The Story of Mountaga Dembélé (1919-2004): Pioneer of Photography in Mali

Érika Nimis


"With the passing of time, the image I have of Mali remains enigmatic. It is like an old photograph with worn edges that has been looked at over and over again in search of an answer."[1]


Carte de vœux, 1948
(ill. 1) Photographic reproduction of a greeting card by Mountaga Dembélé in 1948 (orignal destroyed) © Moussa Kalapo, 2016

"Is there a photographic tradition in Africa?" asked a journalist from Le Monde in the introduction to his article, Fixer une mémoire qui se perd [Preserving a Heritage that is Being Lost],[2] about the first edition of the Bamako Photography Encounters.[3] When I consider this question, what stands out for me is the term "tradition", which I automatically associate with the “oral tradition” that is passed down by griots, the masters of the spoken word. With this in mind, the text that follows seeks to give a voice to a Malian photographer whose death in 2004 was met with a resounding silence. This photographer, whom I met on two occasions in late 1995 and early 1996, was Mountaga Dembélé. Dembélé was described in early accounts[4] by the internationally-renowned Malian photographer Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) as a "mentor" who had initiated Keïta (and others) into the techniques of photography and, once he had trained him, had handed over the ownership of his photographic laboratory to him. Nevertheless, Dembélé’s work was confused for many years with that of Boundiala Kouyaté, another photographer from Bamako Koura – the neighbourhood where Seydou Keïta had his studio – whose career began to flourish in the same period (the 1940s and 1950s) as that of Mountaga Dembélé and Seydou Keïta. And when Dembélé’s identity was not mistaken for that of someone else, he was simply not spoken about, such as in publications on the work of Seydou Keïta – exhibition catalogues and monographs – which describe Keïta’s career as a self-taught photographer. Only the book on Seydou Keïta from the "Photo Poche" collection,[5] which was first published in December 1995, restores Dembélé to his rightful place in history, retracing his career through the words of the ethnologist Youssouf Tata Cissé (1935-2013), a specialist in oral tradition, with whom Mountaga had discussed his career at length. This book notably explains the reasons why Dembélé had long been given the surname Kouyâté,[6] the same name as Balla Fasséké Kouyâté, who was the personal griot of Sunjata Keita, founder and first emperor of Mali!

I never had the opportunity to expand on my only two interviews with Mountaga Dembélé during his lifetime. In the following paragraphs I wish to reproduce, as simply and as faithfully as possible, his original statements which I recorded on audio tape, in the hope that one day (one never knows!), future researchers might be able to unravel the secrets of this man, who was an avid photographer and an important witness to the history of his country and his era. My encounter with Dembélé also highlights the complexity of undertaking research on the history of photography in West Africa. Indeed, how do we thread together disparate sources of information that are invariably only partially usable? And how can we reassemble the pieces of this "puzzle" (many of which are missing) from among the remaining fragments of written, iconographic and, especially, oral material? In many cases, all that remains is the oral testimony, as seen in the example that follows. Mountaga Dembélé was not able to conserve / keep? his archives, entrusting some of them to his friend and colleague Seydou Keïta (as Dembélé explains in my first interview, reproduced below).[7] The remaining archives were dispersed during his various travels, as he was a "school teacher-photographer" who was posted to different schools across Mali during his career. The only traces that remain of his presence are a wooden Imperator-brand enlarger (Photo 2), purchased in 1947, and a few family photographs stored in pitiful conditions under the mattress of his iron bed (see the photographic reproductions 3-6, which include an unpublished hand-coloured portrait[8]).

(ill. 2) Mountaga Dembélé in front of his Imperator-brand enlarger
© Érika Nimis

My meetings with Dembélé taught me something of great importance for the research that I was tentatively embarking on at the time: given the scarcity of available information and the diversity of sources,[9] it was essential to consider all resources on an equal basis, particularly with regard to oral testimonies, which may be the only record we have that bears witness to the career of a photographer who played a key role in local history.

When I conducted my initial field research in Bamako between 1995 and 1996, [10] the first edition of the Bamako Photography Encounters had just been held, and most of the photographers I met seemed to perceive my visit as bringing them some hope for gaining international recognition and exposure of their work, as Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé had achieved. I should also add that at that time in the late 20th century (the digital era had not yet begun), "old style" photography – meaning black and white photographs taken in studios – was in serious jeopardy of dying out due the arrival in the commercial market of a new generation of photographers in the late 1980s, who took advantage of the "colour revolution": "itinerant" photographers, or "bana bana", as they were called by Malick Sidibé (1936-2016). These photographers, liberated of all constraints, with no training, no studios, and armed with a simple automatic camera, offered their services to people in public spaces at unbeatable prices, using one of the many colour photo labs in the city to process their prints. The itinerant photographers undercut the market for the professional photographers, who had previously enjoyed the benefits of well-established businesses – to such an extent that professional photographers found themselves under severe threat even before the digital wave engulfed them completely, sweeping away their archives along with them.

