Contemporary Photographic
Practice in Senegal

Babacar Mbaye Diop


Senegal is one of the African countries where photography was practised very early on. Due to French colonisation, a number of French photographers moved to Senegal at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was they who taught most of the first Senegalese photographers, who they employed as their assistants. But if the first Senegalese photographers like Meïssa Gaye (1892-1993) — the father of Senegalese photography —, Mama Casset (1908-1992) and Mix Gueye (1906-1994) were taught by French photographers, they quickly developed their own personal practice. They would “surpass mere technical appropriation to turn photography into a force driving towards modernity and a real aesthetic project.”[1] In this way they made a real impact in the history of Senegalese photography.

Today the most widespread form of photography in Senegal is family photography. With the arrival of colour film, photographic technologies that had only been available to professionals became available to everyone. We see the emergence of a new kind of photographers, known as ‘ambulant’. They don’t have studios; they take pictures in the street, in tourist spots or during special events (ceremonies, festivals, etc.). Unlike the photographic artisans working in studios who master the entire photographic process, from shooting to developing negatives to printing, these new practitioners are only concerned with shooting.

Apart from studio photographers, there are those who, like Mandémory, Touré Béhan, Matar Ndour and Ousmane Ndiaye Dago, are fundamentally engaged with the practice of photography as a fine art, as a form of aesthetic research. To describe photographic practices in Senegal requires the posing of a number of questions: what is the nature of the evolution of photography in Senegal since its introduction by colonisation up until today? How did the Senegalese appropriate photography for themselves? What uses have they put it to? What are the problems and stakes of photography in the reception of contemporary art in Senegal?

Family photos and press photography
With the arrival of digital technology, photography, once limited to professionals, became accessible to everyone. Cheaper and faster development, the ease of acquiring a camera, and above all youth unemployment are some of the reasons that lead people to try to earn a living as ambulant photographers. The ambulant photographer photographs people during public events, then sells the prints when they finish. Erika Nimis notes that “ambulant photographers have largely contributed to the vulgarisation of photography, accessible for little money, at any time and any place.”[2]

In Senegal, photography referred to as ‘domestic’ is present throughout the entire country. Every family has at least one photo album. J.-F. Werner, in his study of family photography in Senegal, notes that “upon arriving, a visiting foreigner is invited to look through the family photo album of his or her hosts, as though this served to symbolically introduce them into the family group by means of a kind of intermediary iconographic representation.”[3] Of particular interest is the presence of crosses drawn onto certain faces in the photo albums. These crosses signify, for the viewer of the album, that these people have died. Photography captures a moment of life. It materialises death. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes: “What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”[4] With the portrait, the photographer can create the illusion that the person depicted is still alive. To prevent this confusion, a cross is placed on those who are deceased. Domestic photography is central in Senegal. Regarding photographers of daily life, Boubacar Touré Mandémory says, “too often their testimony has been neglected. We have to realise that [...] even if the images are destined to remain inside of people’s homes, they play a role in the image that our society has of itself.”[5]

Beyond family photography, which is the most predominant, Senegalese photographers also work for the press. Apart from a few rare exceptions, press photography still isn’t given much room in the media. Mostly regarded as secondary, it is considered as having a merely illustrative value. Most of the time the image is only sought after the editing of the article or the completion of the report. Among press photographers in Senegal, one of the most well known is Boubacar Touré, known as ‘Mandémory’. Born in 1954 in Dakar, he has worked with major Francophone newspapers in Africa and in Paris. He also worked for the Dakar dailies Le Journal and Dakar Soir (which no longer exist), and also for the Panapress agency based in Dakar. Mandémory recalls that he was very well paid while working for Panapress, but that he decided to leave after only a few months, being unable, he says, to work under anyone else’s authority. And he refused to be shunted back and forth between one editorial board and another, as happens to most press photographers. Mandémory punctually responds to commissions from western institutions such as the Association française d’action artistique [French Association for Artistic Activities] (AFAA) or the International Organisation of La Francophonie. His work is published in major western newspapers, magazines and journals including, among others, Libération, L’Express, Le Monde, Télérama, 01 Informatique, Futur, Jalouse, Aide France Magazine, Balafon, and Editions Revue Noire.

