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The Dawn of Photography in Senegal

Photography in Senegal has a rich and captivating history, dating back to the early days of the art form itself. From the mid-19th century, elite Senegalese opted for having their photographs taken as a means of asserting their status and embracing modernity. One such example is a portrait handed to Belgian explorer Adolphe Burdo in 1878, which depicted a man he referred to as the “King of Dakar.” The evident prosperity and contemporary lifestyle showcased in this image surprised Burdo so much that he promptly left Senegalese shores.

The progression of photography in Senegal can be examined through various portraits and images captured by local and foreign photographers alike. With the recently released book, Portrait and Place: Photography in Senegal, 1840-1960, we delve further into these fascinating visual narratives that played an important role in the formation of Senegalese identity during times of great change.

Senegal Through the Lens of Renowned Photographers

Emile Noal, c. 1890–1900: Noal’s photograph titled “Groupe d’Oilofs Sénégalais à St-Louis” features a group from the Wolof ethnic group highlighting their traditional attire and the surroundings of Saint Louis, a town at the heart of early photography in Senegal.

Macky Kane, c. 1939–1943: Kane, a prominent Senegalese photographer, captured the elegance of Mrs. Fatou Thioune and her friend in his portrait “Portrait of Mrs. Fatou Thioune and friend, Saint Louis.” Another of his works showcases Mrs. Fatou Thioune posing in front of her “xoymet,” a Wolof term describing photographic collages associated with brides in the lead-up to their weddings.

Oumar Ka, c. 1959–1968 and 1970s: Ka’s photograph titled “Mosque of Touba” elegantly captures the architectural splendor of this important religious site. Additionally, his self-portrait, “Self-Portrait at Home,” allows us a glimpse into the photographer’s personal life and creative space.

Influence of European Photography

While photography was first popularized by Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Senegal had already been exposed to European colonial influence by the time the technology arrived on its shores. As a result, early Senegalese photographers cleverly combined their newfound skills with pre-existing knowledge of European styles and techniques. They skillfully merged these influences to create unique visual narratives revered by both local and foreign audiences. By presenting themselves as modern and fashion-conscious individuals, the subjects of these images differentiated themselves from the exotic and primitive depictions of Africa that were commonplace in colonial photography.

  • Senegalese photographers adopted sophisticated posing methods inspired by European portraiture.
  • The use of props was versatile, depending on whether they wished to project an image of affluence or pay homage to traditional heritage and art forms.
  • Composition was adapted to represent the subject’s position within society, making for eye-catching and memorable portraits.

Celebrating Artistic Freedom and Expression

Photography in Senegal provided not only a means to document history but also offered an outlet for artistic freedom. As is evident in the works of Oumar Ka, photographers frequently imbued their images with metaphorical and allegorical components to represent political opinions or social commentary. This era gave rise to self-portraits enabling artists to explore identity expression through their creativity.

Capturing Senegal’s Cultural History

Through its evolution from early portrait photography to expansive street scenes, photography emerged as a powerful tool to document and celebrate Senegal’s cultural heritage. The ingenuity and foresight displayed by influential photographers has ensured that future generations can gain meaningful insight into the country’s diverse history and progress throughout time.

Preserving Photography for the Future

With each image captured, photographers in Senegal contributed to a visual archive that challenges and shapes the perception of Africa held by international community. Projects such as the publication Portrait and Place: Photography in Senegal, 1840-1960 help to secure these precious glimpses of history and give recognition to the skill and vision of those who brought them to life.

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