So, why do I propose that the history of photography in Mali started in 1935, as suggested by the title of my 1998 book Photographes de Bamako, de 1935 à nos jours [Bamako Photographers from 1935 to Today], published in 1998 by the Éditions Revue Noire? Considering that very often, I only have the testimonies of people alive today and their memories to rely on in reconstructing the past, it was Mountaga Dembélé who gave me the idea of using this date as a starting point during our first meeting: 1935 was the year he first learned about photography and also the year that the first photography store opened in Bamako, owned by a Frenchman, Pierre Garnier (whose story I later pieced together). But I will let Mountaga Dembélé, the "photographer-school teacher" tell us the rest of his story himself, and reveal some of his work secrets.

It is important to add that I have sought to reproduce as closely as possible the style of spoken language in the audio recordings, with the exception a few technical terms. The use of ellipses within square brackets "[…]" generally indicates the editing of repetitions, and, occasionally, terms that were not possible to transcribe. I also provide a number of explanations in brackets.

(ill. 2) Mountaga Dembélé in front of his Imperator-brand enlarger
© Érika Nimis

Mountaga Dembélé

First interview conducted in his home, in the presence of the photographer Mamadou Kanté, in Médina Koura [a district of Bamako, Mali], on 20 December 1995. 

Taking photographs in Mali from the 1930s to 1950
"My name is Mountaga Dembélé, a primary school teacher by profession, now a retired school inspector. I was the first black photographer here in Bamako. Nobody taught me how to be a photographer. When it came to manipulating lenses, I figured out how to take photos, and fortunately, the first pharmacist who came to Bamako, Jules Garnier,[11] also got into photography at the same time. So I started spending time with him, and we ended up working together. I was still at school at the time, in 1935. […] It was he who opened the first pharmacy. He did his photography at the same time. His son was the same age as me. He was a "botanical specialist" [an enthusiast of phytonyms]. I got my training by working with them, and I kept it up. I worked in the city, so we did everything together. [Jules Garnier] published books […]. Later, I went to France. Before I went to France, I had a lot of photographs, […] photos of before the war; I still have some of them here. […] But Seydou took my negatives; he took many photos. The photos he showed were mostly taken by me. […] I’m the one who taught him photography. My studio was even in their house, in Bamako Koura. Since I was at their house, I taught him about photography. It’s my studio that he still keeps today. […]

During the war, I met Professor Houppé in Paris. […] He’s the man who invented the Imperator – the Imperator enlarger and printing equipment. For six or seven years, he was the leading manufacturer in France. He published a book called Les secrets de la photographie dévoilés [The Secrets of Photography Revealed].[12] That was before flashes. […] I placed an order over there, and I received the enlarger in 1947, with the printing equipment – it ran on small batteries or an accumulator […]. It operated on alternating current at any voltage, and continuous current, at any voltage. Even with 1.5V, you could make 30 x 40 [centimetres] enlargements, using light bulbs. Even now, there’s a bulb still inside it. Since I was a school teacher, I was sent out to work in the back-country. Even in these places I could use a bicycle dynamo for power. I’d turn a bicycle upside down […] and one of my children or pupils would turn the wheel. Using that, I could do enlargements, print photos, everything! I took it with me to Gao, pretty much wherever I went […]. It really served me well. It provided me with an income for nine months of the year, without even needing to touch my salary. My earnings from photography work were enough to pay for my food, my clothes, everything. […] I only gave it up completely around four or five years ago. People would always search me out, even the Croix du Sud store.[13] They used to contact me to process films that were difficult to develop, and so I did that for them. […] It’s a store that sells cameras and photographic supplies of all types. It still exists today. […] It’s across the road from MALIMAG. […] He used to supply us with everything we needed, films, plates, and so on. I actually fabricated my equipment myself, following the instructions in Houppé’s book. At that time, since there was no colour photography, I did sepia prints and all sorts of other colour effects, always single colours […], following the book. All the information about the equipment and how it’s made is in that book. I used green, purple, blue, violet, any colour tones, and people liked it. Most of the time, we used matt paper. […] With this, I could do colour photography by hand. We had a choice of colours, there were twelve tints. Using a paintbrush and a little water, we’d moisten the print. […] If you’re skilful with the brush, it can look exactly like the colour photos we have today. I also did enlargements. […] Because we didn’t have industrial lights, we did night photography using a Petromax lantern. I even did it that way when I was in Sikasso. I’m the first person to have done it that way, in any city. In Sikasso, or Ségou, Koutiala, Niafounké, or Timbuktu, I used Petromax lanterns for night shots. People would come over to my house and I turned my bedroom into a studio. […] I developed the prints the same night. Back then, our photographic paper was not like the paper you get nowadays. We used print [dryers/]glazers. Now you can get paper that’s already glossy. […]