Another press photographer, Touré Béhan, born in Dakar in 1961, worked with the Sipa Press agency in Paris in 1994 and with the daily Dakar Soir in 1997. Today he works independently for the AFP and in 1996 he founded his own agency, Nataal. His photos would gradually come to be published in numerous journals such as Jazz Magazine, Jeune Afrique, The New York Times, and Revue Noire. Among the many photographers working for the local press, Pape Seydi at the daily Le Soleil, and Mamadou Seylou Diallo at the Sud Quoditien are worth noting. Diallo now works for Agence France-Press, where he is deputy head of the West-Africa and Chad division, overseeing fourteen countries. Also worthy of note is Mamadou Gomis,[6] who has worked as a photographer for the Dakar dailies Walf and Grand’Place. Earlier he worked for Senegalese newspapers like L’Événement du Soir and filed reports for Le Quotidien, Stades (a sports daily), Thiof and Nouvel Horizon. He also regularly works with international press agencies including Agence France Press, Panapress and Reuters.

Dakar’s fine art photographers: pioneers in photographing the black body
In 1989, the late Bara Guèye, a journalist at the daily Sud, created Ecomar, a communication and marketing business. The same year he met Mandémory. The latter added the term ‘visual’ to Ecomar and together they created Ecomar Visual, a photo agency and platform for advocacy, consulting and decision-making. Later they were joined by Béhan. In 1994, Mandémory and Béhan founded the Mandémory group which, although short-lived, enabled him to organise an exhibition with the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique noire [African Institute of Basic Research] (IFAN) the same year, entitled Dakar Then and Now. They established a team to conduct research into the photography of the black body (which should also be taken to mean “sombre matter”). Their thinking went like this: cameras having been created by Westerners, the photoelectric cells used in light meters for calculating optimal exposure have been calibrated for white skin, and thus for a different kind of light than what is reflected by black skin.[7]

When a photographer working with a photoelectric cell measures the incident light, it registers as a neutral grey. When a white person is photographed under this light, they’re well exposed. When the person is mixed-race, the photo is not bad. But when it is a black person, you can’t see anything. It’s a result of the techniques taught in art or photography schools. Mandémory and Béhan learned and practised such techniques themselves. They began working in photography without understanding certain essential details; but as time went by they realised that it was not possible to correctly photograph the black body using the parameters of any of the cameras commercially available anywhere in the world. To obtain a decent rendering of a black body, they first had to research incident and reflected light, in order to calculate the best way to photograph black. Then they applied the ‘zone system’ method, i.e. they practised photography by pre-visualisation. The precursor of this method is the American photographer and ecologist Ansel Adams (1902-1984). Adams developed the zone system in collaboration with Fred Archer. It is a process for obtaining a correct exposure as well as adjusting contrast on the final print, based on a scale of grey values ranging from 0 (black) to 9 (white). The result is an almost perfect depth and clarity.[8]

How should I photograph the colour of my jeans, my shirt, or my beanie, in black and white, when they are all different colours? Each of these colours has a different grey value. But if Ansel Adams focused his work on this issue, he neglected to take the black body into account in the course of his research. He focused on finding a method of working with different greys, in order to improve his black and white photographs. At that time, cameras featuring light meters only took the centre of the frame into account, and almost all single-lens reflex cameras of the time featured such light meters. Consequently, photographers working with cameras lacking so-called ‘intelligent’ light meters were forced to rely on measuring incident light, a measure which, in certain lighting situations, is not at all favourable to photographing black skin. In such cases, only light- or white-skinned people were correctly exposed.[9]

