pictures. They expected that I, too, would provide a photo documentary of the year as my predecessors had done before me. My host sister, Absa, whose second child was a three-month-old girl, frankly informed me that it was my responsibility to record the growth of baby Aissatou. With her Cabbage Patch cheeks and gurgling, toothless smile she was the princess of the house, growing from a docile swaddle of sleeping pudge to a babbling, often screeching, crawling, nearly walking, frequently falling baby before all of our eyes and before my camera lens.
 
My camera was in special demand when the Muslim holidays of Korite and Tabaski rolled around. On both of these momentous occasions the order of the day was praying, cooking, eating, and dressing up. After the sheep meat and millet porridge had settled in our stomachs and we had slipped into our evening finery, my family would turn to me and ask, “Where is your camera, Astou?” (my Senegalese pseudonym). All of the women had their hair freshly tressed; my sisters’ chin-length bobs were now long black, fake manes. The handiwork of all the overtired tailors in Dakar was on parade as everyone made social calls around the neighborhood in their new boubous, royal, flowing robes and gowns of sheer silk and crisp damask, smattered with sparkling embroidery in every iridescent color that is bold and bright. This extravagance demanded a photo shoot and, as the sole proprietor of a camera, the responsibility fell into my hands. I had little say in the matter.
 
The people I knew in took posing for pictures very seriously since it was a rare opportunity. When my friends posed for my camera they angled the leaves of plants to flatter their profiles, often choosing to specifically highlight a favored feature, such as an elaborate hair weave, gold jewelry, or expensive sneakers. The men posed with football player tough guy faces, and the women flicked their fingers and wrists playfully in order to best frame their faces as if each picture were a portrait and not a measly snap shot.
 
Regardless of the subject’s efforts at projecting a glowing self-image, ultimately it is the photographer’s responsibility to capture truth even as it is her prerogative to distort it. In , I did step out of this responsibility once in a while and trusted in someone else to take a picture I would want to see. On one occasion, as my friend Ndeye Bakhaw and I were walking to my house from the university campus for a lunch of fish and rice, I noticed that we were straying from the path that would bring me home. I followed my Senegalese companion as I had always done, this time to a small patch of grass where there stood a short light-skinned man in an Oxford shirt that had been bleached and ironed until it was discolored and practically transparent in spots. He had a professional camera around his neck. She had planned that we would pose for a few pictures at this specific time in that particular lone, grassy spot. We took one vertical standing shot in front of a tree with our arms curled around each other’s waists, and another sitting on the grass with our ankles tucked neatly to either side, grinning hard into the Dakar sun. Before I left, Ndeye Bakhaw gave me both prints as parting gifts. I was touched, both by my friend’s kindness and the photographer’s skill in capturing the light streaming onto our faces, our colors more beautiful next to each other than apart, rendering us as I wished us to be. 
 
All outsiders are photographers, but not all photographers are outsiders. In a service-driven economy, the entrepreneur determines what service he can offer that people will pay for and that he can make even a thin slice of profit from. The middleclass residents of Dakar will pay for photos to commemorate not the most average of moments, but the most elegant. Accordingly, photographers lurk at all events, meetings, and celebrations. They prowl the streets on major holidays and boldly enter courtyards and take pictures, returning several days later with the finished product. The white-banded prints sell for a little less than a dollar.
 
Photographers do not venture, however, to places without a consumer base, like the thousands of tiny villages that make black dots on a Senegalese road map. These villages are reached by donkey carts up hot dirt roads lined with baobab trees, or thin winding footpaths through thick forests. Here, pictures are generally not taken or kept. Still, young girls often leave their villages to find work as maids in the city, and one thing they can bring back to their families, besides meager compensation, is pictures of themselves in fancy borrowed dresses, next to city boyfriends, on exhaust-filled streets with Europe ’s rusted castaway cars in the background. Proof that they, too, lived the life, a life beyond a poor girl’s expectations, perhaps, but falling far short of the dreams she returns to her village with.
 
As I traveled south by car, to the Sine-Saloum river region and by donkey cart up a dirt road to the village of Djongone to visit my friend Don in the Peace Corps, I kept my camera buried at the bottom of my bag. But I couldn’t keep it buried very long. Two of Don’s host nieces, Koumba and Penda, danced in the candle-lit hut—twirling their shadows on its gray, cracked walls as their little brother Walli did headstands on its concrete floor. Don’s beautiful host sister wore black lipstick and hoop earrings and hummed the rhythms we danced to. As the performance became more frenzied, it occurred to me that perhaps they hoped to be photographed by the American visitor. I happily relented. The life they lived in Djongone demanded commemoration, too. It was neither average, nor elegant in my eyes; it was rich, like the earth they farmed peanuts from, and profoundly beyond my viewfinder. When I brought back the developed copies some months later, the incredulous satisfaction Koumba and Penda found in the glossy faces they recognized as their own, however torn or dirty their clothes, made me glad I hadn’t left my camera in Dakar.
 
As my time remaining in dwindled and I started discussing my departure with the people in my life, some of my friends started to recall having posed for a picture or two the night of Korite, when we had celebrated Boundaw’s birthday, or when my parents had come to visit. That is when the deluge of demands for pictures poured in. When I took each picture, I might have casually said that, yes, a copy could be arranged; but, as the demands, often sharp and inflexible, rolled in, I was hardly enchanted with the idea of getting all my pictures developed in , where the photo quality is shoddy. Nor did I look forward to paying for expensive doubles with dollars that were rapidly being devalued. These were my pictures, to remember a land that I would soon leave, a land I would probably never see again. I wished that my Senegalese friends and family could be content that their pictures would be kept neatly in a leather bound album, their names immortalized in ink in the adjacent blank. I felt used, as if they had indulged me all those nine months just to suck the film out of my camera.
 
This was, I came to realize, preposterous, alarmist logic. The pictures were their memories too, not mine alone, and my American dollars had no business justifying a monopoly on all the glossy moments out there. They had every right to want to remember how handsome they looked on Tabaski in that bronze boubou, or how beautiful their baby girl was at age six months. They were not struggling actors and actresses, volunteering to play the parts of my study abroad experience and memory; they had a right to the moments trapped on my film, just as I did. I got over my self-righteous concerns and had piles of pictures developed and made a lot of people happy when I handed them manila envelopes of moments.
 
One consequence of Dakar ’s enormous labor supply is the fact that most middle class families can afford to have maids. In my house, even with no hot water and an insidious pest problem, two young women were fully occupied with the housework. Ndeye Ndiaye, one of the maids or bonnes, pressed my clothes with a charcoal iron and taught me how to dance like the women in her village, along with the words in Sereer to the songs she murmured to herself. In the cavalcade of those last weeks, when everyone descended upon me, demanding his or her personal portraits, I gave her a picture of herself as well. Instead of seizing the picture with excitement and examining it closely, she said, “I don’t want a picture of myself, I need a picture of you, sama toubab, my white girl.” After rustling through my stacks of pictures, I found a shot of me crouching and grinning in a green and black African print skirt. When I gave it to her she clutched it to her chest and smiled broadly. She would keep it forever and she would tell her children, who waited for their mother in the village, “This is Astou, sama toubab.” And we cried together in the sentimental, sad way I had never witnessed in Senegal. 
 
Wendy Soref was a study abroad student at ACI's Baobab Center with Kalamazoo College in 2001 to 2002.
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