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Dispelling the myth

Dawn at Seguenega © Jose Navarro 2011

The last thing I wanted to be told at Ouagadougou passport and health control is that I needed to have an injection to enter the country. I looked at my vaccination certificate in total disbelief. They were right; my yellow fever vaccine was out of date. I would have to have a yellow fever jab before taking a single photograph in Burkina Faso.
Taking away your international vaccination certificate is an efficient – and elegant dare I say – way to immobilise you in West Africa. Drenched in sweat, annoyed and weary after a long trip from Bristol I reluctantly gave my documents to Madame Sou, who, after checking the certificates of the few other passenger on my Air France flight, vanished into that sea of humanity that is Ouagadougou. It wasn’t until I had gone through passport control that I realised I had no idea how to find Madame Sou. I didn’t take her mobile number, or asked her where she worked.
It wasn’t an auspicious start of my 2-week commission in Burkina Faso.
But there seems to be a serendipitous, almost magical way things sort themselves out in Africa. There is always someone who knows someone else who might be able to help. At 8.30am the next morning I had already paid the customary 2,500 CFA  for my yellow fever jab, which a competent nurse from the Service d’hygiène quickly administered. And with an aching arm – my left arm, my non-photographic arm – I jumped on the Ouahigouya bus ready to start my work.
Having to fulfil a photographic brief is one of the realities of commissioned photography work. Creativity is subservient to the communication aims of your client. The messages that your photographs are supposed to convey have already been drafted for you. Your job, as a photographer, is to make sure that your images match those expected messages, which is why you have to read the brief  in depth before you set off. And that’s exactly what I was unable to do because, essentially, the brief had been put together a day or so before I left the UK.  So there I was reading my brief on the Ouahigouya bus, sandwiched between a dapper businessman from Ouaga and a lady of generous proportions, full of children, on her way to visit family in the north of the country. Heavily distorted Afro Pop music was being blasted into the passenger compartment by the driver of a run-down Volvo which seemed to be working thanks to divine intervention. Or perhaps it was the aura of Cameroonian football hero Samuel Eto’o, whose poster covered most of the windscreen, that kept the bus running.
Some of the key items on my brief were individual and group PR portraits of local people in selected locations. Taking portraits of very dark-skinned people in the middle of the Sahel when the sun is at its zenith is, how would I put it, challenging? Take the photo in the sun with fill-in flash and the result looks unnatural. Take it in the shade and the flash overcompensation for the much brighter background makes your sitter look plasticky. I wish I had had the time to do something different, something artistic, eye-catching, like Laurent Monlaü did on his journey across the Sahara. I wish I had had the time to find out more about my subjects, to involve them in the visual storytelling process the way Paul Close did on his Snakebox Odyssey, a remarkable Trans-African journey.
Practical issues easily eclipse your artistic output in the field. Dusty digital sensors, overheated cameras  (yes, 46-degrees + continuous shooting+ large file sizes=overheated camera electronics), paranoia with backups (no less than three different copies on the go, just in case). Those are your main preoccupations, never mind taking decent photographs. Interestingly, those issues are all to do with digital technology. Long gone are the days when you would only have to worry about the odd grain of sand scratching your film emulsion, which always softened in high temperatures. I do miss my Nikon FM2, I do…
I shouldn’t moan really. How would I have had the chance to meet all the people I met on the trip otherwise? All those wonderful people like Chief Chimsa, whose onomatopeyic name couldn’t  be more appropriate for such a strong, respectable and at the same time gentle chef du village. Or Bon Naba, the Chief of Bongo in Ghana, busy dealing with a sorcery case when we arrived in his compound. Bon Naba… Seydou Keita would have given away half the contents of his Bamako studio to have the chance to photograph him. Oumar Ly would have invited him to his humble studio in Podor, on the Senegal-Mauretania boder, for a free portraiture session. I should have asked Oumar Ly for advice on taking portraits of people in the Sahel. Photographing someone who has no received concept of how their image should look like on a photograph, like we have here in the West, poses some difficulties. How do you connect with your sitter then? You need a common emotion, something you can both share. Laughter; it always works. The photographer becomes a pantomime actor in the Sahel.
A photographic brief is fulfiled organically; not linearly. The snippets of life that you capture with your camera gradually find their place in the brief, little by little. With every picture you take you get closer to answering positively the crucial question: will my client be happy with this? Because it all boils down to something that a frequent contributor to this blog often says, “Keep your client happy”. And you fret about it every time you take a photograph.  At the end of the day a photographic commission in the Sahel, however exciting, is far from glamourous. That’s just a myth.