Mandémory and his team strove to adapt Adams’s zone system to the black body. They conducted an experiment with three naked bodies whose heads had been shaved in advance: a white person, a black person, and a mixed-race person. In photographing them, Mandémory and the others realised that the camera calculated the same amount of light for the black and the mixed-race body, even though the exposure needed to be different in each case. If you photograph a black person individually and develop the shot at a particular gamma, the result can be such that when one looks at the photograph, it is impossible to tell whether it is of a black person or a white person. Because when you develop black and white film, the image always appears as a certain shade of grey. And if you repeat the experiment with a white person, you can get the same result: you cannot tell if the person is black or white. Perhaps you could because of the morphology, but not from the skin colour. The same experiment with a mixed-race person would give the same result again, even though the colours are different. The shot is unable to reproduce these differences. With this project, Mandémory and his team wanted to investigate how the camera’s photoelectric cells needed to be adapted to each of the three kinds of light.

With the help of a flash, Mandémory and his team discovered a way of adapting the zone system for their own photographic research. How to photograph someone with a grey scale that would really approach black? The two photographers and their team managed to work it out by means of a different technique, whereby they added light in order to photograph black skin. In the case of black skin, an amount of light needs to be added in order to reproduce depth and detail. To develop this technique, Mandémory and his group carried out researches into photography and sensitometry, the study of light-sensitive materials. This photography-related discipline studies light-sensitive materials with the help of a sensitometer, a tool that emits a highly stable light source, and a densitometer, which measures the density (blackness) of transparent photographic materials. In the course of this photographic research into the correct exposure of the black body, Mandémory and his team produced a large number of images, but they are unfortunately all lost.

Three art photographers from Dakar
At the heart of the artistic landscape of Dakar, I’ve chosen to present three photographers in more detail, all of whom are more or less of the same generation: Mandémory, Dago and Touré Béhan. Each in their own way they reflect the vitality of photography in the city in the last few decades, even though the art form remains minor and under-represented.

Boubacar Touré Mandémory is one of the most well-known fine art photographers in Senegal. He has completed many artistic projects, both alone and collectively. He had his first major exhibition in 1986 in Gorée, which focused on “the insane people of Dakar”. In 1989, with Touré Béhan, he set up a collective and a platform with the aim of furthering the recognition of photography in Senegal and the artists’ self-expression. In 1990, with the support of the Centre Culturel Français [French Cultural Centre], and with a group of photographer friends, he launched Le Mois de la Photo [Photo Month] in Dakar, which later evolved into the Rencontres africaines de la photographie [African Photography Encounters] in Bamako, Mali. The move to Bamako was due to the fact that there was already the Dakar Biennale. In 1992, Mandémory completed a major photo-report on the different ethnic groups in Senegal (Bassari, Bedick, and Jola) and in Sierra Leone (Temne). In 2008 he completed a project on clandestine immigration in the fishing village Thiaroye-sur-mer, where more than 200 young men cast off hoping to make it to Europe and never returned. The same year, Mandémory travelled and stayed in many African countries for his project “Cities, capitals of Africa”.

Mandémory tends to photograph cities, with all the difficulties that that entails. He says that if he uses too long a lens, he risks truncating the image he wants to create. In order to exactly reproduce the environment he is in, he uses extreme wide-angle lenses and avoids working with shadows. He works out his framing manually: he moves himself either forwards or backwards in order to precisely master the space and his framing. At the beginning of his career, Mandémory worked with a 35mm lens, but with the passage of time he wanted to broaden his approach to space, once certain problems with framing and focus were sorted out. The essential aspects of his photographic practice take place in his mind, and that’s what constitutes his personal style. Once extreme wide-angle lenses came onto the domestic market, Mandémory employed panoramic cameras capable of capturing up to a 120° range and even created 360° panoramic images. But the latter are difficult to work on; they cause difficulties at the reproduction stage, as doing prints is complicated. Following this, Mandémory started working with fish eye lenses, which is problematic in silver halide photography,[10] as it creates curves that are impossible to get rid of. Sensing that digital technology could help, Mandémory started working with a digital camera,[11] which allowed him to retouch his images. The possibilities of mastering space are thus increased tenfold, especially due to the immediacy of the images. The photographer can instantly tell whether what he has photographed corresponds to what he wants or not, and then adjust his shooting accordingly. Working with digital and with fish eye lenses (fish have 180° vision), Mandémory obtained curves that he sought to minimise, as you can see in the image below.

