Adama Sylla


lives and works in Saint-Louis,




Q How did you start out as a photographer? Can you tell us about your photography collection?
AS I began my training in photography at the local Youth Centre in Saint-Louis in 1957, where I was later appointed director of Photographic Reproduction Services. After that, I worked as curator at the Senegalese Research and Documentation Centre Museum in Saint-Louis. I have also built up a large personal collection of photographs of Saint-Louis and other places, which document our colonial past. My collection includes prints and negatives. I have the originals, as well as photographic plates, small- and large-format prints, advertising material from the inter-war period and postcards. The Revue Noire publishing house in Paris drew extensively from my collection for its Anthologie de la photographie africaine [1998]. Some of the photos in my collection date back to 1915. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City also purchased around twenty photographs. Many photography collections have been lost, photographers have even thrown their collections into the river, but because I have a passion for preserving these documents, I’ve kept everything. I’ve always had an interest in documentation.
Q What do you mean by "documentation"?
AS I have training in curatorial and conservation work, so I leave nothing to chance. Documentation represents a nation’s memory, since the life we live today becomes the history of tomorrow. In twenty or thirty years’ time, the photos of today will be a part of history. The photographs in my collection belong to that history, and that’s their purpose: they allow us to recreate and record our history, even if that happens many years later. And it’s always from a fresh perspective, because our vision of things is affected by the events that have taken place in between. I have photographs that document the history of Saint-Louis. When I look at these images today, I think to myself that I’ve lived through the history of this city, and, in a broader sense, that of West Africa, since 1915, which coincides with a defining period in the history of the photographic medium. I feel as though I have experienced history through photography. Photographs are indispensable. They help a country to evolve. Many errors of the past could be avoided in the future thanks to the circulation of images. That’s why I see photo collections as being tied in with specific projects, with a particular point of view. They require a certain methodology. They must have coherence in order for the photographs to have the status of documents.


AS In my photographic collection, I set out to document people’s dress style, customs, behaviour and lifestyle. It’s a study of the past that is aimed at the future, for coming generations. The majority of the photographs you see here are of civil servants. They’re the ones who could afford a certain lifestyle. In the interwar period, poverty was less widespread than it is today. Many of the photos were taken by amateurs or by photographers in their studios. Saint-Louis was an affluent city, it represented certain elegance. In this photo, for example, you can see a mixed-race family. You don’t often see photographs like these, because they remained in the families. This is an amateur photograph. The professional photographers worked mainly in the studios. I’ve made a lot effort to combine professional and amateur photographs in my collection.


AS Saint-Louis was the most-photographed city in Africa because it served as capital of three nations: French West Africa, Mauritania and Senegal. It had a large population and it was very much like Paris. I make that comparison because there was great wealth in Saint-Louis. There were civil servants and thriving businesses; there were export products, such as gold and manufactured goods. In 1940, I was ten years old, and when I went to the grocery store, you could get anything you wanted. There were many French people in Saint-Louis – there were shiploads of French military personnel, as well as tradesmen and colonial officials. Saint-Louis was a capital city, and the first time I went to Paris I felt a certain similarity.
Q Who were the photographers working in Saint-Louis in the 1950s?
AS There were many photographers working in the city. Some were Lebanese, some were from Martinique, and there were Africans, such as Doudou Diop, Meïssa Gaye, Doro Sy, Alioune Diouf. There were also Europeans. There were Englishmen, such as Thatcher (who was the highest-ranking official photographer there), as well as French photographers. The first photographers in Saint-Louis were the military photographers, because they wanted to keep a record of their presence there.
Q Was any distinction made between the photography studios run by Africans and those run by Europeans?
AS Yes, they were not considered in the same way. African people went to the African studios, and the Europeans frequented the European studios. The more well-to-do Africans went to the French studios, but it all depended on people’s social standing. That’s how things worked there. The African photographers generally had a lot of clients, because Africans made up the majority of the population. People loved photographs as it was a new phenomenon and photos were not a common thing.
Q Who were the clients in the 1950s?
AS Everyone wanted to have their photo taken. The photographs you see here don’t show the poorer or wealthier classes – they’re middle class people. As I mentioned, the clients were mainly civil servants, trades people, contract workers and shop owners. Many of them worked in the transportation of goods between Saint-Louis and Kayes. There were many wealthy men working in the salt trade, we called them merchants back then. They generally lived on Saint-Louis Island. When they had their portraits taken, they would try to imitate the colonial look. The majority of the population had good spending power in Saint-Louis back then, and photography was part of urban culture, it was considered fashionable. Despite the city’s past and the history of slavery, and despite the colonial situation, different people socialized together. Segregation was obviously an issue, but Saint-Louis nonetheless stood apart from other African cities because there were many people of mixed race. In 1914, Blaise Diagne was the first African to be elected to the French Chamber of Deputies. He had been adopted by a prominent mixed-race family in Saint-Louis.
Q Were there fashions in the style of studio photography at that time, such as the choice of backgrounds used?
AS Yes, absolutely. Each studio had its own signature style, which included the use of certain backdrops. There were particular ways people posed for photos, particular styles of clothing. People followed the current fashions and had portraits taken according to their own tastes and preferences. I have a photo here that is more personal, which was not taken at a studio. It shows a mixed-race man, probably from a respected family, dressed in his finest clothes, his hair perfectly in place, next to a mixed-race woman, who is no doubt his servant. This was a common situation, in which people had their photographs taken in order to demonstrate their social status. Here is another photo of a man and a woman on a bed, showing their children and their friends. This one, for example, shows two sisters having their portrait taken. Do you notice the position they are taking? This was people’s preferred pose. There were fashions in how people posed for photographs, according to the particular era. The pose you see here was a way of showing off their jewellery. In another photograph, you can see a small piece of furniture and a bag, which the people obviously intended to be seen in the photo. This one shows a grandchild. There were different fashions and ways of presenting yourself, there were accepted styles and customs.
Q How did the different approaches to photography evolve over time?
AS I took many photographs of ceremonies in addition to my regular work. With the arrival of colour photography and light-weight cameras that were easier to use, photographers could earn a month’s salary in a single day during the festival season. Today, with digital technology, photography is no longer so highly-valued. All that is left now is fashion photography.

Interview conducted in Saint-Louis, 22.06.2014
by Bärbel Küster

Collections are tied in with specific projects, with a particular point of view. They require a certain methodology. They must have coherence in order for the photographs to have the status of documents.




Prosperity in Saint-Louis and the Photographic Studios

Interview with Adama Sylla in Saint-Louis, 2014