(ill. 4) Mountaga Dembélé, family portrait
© Érika Nimis, 1995

There was somebody, a school inspector, who wrote to me once when I was in Mopti […]. His letter was addressed to "Mr Mountaga Dembélé, photographer-school teacher". This European inspector’s name was Mr "Vallet". […] He came to see me. He liked me, since we had both fought in the war. […] He came to visit me at the school where I was principal […] and said to me, "You could at least give me the honour of calling yourself a "school teacher-photographer". We both smiled, we laughed and had chatted for a while. So, I came on the scene before Seydou Keïta, Sakaly, Malick (Malick stayed working with the Croix du Sud for many years, that’s where he got his training) […]. I know all those people, and many others. I trained them all. There was also someone else by the name of Malick in Bamako Coura, whose hands were damaged. Personally, I never used gloves, but in spite of that, my hands were not affected. […]

I made photography accessible to people, [whereas other photographers] wanted to keep their techniques a secret. Perhaps they felt that if there were too many of us, they wouldn’t be able to earn enough money. It was different for me because I had my job as well, so it didn’t matter. I gave advice to anyone who wanted to learn, and I ended up becoming quite popular. I’m the oldest of all of them and the most popular. And for now, that’s the way it continues to be."

Mountaga Dembélé

Second interview conducted in his home in Médina Koura on 18 January 1996. 

“Browsing through the family photo album” with Mountaga Dembélé
Mountaga Dembélé first of all brought out a stills camera (a Rulex, 9 x 12 cm[14]), which he acquired in 1944, and described how it worked: "Here, there was an unpolished glass plate. […] It has folding bellows with a sliding carriage (we call that 'express-folding'). That’s what you use for focusing, it moves the lens backwards and forwards. If you look through here, with a black fabric covering your head […], you see a reversed image on the unpolished glass plate. When it’s fully in focus, you close the lens and set the shutter speed that you want to use. Then, there’s the plate-holder; it’s like a plate that carries film portraits. […] I’ve had this camera since 1944. I had it with me when I was in the army. […] I wasn’t an official war photographer, I was in the infantry. […] I took my own photographs, because people knew about me before the war. I was drafted into the army on the 1st of January, 1940, and I served throughout the war. I was discharged on the 25th of July 1945. […]

I did my photography at the same time as working as a school teacher. I have evidence of that here, with some photos that date back to 1935, and some from later, 1940, 1950. I’ve been able to retrieve some of them, but there are others that I haven’t managed to find yet. We made a lot of money thanks to this machine [the Imperator enlarger]. I developed prints, […] it could do any format: from 9 x 12 cm up to 24 x 36 mm. With the Imperator, we could make whatever sized enlargement we wanted. My older brother’s wife […] has a photo of herself when she was a young girl. I’ve actually told her that, if it were ever necessary, I might need to get that photo back. [Speaks in Bambara]

(ill. 5) Mountaga Dembélé, family portrait
© Érika Nimis, 1995

This is a picture of the principal at my school in 1946, in Niafounké. He was the father of Zou, the Minister of Finance, Zou Sacko […]. I enlarged this photo using this machine [enlarger.] I took the picture using a 6 x 6 camera. […] This is my daughter, Gallia […]. I took this photo before I joined the army, before 1939, around 1935, ‘36 or ‘37. That’s what people wore then. Everything that you see as white is actually gold. Back then, people used to wear a lot of gold jewellery. These are precious pearls that cost a lot of money. They were worn as a necklace. […] This is a photo I took of my wife’s elder sister. […]. The child you see in this picture is the mother of his wife, whom I photographed around 1938, when I was in Mopti. And those girls in the pictures you saw, I also photographed them in the 1930s. […] These were the outfits people used to wear, but everything you see there is made of gold. Nobody wears gold any more. Look at the necklaces they’re wearing! This photo is also of Gallia. Now she has many grandsons […]. She is elderly now. She’s my first daughter, my eldest daughter. This one is of me, with the same daughter. I decided on the poses people took. […]. I organized all of that myself. […] Even the way the bandanas were tied, I did it for them. This woman used to have one of my photos showing a way people used to tie their bandanas, which we called the "De Gaulle" style, in 1946-47. She used to have this photo, but she told me she wasn’t able to find it for this morning. This is one of my personal shots; it’s of me, which I reproduced […]. I wasn’t so young, because that was a long time after I’d left the army. This one is a photo taken in the 1930s. It’s of Sheikh Hamallah, a saint from Nioro. He’s buried in France. My daughter visited the grave last year […] He was deported by the French, because they believed he was going to organize an Islamic revolution. When he came to Bamako, I was the one who managed to photograph him. […] My daughter went over to France to photograph his grave. She works for the tax department now. […] This is a very old photo that I made a copy of. It’s of the elder brother of Madame, my wife. He and I were friends, we were all very young then. […]