(fig. 1) © Mandémory

With the fish eye lens, Mandémory obtains a 180° angle that he then corrects in order to have photographs of either 90° or 180°. This process of correction enables Mandémory to create dynamic images. When taken from ground level they are truly astonishing. When taking light readings, Mandémory relies on centre-weighted metering, which is different to what his camera gives him. It is a special technique. He takes a reading of the incident light, because what interests him is the environment rather than the people in it. If he wants to work with people, he takes different measurement appropriate for photographing them in their environment.

(fig. 2) © Mandémory

A lot of photographers today are not very good because they have entered the profession without learning photography. To photograph correctly, you have to master the ABC of photographic technique, for example if you want to use motion blur or free flash. This apprenticeship is necessary in the case of silver halide photography, but also for digital photography, for knowledge of the first conditions the second.

Ousmane Ndiaye Dago is a Senegalese photographer, graphic artist and designer. He attended the Institut National des Arts du Sénégal [National Institute of Arts in Dakar], then the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, where he studied graphic design. As a graphic designer he works on commissions and so has to submit to his clients’ needs. His photographic work is wholly devoted to women. His first exhibition was held in 1996 at the Galerie nationale d’Art [National Art Gallery] in Dakar. His work has been exhibited in France, Italy and Spain. In 2001 he participated in the Venice Biennale, being only the second Senegalese artist to do so, after Moustapha Dimé. After his studies in Belgium, Dago returned to Dakar to start a career as a fine art photographer. He quickly realised that the Senegalese don’t buy art photography. They buy photos depicting themselves or a marabout, not those taken by artists. In such a context it is difficult to develop an artistic practice, to exhibit and to sell one’s work. Finally Dago decided to produce photographs that resemble paintings. To do so, he creates images of female figures that really do exist, but that are at the same time abstract, as Dago doesn’t show their faces and presents their bodies covered in mud, coal, ash or colour. He thus uses different techniques to mislead the viewer and conceal the naked bodies he photographs. The image of a naked body is acceptable in Senegal, so long as the person has no identity.

(fig. 3) © Ousmane Ndiaye Dago

The female body is at the centre of Dago’s artistic research. He sculpts women’s bodies and coats them in mud and puts wigs on them to depersonalise them. In Senegal, he told me during an interview, the naked body bothers people on religious grounds. He explains the difficulty of representing naked bodies in a Muslim culture: “I decided to never show the models’ faces, and to cover them in different materials: dirt, sand, mud...”.[12] Dago’s photographs show veiled bodies, stained and spattered, decorated with glass necklaces, pearl belts, revealing veils and covered in ochre or white clay, such that one is left unsure if they are even black women’s bodies. That’s why Dago, without ever depicting his models’ faces, covers them in different materials: earth, sand, mud, ash, paint. The female nudes he photographs resemble painted sculptures. His works are nudes captured in all their purity. The artist doesn’t only work on images of nude or semi-nude women. He is also interested in traditional Senegalese wrestling. Battle scenes captured in all their splendour and force. Ousmane Ndiaye Dago’s images have attracted curators of the Dakar, Bamako, Venice and Havanna Biennales, and the automobile manufacturer Porsche also organised an exhibition of this works.

