Fatou Kandé Senghor
lives and works in Dakar,
PHOTOGRAPHY AND ART
Q What is the situation for women photographers in Senegal?
FKS Photography is a highly-respected profession here, because, as you know, we have a rich history of studio photography in Mali, Senegal, Niger, and all across that part of Africa. Everything has been preserved in archives. Nonetheless, this work has not been categorized as art. Men earned a decent living and were able to feed their families thanks to the income they earned. It was a profession that was passed down through families. The field of art photography developed as a totally separate activity from studio photography. It’s a recent development, which evolved in tandem with the international platform called «contemporary art". Contemporary photography did not originate here. Until recently, photographers weren’t considered as artists. For a long time, the art world here remained focused on painting and music, and photography wasn’t recognized as a fine art. We photographers navigate between two different worlds: on one side, we follow the local rhythm, practising conventional photography that is expected by people here, and on the other, we do artistic work, which you see in magazines and exhibitions with a particular interest in the photographic medium.
Q Do you think women photographers would benefit from forming an association in Dakar, for example, in order to have a stronger voice?
FKS Women don’t need to join forces in an association. I think that the notion of gender, whether male or female, is important when the need arises, when there’s a clear and focused goal, a well-supported project that is worthwhile. But what’s the point of creating an association for the sake of it? What would be the objective? You can very quickly become an instrument that can be manipulated. It would be a case of women joining forces because we’re women, not because we’re photographers with a goal, and that would be a great pity. I don’t think that the idea of creating associations makes a lot of sense in Senegal nowadays. The shortcomings in our society are very real. People need to find solutions to their own problems and ways to achieve their own goals before resolving the problems of an association. A community-based group requires a huge investment of time and effort that people genuinely have trouble committing to. For an association like that to operate efficiently, you’d need someone to run it, to contact people and ask them to contribute their photographs, to build up a website, and so forth. It would require such a lot of effort that instead of uniting us, it would end up dividing us, because it would necessitate making decisions that not everyone would agree with, since people are so different. In my opinion, community associations create far more problems than they solve.
Q In your work, photography seems to serve as a pretext for reaching out to women.
FKS That’s absolutely right. My work today inevitably takes on an intermediary role. I position myself between my initial objective and my target audience. I’ve found a strategy. By using aesthetics, we can engage the viewer’s interest and stimulate dialogue. An aesthetic image is not always a pretty picture, it can also be a harsh and confronting, but presented in such a way as to attract people’s interest. So, people stop and take a closer look, and try to understand what it’s about. When I reach out to my audience, I need them to understand that I’m trying to express something, and if they take the time to observe the image, they’ll see that something’s not quite right. This dysfunctional aspect motivates them to ask questions that I’m not able to resolve in the image, but I give them additional elements that may intrigue them and invite them to take a greater interest in my work and in the subject I portray. That way, they can gain an even greater understanding. This is why I complement my photographic work with video, so that viewers can take things a little further.
AN AESTHETIC OF CONTRADICTION
Q Your work is structured around exploring, and drawing attention to, contradictions. Your photographs are often beautiful images that portray very difficult subjects. Could we describe this as an aesthetic of contradiction?
FKS To explain my photographic work, I’ll take the example of a project I did on women from so-called "disadvantaged segments of society". Here, what interests me is the fact that these women spend a lot of their time laughing. They have an incredible repertory of jokes. Because they work at night in the cold, heat and rain, they have to find ways to lift their spirits and reinvent interesting lives for themselves amidst all the hardship, to give them the strength and energy to keep going. Because they have no choice. As a photographer, when you arrive in the middle of all this, the first thing you see is life experience, before you see the poverty and harshness they endure. I’m interested in giving a face to this life experience. This is what unites us all, because our similarities across the world, regardless of our skin colour, age or height, are far greater than we realize. On the other hand, our differences are usually the result of our environment. If we see a photo of a woman toiling in arid fields with a broad smile on her face, we, as viewers, might find that a little jarring. At the same time, that’s the reality of that person. She must try to make the best of her life, and anyone who sees that photograph couldn’t help thinking, "She must have people to feed, others who depend on her, so she can’t just give up." That’s why she’s not sitting on a pavement or slumped on the ground somewhere – that’s why she struggles to work this dry land. Or perhaps it’s because her faith and inner strength are so great that she’s able to defy nature, and say, "Okay, you’re dried up and hard, but this is all I’ve got, so today you’re going to give me a seed, which I will plant and it will grow." These are lessons for me and for others, too, such as accepting other people’s realities, accepting that there are other ways of living – this is what interests me in a photograph. I like photographs to show the contradictory aspects of reality, the similarities and differences, because reality is riddled with contradictions. And this has nothing to doing with staging photographs. These contradictions are inevitably intertwined both in the image and in the reality portrayed in the image. People sing, tell each other jokes, or dance to make the time go by faster, to work more efficiently and earn their pay at the end of the day.
Q Is your work is closely tied to living conditions in Africa and social life in Senegal?
FKS I don’t necessarily focus on Senegal. My work centres on people who work hard to make a living; people who, because they have no choice, can actually be more human since they’re not encumbered by things that give them a feeling of power over others. This feeling is dehumanizing. I have close contact with people who do their utmost, who share their lives with others who need them for support, for food, and who give their lives meaning. We see these people everywhere. Even in developed countries, life is not as easy as it seems. People who are very poor have trouble imagining why a Western woman might commit suicide or why men or young boys go into schools and murder people. These people have food to eat, water to drink. But it’s not only about our digestive tracts. Human beings need nourishment on every level. I would sum up my work as a photographer as a search for the human presence. It’s an exploration of being, a desire to make contact with others and, by doing so, to trace a kind of loop – to create this possibility in a short moment in time. That’s what I set out to do.