This one shows my family. You can see Madame herself here. You can see that even in her time, the way they dressed back then, they wore a lot of gold. The necklaces […], everything was made of gold. They pierced their ears to hang 150 grams of gold on each ear! It really tore their earlobes. […] As you see, this is a very old photo taken a long time ago. All these photos were shot with a 6 x 9 camera. This one’s not so old, but it’s one I managed to find. I took it around 1951. We had a party for our neighbourhood, and that’s when I took the picture, out there in Mopti.

An "all-terrain" darkroom: The Imperator or printing frame and a hurricane lantern
I was the first photographer to make greeting cards (photo 1). I ordered some decorative vignettes to use on them. That’s a photo that I never managed to retrieve. I had put it under my mattress, but all those photos were destroyed. […] I added little poems, like "A cry from the heart" [written at the bottom of the photo] or "Darling, if it’s not asking too much, give me a kiss!" […] In those days, no one else managed to do that here. [Dembélé describes the technique of double exposure.] I painted them by hand […] to reproduce the design and the written message. I joined them up to make a single print. After that, I added a frame. I placed black paper in the centre [as a mask to protect the light-sensitive paper], and made an initial print of the vignette. Then, I made a second print of the photo image on the same sheet of photographic paper, emulsion side against emulsion side, and I ended up with a single photograph.

(ill. 6) Mountaga Dembélé, family portrait
© Érika Nimis, 1995

Using the Imperator enlarger, I was able to print photos during the very hot weather here. Our prints were melting in the heat, and we didn’t have a fan to keep them cool. So, thanks to the information in the book, Les secrets de la photographie dévoilés […], I learned that to stop prints from melting during hot weather, you had to add chrome alum to the fixing bath. […] Just in the nick of time, the Croix du Sud managed to get us a delivery of these products containing chrome alum. I mixed my own solutions for the baths: the developing bath, the fixing bath, and everything else. That enabled me to attract masses of clients. […] As for my equipment, […] I’ve shown you the printing frame, which we used to make contact prints. We’d put the print inside it with the emulsion sides facing each another […] Then we’d close the frame, with the paper locked in there. We did all this under red light, or yellow light, or even a deep yellow light. The paper wasn’t overly sensitive. But for developing negatives, you need a deep red light. So after that, we’d take the contact print out and put it in white light, we’d count 1, 2, 3, and then turn the light off. We’d take it out of the frame, develop it, and then it was done. I even took photographs using a hurricane lantern when we didn’t have electricity […]. It depended on the strength of the light source. It had to stay exposed for two seconds or one second, sometimes it could be up to six seconds. When I was out in the bush, I used a hurricane lantern set up in one of those big petrol tins […]. I cut out a hole in the side of the tin […], a square that measured around 15 x 15 [centimetres]. With the photographic paper, we used yellow, red or black papers as filters. We really did develop photos using all this! I’d put the red filter over the hole in the tin, then I’d put the hurricane lantern inside. Using that red light, I did all my work, developing the images, positioning them in the printing frame and all the rest of it while the light shone red. Once I’d set up the frame, I removed the red filter and exposed my frame to the light. I counted 1, 2, 3, 4, then I closed the lid. After that, I developed the prints. That’s basically how I did it. When I developed my photos when I was in Sikasso, or wherever I ended up where there was no electricity, I used to work at night because I didn’t have much time during the day, since I was working as a teacher and school principal. At night, I managed to make my photos using a Petromax hurricane lantern with a mantle. I’ve still got it here, but it’s not in very good condition. […] I strung up a metal wire in the school playground to hang my prints to dry. After one hour, maybe two hours, they’d all be dry. I did all the developing and printing the same night. […] In the morning, my wife glazed the prints on car windscreens. They needed to be cleaned very carefully, so we sprinkled a little talcum powder on them […]. You had to give them a good rub to get rid of any remaining patches. If it was even slightly dirty, the spots would remain stuck. When you peeled the paper off the surface of the glass, the emulsion stayed stuck to the glass. […] At that time, we didn’t have glossy paper, […] so we had to glaze the prints. They came out very glossy when we put them in a cool place. After a while, they unpeeled without any trouble, tap, tap, tap, and there you had your glazed photo. My wife did that while I was at school. That was before all those folks you see in the photos were born. […] And they’ve all had children themselves now, all of my children."


