Between Praise and Image

Julien Bondaz


In Mali, as in Senegal, at festive occasions that mark the milestones of people’s lives, such as baptisms and weddings, it is not unusual to see griots and photographers jostling for the best position near the parents of the young child or the newlyweds, sometimes hurling insults at each other. Always included among the many participants at these events, along with the extended family, neighbours and other guests, these specialists of the word and image hover around the key family members. Griots (jeli in Bambara, géwal in Wolof) are at hand to perform their tributes to the families celebrating the happy event, while photographers strive to take the best possible portraits of the young family or wedding party. Nowadays, they are more often than not accompanied by camera operators, who complete the coverage of the event with a video recording. The griot members of the host family are obviously on the scene, but they are joined by others who come along in the hope of earning a little extra cash. In the same way, in addition to the official photographer generally hired by the family to provide a "reportage" (the prevailing French term used in West Africa) of the event, these functions also attract itinerant photographers hoping to snap their own portraits of hosts and guests. For them, motorbikes can be an indispensable accessory, allowing them to keep up with the crowd, then to rush back to the lab to have their photographs of the beginning of the festivities developed in time to return and sell them to guests (a race against the clock on which their livelihood depends). Griots and photographers crowd in close to the hosts, each accusing the other of blocking their view: the griot’s tributes must be able to be heard and the photographers must have time to frame their pictures before someone stands in front of the lens. Each does the best job he can, as they try to earn a living going from one event to another. To complicate matters, they must also navigate the volatile political situation: in Mali, griots and photographers have suffered the consequences of the state emergency that was declared following the occupation of Northern Mali in 2013 and lasted seven months. During this time, all festivities deemed liable to endanger public order, including wedding ceremonies, were banned.

The customary rivalry between griots and photographers is never taken too seriously; it is part and parcel of the general commotion and excitement of these events. The words of the griots are sometimes even recorded on video, to be heard at a later time during screenings of the video CD (VCD) or DVD held for friends and those who were unable to attend, thus becoming etched in people’s memories thanks to audiovisual technology. The photographs are most often purchased individually by guests, or presented as a collection in thick plastic photo albums to the parents of the young child or the newlyweds. Digital technology has brought new presentation formats: photographers now offer their work on VCDs or other digital media, with slideshows of images that can be retouched or embellished with decorative borders (flower motifs, interlocking hearts or other romantic vignettes sourced from digital image banks). Similarly, from the early 2000s, audio and video cassettes have been progressively replaced by CDs and VCDs, with the result that reliving the experience of baptisms or weddings often simply requires inserting a disk into a slot. Beyond this casual competitiveness, another common point between photographers and griots is their shared utilization – now an established practice – of the media of images and sound. Moreover, our era of new communication technologies has brought the widespread use of smartphones, enabling guests to produce and preserve their own visual and audio memories of these events. But other affinities can also be identified during the encounter between griots and photographers at these social gatherings and rites of passage that baptisms and weddings represent.

Photographers and musicians: A partially shared history
The history of photography in West Africa can be seen as the introduction and subsequent commoditization of a new figurative tradition based on constantly evolving technological procedures. The arrival of photography clearly did not result in a sudden influx of images in these countries, since images of diverse forms predate photography – among which woodcarving is the most well-known. Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume that only oral traditions existed in West African societies (in our case, in Mali and Senegal). As the anthropologist Carlo Severi has pointed out, "the opposition between oral and written traditions is not only unrealistic – since it gives little consideration to intermediary situations in which graphic techniques enhance the use of words, without replacing them – it is also based on a fallacious symmetry. There are many cases in which images play an integral role in the transmission of knowledge, even if social memory appears to rely solely on the spoken word."[1] Long before they had to contend with photographers, griots shared a mastery of the techniques of memory with sculptors – oral techniques in the case of griots, visual techniques in the case of sculptors. And while anthropomorphic sculptures tended to represent idealized images that favoured moral values over physical likeness, a number of traditions of portrait sculpture, at times realistic, existed before the advent of photography.[2] There is therefore a need to include the work of photographers as part of a historical continuum, since, through the use of different media, they build on the work of certain sculptors. Nonetheless, photography’s (presumed) ability to instantly capture reality introduces a new relationship with time and new possibilities for self-representation. In this way, photography contributes to the emergence of unprecedented processes of individuation (even if, in these societies, the photographic experience has been partially absorbed into local conceptions of personhood connected to the notion of "double").