BEING THE "OTHER"
Q Is the interview process an important part of your work?
FKS We are all intermediaries, whether we choose to be or not. We must be able to see that some people understand things quickly and easily, while others don’t understand at all, or don’t want to understand, or for whom it’s not in their interest to understand. If we take all these possibilities into account, we’re obliged to find a response for everybody, because questions always arise. That’s because we are the "other", the "different one". But if we really think about it, you and I are also the "other"; we are "the different one". We all struggle to take a central position, not to take the position of the "other". That’s the theme I explored in my film L’autre en moi [The Other Within Me, 2012]. I’m talking about the world in its globality. This issue begins in our homes. Every couple grapples with this problem, and it comes up in the relationship between brothers and sisters, between parents and children. Our parents want us to resemble them, and we wish our parents were a little more like us. We’d like our boyfriends or girlfriends to be more similar to us, and they think the same. This issue of difference is always the starting point.
THE WORK CHOOSES THE ARTIST
Q Is this continuing rejection of the focus on difference a constant source of motivation for an artist who advocates for greater openness, tolerance and curiosity?
FKS In the current context, we artists and photographers have a duty to be facilitators, or intermediaries, in order to make communication possible. Art is not something we choose. We have inner motivations that drive us, and sometimes we even dream about what we might create. In my photography, I imagine a lot more than I actually produce. I see that as an indication that we’re chosen to do this work. Being in that imaginative state allows us to understand why we can access certain things: it is to give them back to others. Not because we’re better than others or because we take things to a deeper level than others. Everyone does different work and each kind of work has its own effect on the world. What matters is that people are meant to do the work they do, that their work chooses them. There’s an expression in Wolof that says that if the job chose the worker, it would find the best person to accomplish the task, because it knows who is right for each job. Artists are like that. In our communities in Africa, an artist is considered a very important person. If you’re trying to find an artist and you mention his name, everyone will know which house he lives in. Even if they don’t know his name, they’ll say, "Oh, yes! He’s the one who hangs bizarre works on the walls! He’s over there!" Artists are treated with a certain deference, and they can use this respect and special status to speak the truth to people. They’re the ones who "sit around doing nothing", but who are always there to put their own slant on situations. They serve as a repository for all that happens around them, since people young and old come to see them. The artist is the one who teases women, chats with them. He knows when something’s not right and has the audacity to walk up to the elders who always sit on the same benches, and tell them, "You’d be better of looking after your families instead of spending your days here talking nonsense!" Everyone says, "For goodness sake, he’s got a nerve!", and yet he’s right. Artists have a privileged status, which is expected to be reinforced by cultural policy makers, politicians, critics and all those who maintain a link with knowledge, whereas this is not the case. They don’t reinforce this status because artists can be outspoken and are not afraid to confront these people and say, "What you’re doing here is not working. It should be done in differently, like this or like that."
Q Your work has gained an international reputation. Do you think it’s appropriate to use the adjective "African" in the context of "African art" or "African photography", considering the great diversity of the African continent?
FKS We are constantly surprised, even today, at people’s lack of understanding of us and our continent. Because of our history, we’ve had to learn about everyone else, to deconstruct other people’s ideas and, also, to deconstruct our conception of who we are. We’re aware of the impact of the media on people’s perceptions of our continent, even if it’s not easy for ordinary people to understand the national and international political issues involved. Our continent is tied to global history, and having even a limited understanding of that is the basis on which dialogue can take place. I’ve met French people who had no idea that Senegal was a former French colony and were surprised that people here spoke French. That’s extraordinary, isn’t it? This shows how real this lack of awareness is. Once I was in a contemporary art gallery in New York and the curator was discussing her plans to organize an exhibition of work by African photographers and video artists. Someone questioned who the artists were, so she repeated, "That’s right, the artists are African." The conversation continued at cross-purposes for around ten minutes, because this person could not imagine that African people could be artists or documentary filmmakers. In the end, she exclaimed, "So, there actually is a photography scene in Africa!" The curator pursued her point and introduced me, saying, "There certainly is, and this woman is a photographer." No matter what happens, we’re always intermediaries. It’s vital for us all to learn how to communicate with gallery directors and other people in the art world and other sectors and to explain that, yes, of course there is a great tradition of work by Seydou Keïta and Mama Cassé, but photography in Africa today is not limited to portraits of people dressed in their finest boubous.
Interview conducted in Dakar, Mermoz, 22.02.2011
by Bärbel Küster, Marleine Chedraoui, Judith Rottenburg, Janine Schöne, Tanja Schüz
Accepting other people’s realities, accepting that other ways of living are possible – this is what interests me in photography. I like photographs to show the contradictory aspects of reality, the similarities and differences, because reality is riddled with contradictions.
There’s an expression in Wolof that says that if the job chose the worker, it would find the best person to accomplish the task, because it knows who is right for each job.
IN MY PHOTOGRAPHY, I IMAGINE A LOT MORE THAN I ACTUALLY PRODUCE.
MY WORK TODAY INEVITABLY TAKES ON AN INTERMEDIARY ROLE. I POSITION MYSELF BETWEEN MY INITIAL OBJECTIVE AND MY TARGET AUDIENCE.
Poster of the Film The Other in Me
Fatou Kandé Senghor, 2012
Interview with Fatou Kandé Senghor in Dakar, 2011