Érika Nimis, adjunct professor, University of Québec in Montréal (UQAM), art history department

(Translated from French by Sarah Tooth Michelet)



[1] Aïcha Fofana, Mariage: on copie, Bamako, Éditions Jamana, 1994, p. 18. This novel is set in the studio of the photographer Diakité in Bamako, whose clients come to his studio to watch a video of a wedding. These words, laden with meaning, are spoken by one of the characters in this novel.

[2] Jacques Brunel, Le Monde, 13 December, 1994, p. 20.

[3] The first edition of this festival dedicated to photography in Africa was held in December 1994. The event is now known as the African Encounters of Photography.

[4] Based on Seydou Keïta’s own account published in the first catalogue dedicated to his work that accompanied his exhibition held at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in 1994: A. Magnin and Issa B. Traoré, Seydou Keïta, textes, collection Jean Pigozzi, Geneva/CAAC, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 1994, 16 photos, 20 p. Reprinted in English in African Arts, Autumn 1995, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 90-95.

[5] Seydou Keïta, Photo Poche collection no. 63, introduction by Youssouf Tata Cissé (3rd edition), Arles, Actes Sud, 2014.

[6] See the introductory text by Youssouf Tata Cissé in Seydou Keïta, op. cit.: "It was to escape prosecution from the colonial authorities that Mountaga’s father took the name of Kouyâté in the city of Kayes in 1917, before moving to Bamako."

[7] It was common practice for photographers to collaborate when taking their photographs, and for their archives to become mixed up together. It is easy to picture apprentices standing in for their employers, as aptly pointed out by Candace M. Keller in her article "Framed and Hidden Histories: West African Photography from Local to Global Contexts", in African Arts, Winter 2014, vol. 47, no. 4, pp. 36-47.

[8] This hand-coloured portrait, which has never been shown publicly before, coupled with the statements by Mountaga Dembélé, raises questions that remain, for now, unanswered in relation to the monographic exhibition on the work of Seydou Keïta held at the Grand Palais in Paris (31 March-11 July, 2016). This exhibition presented for the first time a number of "vintage" hand-coloured prints whose style is identical to that of this photograph, and which, according to the exhibition organizers, were colored by Seydou Keïta’s framer, Cheickna Touré (see exh. cat. Seydou Keita, Paris, Éditions RMN-Grand Palais, 2016, p. 30). Was this simply a common practice in Bamako from the 1930s to the 1950s?

[9] This applies particularly to photographic sources, which are invariably incomplete and can only be partially identified.

[10] I obtained my Master’s degree at the Université de Paris 1 in September 1996. My Master’s thesis was entitled "Être photographe à Bamako. Évolution et réalités d’un métier issu de la 'modernité' (1935-1995)" [Being a Photographer in Bamako: The development and the realities of a profession born out of "modernity" (1935-1995)]. My research findings were published in Érika Nimis, Photographes de Bamako de 1935 à nos jours [Photographers in Bamako From 1935 to Today], Paris, Éditions Revue Noire, Soleil collection, 1998.

[11] Jules Garnier, "the first civilian pharmacist in the French Sudan" (who died in 1934), a photography enthusiast, was the father of Pierre Garnier, who founded the first photography store in the French Sudan, called Photo-Hall Soudanais. This store, which continued to operate until 1962 (apart from a period of interruption between 1954 and 1958), employed locals and influenced an entire generation of photographers. For further details, see Érika Nimis, Photographes de Bamako, op. cit., 1998, pp. 15-16, 25-27 and 50. 

[12] H. Houppé, Les secrets de la photographie dévoilés [The Secrets of Photography Revealed], Paris, 1942, 4th edition, 254 pages.

[13] The Croix du Sud was the second large-scale photography store in Bamako, which was opened by Michel Aris just prior to the Second World War. After Aris’ death, it was managed by Gérard Guillat (from 1955), before being taken over by Michel Thuillier in 1958. See Érika Nimis, Photographes de Bamako, op. cit., 1998, p. 51.

[14] A folding plate camera fitted with a Berthiot lens.