While the history of West African photography first developed against a backdrop of European exploration, followed by colonial conquest – that is, at the same time as in Europe, in the mid-19th century – portrait photography gained increasing popularity in elite social circles from the 1940s.[3] Closely tied to this fascination with photography, baptisms and, especially, weddings became key events at which to be photographed: not only did newlyweds and new parents pose for portraits in the photography studios run by the first Senegalese and Malian photographers, but photographers also went to the events with their 13 x 18 plate cameras. The profession thrived with the invention of lighter, more portable equipment in the 1970s, leading to the appearance of itinerant photographers, or street photographers, who earned a living providing instant identity photos and darting from ceremony to ceremony. The arrival of photo labs specializing in colour film processing in West Africa in the early 1980s opened up new opportunities for these photographers, who no longer needed to develop their films themselves.[4]

In some respects, the history of music in Senegal and Mali echoes the way in which the profession of photographer has developed. The first recording studios emerged in the same period, in the 1980s, presenting a challenge to the radio industry’s stranglehold over the promotion of musicians (Mali K7, founded in 1988, was the major studio in Bamako at this time). The relationship between photographers and the photo labs and that of the griots with the recording studios both highlight the segmentation of the production process and the delegation of certain services to specialist technicians. The ability to integrate social networks, which until then had been a key skill of these specialists of the word and image, was now compounded by the need to interact with professionals in the post-production sphere, as the local market environment was reorganized into separate artistic industries, leading to ever-increasing transnational connections. This segmentation of the labour market contributed to the redefinition of griots and photographers as professional musicians and art photographers, giving rise to new spheres of art production. 

Griots and photographers: Redefined occupations
Indeed, from the 1980s, the work of certain griots and photographers began to be viewed in a new light due to their added role as professional musicians and art photographers. The notions of "music scene" and "photography scene" reflect the spectacularization and artification of practices that were previously considered "traditional" or "artisanal". But to compare such long-established practices with their "modern" or "contemporary" incarnations would lead our reflection to a dead-end, because these processes are based on complex social and cultural factors that generally involve a combination of practices developed in response to varying circumstances, opportunities and individual strategies. How, then, are we to understand the success of famous griots such as Bako Dagnon, Babani Koné and (the even more well-known) Habib Koité, who went from performing at wedding ceremonies in Bamako to playing in concert halls in the West? And how do we explain the fact that some wedding photos have taken on the status of art (such as the work of Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé and Oumar Ly, to cite some famous examples)? At the first Biennale of African Photography held in 1994, young itinerant photographers in Bamako had trouble accepting this re-evaluation of the status of photography and the fast-growing market value of family photos taken by their teachers and elders, and voiced their concerns in a document entitled "L’Appel de Bamako" (The Bamako Appeal).[5]

Drawing an analogy with the redefinition of the status of sculptures can be useful to show that the photography market closely resembles that of "primitive art" (a highly problematic category, but which continues to be applied by numerous Western art collectors[6]), but it does not help us to understand the music market, which is largely governed by different forces. For example, the problem of piracy has little connection with the issue of multiple copies. Without wishing to downplay the relevance of market mechanisms that assign value to photographs and foster the emergence of hit songs, a number of other factors can explain the interrelated rise of the professional musician and art photographer. A biographical approach can provide clues, for an examination of the careers of griots and photographers reveals the often central role played by certain individuals, generally men, in powerful or highly-respected positions in the local community or further afield, who might, for example, buy a musician his first guitar or provide financial assistance to record his first audio cassette or CD, or pay for a photographer’s first stills camera (a traditional film camera or, since the 2000s, a digital camera). These external contributors are often presented as talent scouts with a "good ear" or a "good eye" – that is to say, talents that are perceived as mysterious, not unlike certain traditional worship leaders. Just as much as the eloquence, talent and the beauty of the words and images that griots and photographers produce, we can see that their career paths and their cultural and historical context, as well as the social dynamics affecting their stories and images also explain why some of these people are recognized as artists and their work as art. As the Malian photographer Ousmane Dago observes in an interview conducted by Bärbel Küster and her students, the perception of photographs as art objects (Dago specifically mentions photographs of baptisms and weddings) can be traced back to Europeans’ discovery – or the promotion of this discovery – of old family portraits, that is, people’s personal archives. The shared history of African photography and music can thus be seen as an appropriation not only of techniques, but also of the codes and emotions associated with these techniques.[7] It is part of a broader and more global history, which largely remains to be written, of the appropriation of the notion of art and the societies that produce art for their value as a cultural commodity.

