Since the 1990s, contemporary photography in West Africa has gained recognition in the international art scene. Exhibitions, catalogues and publications have given many photographers wider exposure for their work. Nonetheless, our knowledge of these artists and the context in which they produce their work remains limited. For this reason, the interview method was chosen as the most effective way to learn more about this subject. The research team for the "Photography and Orality" project thus travelled from Germany to meet with around twenty West African photographers to speak with them face-to-face about their work. In the course of the interviews held in Dakar and Bamako, the way in which oral traditions interact with photography – and vice versa – emerged as a central concern. These discussions provide insight into the local and global artistic environment affecting these photographers, while highlighting the aesthetic implications of the notion of orality in relation to the subjects depicted in photographs, in terms of the conception and reception of works.

This online publication serves as a platform that brings together the voices of these photographers in video interviews conducted between 2011 and 2014, accompanied by a presentation of their photographs. In addition, curators, artists and researchers have commented on, analyzed and provided a wider context for the views expressed by the photographers, in a series of essays, oral contributions and videos. Exhibitions have also been organized within the framework of the project in Germany, Senegal and Mali, as well as a workshop held in Stuttgart in 2014.

Although photographic images do not directly utilize spoken or written words, they are continually confronted by language. The relationship between photographic images and writing has been the subject of considerable debate, yet the active connection between photography and oral practices, and the omnipresence of verbal forms of communication, still remain relatively unexplored subjects. 

A key characteristic of photography is its ability to communicate beyond social, cultural and historical boundaries. Photography allows us to put the use of letters and writing into perspective; it associates images with stories. As Fatoumata Diabaté states about her photographic series in one of the interviews, "The link that connects the images together is stories that describe things I have never directly experienced – stories people have told me, which are like dreams to me."

In 2011, Bärbel Küster, professor of art history and theory, travelled to Dakar and Bamako with a group of university students in art and art history. Preparatory work undertaken prior to the trip established a series of themes to be discussed with the photographers: the connection between the local art market in West Africa and the globalized art scene, the importance of the Bamako Photography Biennale, and photographers' observations about their own work and the environment in which they practice – such as in relation to the position of photography in their society.

Interviews were held primarily in public settings (cultural institutions) as well as private locations (photographers' homes and studios) in Dakar and Bamako, and in Germany. These exchanges were facilitated by the fact that photographers conversed with students in an informal atmosphere, with semi-improvised discussions. All interviews were conducted in French. The fact that the African photographers were speaking with German students established a relationship of linguistic equality, since, in many of the discussions, none of the participants were speaking their native language. Moreover, the participation of art students in the interviews allowed exchanges to be focused specifically on artistic issues. In 2014, a visit to Dakar made by a different group of students broadened the project’s thematic scope to include narrative forms within the medium of photography, notably in the context of everyday communication.

Additional meetings took place during the winter of 2014-15 during exhibitions of the photographers' work held at the Stadthaus in Ulm, Germany, the Village des Arts in Dakar, Senegal, the Goethe-Institut in Dakar and the Institut Français in Saint-Louis, Senegal. A workshop was organized in Stuttgart based the theme of orality in order to pursue and deepen discussions that had been initiated during the interviews, which also included the participation of German photographers.

Staatliche Akademie der bildenden Künste Stuttgart