(fig. 4) © Ousmane Ndiaye Dago

Touré Béhan is an art photographer and winner of the 1997 Prix Afriques en Créations [African Creation Prize] in Antananarivo. He has had a number of international exhibitions and has participated in many publications.[13] Touré Béhan is one of the founding members of the research group into black skin, and of the Dakar Mois de la Photographie [Photography Month]. He is also a press photographer. He maintains that “colour research and the force of composition is central to [his] photography. The photo is an instant, a brief instant in which everything happens. That’s why [he] never reframe[s].”[14] He is interested in urban problems and social change.

In an interview with the newspaper Le Soleil on August 1, 2012, he says: “In Senegal, the public only knows photos of baptisms and marriages. When you tell someone you’re a photographer, they look at you a bit disdainfully. People don’t understand that photography has other kinds of applications,” he protests. “I’m happy that people consider my photos artworks.”[15] His photographic vignettes are scenes of everyday life. For him, photography is an instant. “Each shot”, he says, “is the result of a brief instant in which all these different ingredients are brought together. They aren’t staged or prepared; it is a kind of fishing for images, so it is only at the end of each session that you work out if you have anything or not.”[16] That’s why Touré Béhan never retouches or crops his images. Photography is a way of seeing, a way of drawing one’s attention to the things and beings in nature by means of a composition, a particular framing, a juxtaposition of forms and colours.

(fig. 5) © Mamadou Touré dit Behan/DR

I have chosen to discuss these three contemporary Senegalese photographers as examples, but many other artists such as Bouna Médoune Sèye, Djibril Sy, Matar Ndour or Pap Ba have also developed different forms of aesthetic research through their work. They have received a certain degree of recognition and their images circulate. Among the younger generation, mention should be made of Omar Victor Diop [LIENS VERS SA PAGE?]. There are also a number of photographers like Willy Kemtan who haven’t succeeded in having their images circulated.

(fig. 6) © Mamadou Touré dit Behan/DR

The purely artistic side of the photographic medium is not very well recognised in Senegal. It is very difficult for fine art photographers to make a living from their art. The most common kind of photography is commercial, involving no artistic or formal research. On the whole, art photography is neglected in Africa, and especially in Senegal, where there is not even a single state institution charged with encouraging and supporting the medium. Even if it mainly exists as an applied art (and in this sense, the other arts rely on it constantly), it is none the less a fully-fledged art form itself.

Senegalese photographers develop in a difficult context, with economic constraints, limited access to digital technology, and little press exposure or publicity. At the Dakar Biennale, photography was first presented as an art alongside the others in 1998. In the official exhibitions today, photography remains very much in the minority, and only a few auxiliary exhibitions devoted to photography take place alongside the official ones. And in the time between Biennales, photography exhibitions are even more rare. They are mostly only to be found at the Goethe Institut and the Institut Français.


Babacar Mbaye Diop, Philosophy department, University Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar

(Translated from French by Marty Hiatt)



[1]   See: Bouttiaux, Anne-Marie; D’Hooghe, Alain; Pivin, Jean Loup et Martin Saint Leon, Pascal, L’Afrique par elle-même, un siècle de photographie africaine, Paris, Éditions Revue Noire, 2003.

[2]   Nimis, Erika, L’Afrique en regard. Une brève histoire de la photographie, Paris, Filigranes éditions, p. 65.

[3]   Werner, Jean-François, “De la photo de famille comme outil ethnographique: une étude exploratoire au Sénégal”, L’Ethnographie, 1997, 92 (2), p. 165-178.

[4]   Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida [1980] trans. Richard Howard, New York, Hill and Wang, 1981, p. 4.

[5]   Interviewed by Héric Libong in ‘Être photographe à Dakar’, Africultures, 32, November 2000. Available online:


[7]   For more detail regarding this issue, see Roth, Lorna, ‘Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Color Balance, Image Technologies and Cognitive Equity’ in Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 34 (2009), pp. 111-136.