 The opportunities available to Senegalese and Malian griots and photographers to access their respective art scenes are tied in with the social networks from which they benefit, and the way in which these networks have expanded and branched out into international arenas has greatly facilitated this. Trips made by the most famous griots to France and the United States, in particular, add to their prestige, as does their participation in exhibitions and residencies abroad. The Wolof griot Ablaye Mbaye Pekh, who hosts the annual Mouride (or Murid) festival in New York every year on 28 July, is a prime example of the mobilization of transnational networks.[8] In this way, "new generation"[9] photographers and griots play an important role in West African diaspora communities as the new representatives of a cultural and artistic cosmopolitanism that is a product of globalization. Travel, coupled with the ability to gain access to sites of reception in Europe or the United States, raises the value of work produced by these immigrant griots and photographers. Increased autonomy in these professions has also led to a greater representation of women in the music and photography scenes. While male griot-musicians traditionally held a higher status than female griot-singers (often working as a couple), female performers have begun to pursue separate careers and achieve international success independently of their husbands.[10] Similarly, since the late 1990s, the photography profession has gradually ceased to be dominated by men.

These transformations illustrate that the cultural "logic of distinction" is at times brought to the fore by professional musicians and art photographers. This social context is based to a large extent on an appropriation of Western categories (such as "world music" and "art photography") and reflects the complex cultural transfers that provide new ways of enhancing the value of local producers and shift discourse towards the formal and aesthetic qualities of their work. The contrast between photography as a "bread and butter" job and as an artistic pursuit is a recurrent topic of debate. In another of the interviews published on the "Photography and Orality" platform, the photographer Amadou Sow offers this summary of the situation: "Those who work as photographers simply to pay the bills make a living from weddings, photojournalism and publishing. But those who specialise in artistic photography rely on exhibitions, giving lectures and selling their photographs." According to this logic, wedding photographs appear to have little in common with those that are sold to galleries or Western collectors (even if, as we have seen, the process of historical redefinition has transformed some of these photographs into works of art). A similar logic of differentiation applies to griots who perform at christenings or weddings and professional musicians. This opposition reflects the distinction maintained by traditional master griots between their role as historians and genealogists and the young generation’s new ways of utilizing the spoken work, which are viewed by their elders as commercial salesmanship. The stance taken by Massa Makan Diabaté and Banzumana Sissoko, for example, has been widely discussed and suggests a certain nostalgia for the past.[11] In reality, rather than existing as distinct, fixed categories, both cases can be seen as continuums of individuals who position themselves between a "social pole" and an "artistic pole", between a "commercial pole" and an "aesthetic pole". The views expressed by the Senegalese photographer Fatou Kandé Senghor in her interview are enlightening. Describing the difficulties she encounters when attempting to take personal or artistic photographs at weddings she attends as a guest, she explains that the fact that she is frequently requested to take posed portraits of the bridal party highlights the porous boundaries between the roles people choose to take and the contrasting attitudes of family members towards her work. Many griots and photographers find themselves caught in this in-between position when attending festive occasions: faced with social and economic pressures, or in order to appease others or pursue their own creative interests, they combine artistic and journalistic approaches. 

Words and photographs: Two systems of remembrance
The affinities between griots and photographers, as revealed at baptisms and wedding ceremonies, enable us to identify a meeting between two systems of remembrance – on one side, genealogical or historical, and on the other, based on first-hand testimony. While the songs and impassioned speeches of griots recount family histories and pay tribute to the participants, the photographs of these ceremonies bear witness to the occasion and are destined to be transformed into fragmented, shareable memories. In the use of the spoken word and the production of images, there is also a performance and a confirmation of a rite of passage: at a baptism, a young child is initiated into the faith of the family; at marriages, two families are joined together. Furthermore, at many weddings, the presentation of gifts is recorded in photographs and, increasingly, on video. The exchange of offerings is one of the high points of these ceremonies and focuses the attention of both griots, who praise the generosity of the guests, and photographers, who preserve a visual record that almost serves as evidence of the gifts received. The purchasing of photographs is also integrated into a ritualized system of gifts and counter-gifts, as photographs circulate among guests and are offered to those who were unable to attend. Subsequent photo album viewings and video screenings, generally initiated by the bride, serve a dual function as a means of recalling memories and a deferred re-enactment of the ritual, prompting a sharing of comments and qualitative responses.[12] By replaying the social interactions that took place, particularly those involving women, these records transform the memories of those present into shared – hence social – objects. According to the theories developed by Pierre Bourdieu, "The wedding photo is a veritable sociogram and is read as such."[13]

