Voices of African Photography is a 10-part series presented in partnership with the African Photojournalism Database, a joint project of Everyday Africa and World Press Photo, to highlight the work of 10 African photographers and photojournalists.
It was 1985, and Joana Choumali still remembers it clearly — one photograph seared into her mind. “This is the image of the young Omayra Sanchez,” Choumali said. “In Colombia in 1985, there was a terrible earthquake. The girl was stuck in the rubble, bathing in a pool of mud. One could only see her head. She was looking straight toward the camera. The rescue team was there, the media, too. . . . But it was impossible to get rid of the rubble that imprisoned her. This photo was published in 1985 in Paris Match, which titled it: ‘Farewell Omayra, the one we will never forget.’ I have never forgotten.”
Choumali was just 11 then, but she already had developed an interest in photography. “When I was 13, my parents brought a photographer to the house to shoot a family portrait,” she told The Washington Post, speaking from Ivory Coast. “Fascinated by the camera, I asked him a thousand questions.” The Ivorian photographer took up the medium herself when studying in Casablanca, and then, in 2008, she went all in.
From her studio in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan, she seeks stories that deal with “what makes us human,” she said. “I was much inspired by the African studio portraiture of the 20th century. The way great studio photographers such as Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta and James Barnor portrayed elegant African women influenced my aesthetics.”
Choumali’s work is closely linked to her city, her country, her continent. “Photography allows me to convey my vision of an Africa between tradition and modernity,” she said, “I am fascinated by the morphing of societies.”
Her aim is to show certain nuances of Africa’s cultures, she told In Sight, “by showing today’s Africa from angles which seem so ordinary to us Africans. Yet, these aspects translate the continent’s social and cultural mutations very precisely.” For example, in her series “Resilients,” she pictures the idea of returning to one’s original form “after being bent, compressed or stretched,” she said. “The ability to recover from adversity. I was hoping to convey the fact that African women mutate through the generations while remaining anchored to their roots and traditions, able to remain true to themselves, just like the earth from which they came.”
Inspired by Rembrandt’s paintings, the photographer gave a “retro” feel to these portraits to “present these modern African women as icons,” she said. “I was trying to reconnect with the past while remaining in the present. … Most of the young women that I could portray in my series live in Abidjan. They have almost the same lifestyle as a Parisian or a New Yorker. They travel the world, they are educated, they work in national and international companies, are lawyers, go to medical school or are entrepreneurs.”
She added: “I asked them to pose in the traditional clothing that was worn by their mothers or their grandmothers as a way to reconnect with their roots. Being a young African woman living in the city today is challenging, because the habits change, yet the customs and family values are very strong. This leads to some conflicting situations and some ‘everyday life’ challenges.”
For Choumali, this exploration of Africa’s past and present is important. “Africa is plural, and I believe that by exploring its traditions, by knowing where we come from, we become ambassadors of our continent,” she said. “By knowing who we are, where we come from, by understanding the past, we can prepare a better future. With a more precise image of our culture, and by telling our own stories, we can transform the image of the continent.”
That is what the Ivorian photographer hopes to see more of her African colleagues do. “I wish there were more photographers from the continent hired to work for international newspapers and magazines — hired to tell stories about the continent but also to tell stories about the whole world.”
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
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