Posted by author: Jose
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17 thoughts on “Dispelling the myth

  • Fear and Loathing in Burkina Faso; a savage journey to the heart of pro photography. Jose tells it like it is. ‘ }

    • Yes, “keep the client happy” as you say Clive, whether that is on a dusty road in Burkina or in a studio in London it doesn’t matter. It’s much the same.

      • Yes it’s the same knot in the stomach that can’t be really appreciated unless you’ve been in those situations.
        I’ve always thought of digital as relieving it to some extent but you’ve highlighted a new set of concerns with digital when working in difficult environments.
        Pity there isn’t the budget for an assistant to hold your reflectors and marshal the gear. ‘ }
        FM2s were brilliant cameras, solid build, simple so not a lot to go wrong and not so expensive that you worried about losing or damaging them. I still take mine out now and then and exercise the shutter but it hasn’t seen any film in a very long time. ‘ }

    • Much as I’d like to share it with you all it’s not possible just yet. I’m still doing the captions anyway, which is a Sisiphean job I could do without. But you can see the pitch I sent to magazines with photos of the first trip in February here http://www.josenavarro.co.uk/ftp/geographical/index.html The feature has already been accepted by The Ecologist and all being well it should get published sometime soon.

    • You have to choose one of the above, that is, in the sun (people looking away from the sun so that they don’t squint) with fill-in or in the shade with full flash. See the difference here http://www.pangeafoto.com/ftp/OCA/samples/index.html. In any case the dynamic range needed to cope with the dark skins and bright clothing that you find there poses inherent technical problems when working with digital cameras. By the way, I used a Fuji S5 Pro, Nikon 17-55mm 2.8 DX lens, Nikon SB-600, all the time. Didn’t change lenses, not even once. Not worth taking the risk of getting dust in the mirror chamber.
      The other two possible options are impractical. Waiting for softer evening light tends to be logistically difficult, and nearer the equator the sun sets almost vertically, which doesn’t give you the long period of warm, soft evening light we get in higher latitudes. Carrying a whole set of large reflectors, even portable studio lights, is obviously impractical too.

  • Looking at the images you did on a previous trip, it looks like an interesting subject … reminds me slightly of the old flint mines near to where I live that were excavated during Roman times! No complicated machinery, just basic digging … thanks for sharing! Amano

    • Thanks Amano. Yes, basic digging, a strong sense of team work and community after all. Tough work but people know there is a reward for their efforts – those Chinese Sanili 125cc motorbikes that fall apart within 2 or 3 years. In one of the photos the diggers are punding rocks with old motorbike parts – Sanili’s. It’s so ironic, so tragic really.

  • Really interesting to read and to share part of your journey Jose. I know you’re ‘dispelling the myth’ but I still catch a sense of excitement.

    • Definitely Catherine. A photographer should always exhibit that sense of excitement about the world out there. Someone said that in order to be a photographer you need to look at the world in awe, as through the eyes of a child.

  • There is a book called Magnum: Fifty Years at the front line of history by Russell Miller published in the late 1990’s.
    This book lifts the lid on what Magnum is like; I would call it a myth dispeller!

    • It’s an interesting read Amano. It’s precisely in that book that Cartier-Bresson said that “in order to be a photographer you need to look at the world in awe, as through the eyes of a child” – see comment above.

      • Ah, I had heard that quote before but could not remember from whom … it must be in a lot of books that refer to H.C-B! I happen to find it a relevant one …

  • Thanks for sharing this ‘real life’ challenge Jose….it is consoling to realise that professionals also have doubts about their capacity to rise to a challenge. Some great practical tips on how to relate to people and fulfil a brief.

  • Ahhh yes film, I remember that too. Somehow through the mists of nostalgia I remember those interminable CC filters needed to get the correct colour balance…
    …the way that one scratch on the film could ruin the shot forever, there was no way of duplicating an exact copy without losing quality, changing film speeds meant changing films, carrying the bulk & weight of thirty rolls of film wondering if it would be enough, the guy at the lab who fogged a whole box of 5×4 then insisted it was an act of god ;-(, spending a day shooting and the same time scanning every frame, all those hours in the dark-room breathing fumes even with the extractors on, secure back ups were locking the original frames in a fire-proof safe and praying… and (especially in Africa) those out of date x-ray machines with the comedy ‘saf for films’ notice that could ruin all your exposed film from 20 paces.
    Personally I’d never want to go back to film despite missing the excitement of seeing a roll of negs/trannies for the first time, fresh out of the wash…
    Cameras? I can remember cameras that were 100% reliable but film that snapped in the cold, distorted colours in the heat, the tape that didn’t prevent the end coming off the roll (the 38th exposure was a shock). Give me digital any day thanks

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