[8]   For more on the theory behind the zone system, see Drouard, Daniel, Initiation au Zone System: le système des zones en photographie argentique et numérique, éditions VM, librairie Eyrolles, 2009; Caujolle, Christian, “Adams Ansel  (1902-1984)” in Encyclopædia Universalis, available online:édie/ansel-adams); and Adams, Ansel, Ansel Adams: An Autobiography, Boston, Little Brown and Co., 1983.

[9]   These details were obtained in the course of an interview with Mandémory, at his home in Guédiawaye, Dakar, on February 6, 2015.

[10] So called because the film is covered in a layer of silver halide crystals, which are sensitive to light and which thus result in a (black and white) negative.

[11] Which he received upon winning first prize in the magazine category of the Fuji Prize for his work on the clandestine gold panners of Kédougou in 2002. He travelled to Paris to receive the award, which marked his entry into the digital era.

[12] Taken from an interview with the author on 04.12.13.

[13] Editions Revue Noire, the Prince Clause Fund (Netherlands), and the Sénégal Contemporain catalogue published by Musée Dapper, Paris.

[14] From an interview with Brigitte Herbertz, taken from the catalogue, ‘Scènes de vie. Parc des ballons et villes portes’. Text available online at:

[15] From an interview with Serigne Mansour Sy Cissé, ‘La photographie a du mal à être reconnue comme discipline artistique’, Le Soleil, 01.08.12.

[16] Touré Béhan, ‘Ballades’, available online on his blog,



- Ba, Amadou, Les Reporters photographes professionnels du Sénégal. Une corporation sous-valorisée, Masters thesis, CESTI-Université Cheikh Anta Diop, 2011.

- Barthes Roland, La Chambre claire. Note sur la photographie, Paris, Gallimard/Seuil/Cahiers du cinéma, 1980. [Published in English as Camera Lucida, New York, Hill and Wang, 1981.]

- Bouttiaux, Anne-Marie; D’Hooghe, Alain; Pivin, Jean Loup and Martin Saint Leon, Pascal, L’Afrique par elle-même, un siècle de photographie africaine, Paris, Éditions Revue Noire, 2003.

- Conord, Sylvaine, ‘Usages et fonctions de la photographie’, Ethnologie française 37, 2007, pp. 11-22.

- Libong, Eric, ‘Être photographe à Dakar’, Africultures 32, Novembre 2000.

- Nimis, Erika, Photographes d’Afrique de l’Ouest : l’expérience yoruba, Paris, Karthala-
IFRA, 2005.

- Nimis, Erika (ed.), L’Afrique en regard. Une brève histoire de la photographie, Paris, Filigranes éditions, 2005, especially the contribution by Simon Njami.

- Martin Saint Leon, Pascal (ed.), Anthologie de la photographie africaine et de l’Océan Indien, Paris, Éditions Revue Noire, 1998.

- Pivin, Jean-Loup, Mama Casset et les précurseurs de la photographie au Sénégal, 1950, Paris, Éditions Revue Noire, 1994.

- Rouillé, André, La Photographie. Entre document et art contemporain, Paris, Gallimard, 2005.

- Rouillé, André, ‘Le document photographique en question’, L’Ethnographie 109, 1991, pp. 83-95.

- Rouillé, André, ‘L’Énonciation photographique’, Les Cahiers de la photographie 5, 1982, pp. 28-32.

- Rouillé, André, ‘Pour une histoire sociale de la photographie du XIXe siècle’, Les Cahiers de la photographie 3, 1981.

- Werner, Jean-François, ‘De la photo de famille comme outil ethnographique: une étude exploratoire au Sénégal’, L’Ethnographie 92: 2, 1997, pp. 165-178.

- Werner, Jean-François, ‘Photographie et dynamiques identitaires dans les sociétés contemporaines’, Autrepart 24, Revue éditée par l’IRD, 2002, pp. 21-43.