In this way, when the photographer captures a visual fragment of reality, he inscribes the photographed moment into history in a manner similar to the effect of the griot’s words. As Cornelia Panzacchi has pointed out, "There is a complementary relationship between the griot’s words and actions. It is by seizing the meaning of an event and describing it that the words allow it to be integrated into history."[14] This relationship with history can also have repercussions on the griot’s relationship with photography. This is the position advocated by Simon Njami, who argues that photographs "constitute the material from which the griot will write, or tell, his story. They serve as evidence which, in spite of their obviously intangible nature, sustains the legend and is suddenly transformed into a timeless truth. The words of the griot, as a historian and an artist, surround us, hypnotise us, and reinforce our clannish cohesion, which we could rightfully have called into question."[15] The relationship that griots and photographers have with history and the regimes of historicity that their work reveal to us highlights two complementary modes of production by individuals and social groups. Indeed, it is not so much in the festive contexts that unite the griot and photographer that we can identify affinities between the tribute and the image, but rather in their creation of a collective memory that is comprehensive and complete, both oral and visual, both personal and social. On the other hand, the affinities between professional musicians and art photographers can be seen as similar, but they are revealed in different settings and, in addition to their dual personal and social dimension, they express a consideration, or expectation, of universality.


Julien Bondaz, associate professor, University Lumière Lyon 2, anthropology department

(Translated from French by Sarah Tooth Michelet)



[1] Carlo Severi, "Warburg anthropologue ou le déchiffrement d’une utopie. De la biologie des images à l’anthropologie de la mémoire", L’Homme, no. 165, 2003, no.165, pp. 77-128; quote p. 77.

[2] This is notably the case for the "mask portraits" known as ndoma in the Baule community (see Susan M. Vogel, Baule: African Art, Western Eyes, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997, pp. 100 and 157.

[3] For further information on this subject, see Érika Nimis, Photographes de Bamako de 1935 à nos jours, Paris, Éditions Revue Noire, 1998.

[4] Jean-François Werner, "Les tribulations d’un photographe de rue africain", Autrepart, vol. 1, no. 1, 1997, pp. 129-150.

[5] Jean-François Werner, op. cit., p. 148.

[6] Érika Nimis, "Bamako: Une photographie contemporaine à géographies variables", ETC, no. 85, 2009, pp. 19-23.

[7] Brigitte Derlon and Monique Jeudy-Ballini, "Introduction. Arts et appropriations transculturelles", Cahiers d’anthropologie sociale, no. 12, 2015, pp. 9-23.

[8] Ousmane Oumar Kane, The Homeland Is the Arena. Religion, Transnationalism, and the Integration of Senegalese Immigrants in America, New York, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 155.

[9] Bassi Kouyaté and Vincent Zanetti, "La nouvelle génération des griots", Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie, no. 6, 1993, pp. 201-209.

[10] Mamadou Diawara, "Le griot mande à l’heure de la globalisation", Cahiers d’Études africaines, vol. 36, no. 144, 1996, pp. 591-612.

[11] Cheick Mahamadou, Chérif Keita, "Jaliya in the Modern World: A Tribute to Banzumana Sissoko and Massa Makan Diabaté", in David C. Conrad and Barbara E. Frank (eds.), Status and Identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande, Bloomington-Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1995, pp. 182-196.

[12] For the specific case of Senegal, see Ismaël Moya, De l’argent aux valeurs. Femmes, économie, parenté et islam à Thiaroye-sur-Mer, Dakar, Sénégal, doctoral thesis in anthropology, Paris, EHESS, 2011, pp. 251-254.

[13] Pierre Bourdieu (ed.), Un art moyen. Essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1965, p. 43.

[14] Cornelia Panzacchi, Der Griot. Seine Darstellung in der frankophonen westafrikanischen Literatur, Rheinfelden, Schäuble Verlag, 1990, p. 46 (quoted by Isaac Bazié in "Corps perçus et corps figurés", Etudes françaises, vol. 41, no. 2, 2005, pp. 9-24).

[15] Simon Njami, "L’écrivain, le griot et le photographe", Anthologie de la photographie africaine et de l’Océan indien, Paris, Les Éditions Revue Noire, 1998, pp. 20-23, quote p. 23.