From the series “Resilients”: “Fatma is half Ivorian, half Sudanese,” says photographer Joana Choumali. “Fatma said that posing in her mother’s clothes allowed her to connect with her story: leaving Sudan with a stranger to live in a totally different environment.” (Joana Choumali)
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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.”

From the series “Resilients”: Jahnolah is Ivorian-Beninese. At the time of the photo shoot, she was pregnant. “I had a hard time keeping a straight face during the session,” she told Choumali. “For my outfit, we used the favorite colors of my mother. I felt like I was her.” (Joana Choumali)

From the series “Resilients”: Nabu was born in Dakar, Senegal, and raised in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. “This project touches me because I’m from a family of women who, despite the hardships of life, have always got back up.” she told Choumali. (Joana Choumali)

From the series “Resilients”: Selena Souadou is from Guinea but has lived mainly in Ivory Coast and Senegal. (Joana Choumali)

From the series “Resilients”: Lydie, a lawyer, has lived almost all her life in London, Choumali said. “I met Lydie on the Internet as she was looking for a photographer for her wedding in Abidjan. . . . Her outfit is from the Tagbanan tribe, originally from the north of Ivory Coast. Lydie was proud and impressed to see herself in the traditional outfit.” (Joana Choumali)

From the series “Haabre, The Last Generation”: Martine Kabore is a homemaker from Ouemkanga, Burkina Faso: “When I was 10 years, I asked for them,” she said of her facial incisions. “I wanted to be like my brothers and sisters and to show that I am courageous. I was very eager. I liked them.” (Joana Choumali)

From the series “Haabre, The Last Generation”: Mr. Salbre, a gardener from Burkina Faso’s Bissa tribe, also bears facial scars. “I was very young,” he told Choumali. “I do not want this for my children. We are the last generation; you won’t find people under 40 who have scarifications.” (Joana Choumali)

From the series “Haabre, The Last Generation”: Christine S. of Mossi de Koudougou, Burkina Faso, told Choumali: “We all have the same pattern on the face in my family; I do not like my scars. I sell at the market, and people make fun of me, they insult me. . . . I have two children, and I would never do such a thing to my children.” (Joana Choumali)

From the series “Haabre, The Last Generation”: Mrs. Sinou, a homemaker from Burkina Faso’s Ko tribe, said: “I was born in Ghana. My aunt took me to the village, and they did the scars without my father’s consent. My father was upset. . . . I refuse to do it to my children.” (Joana Choumali)

From the series “Haabre, The Last Generation”: Lawal E., a hairdresser from Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe: “I am proud of my traces. I like them because I am heir. The king has the same scars. I am part of the royal family in my village. . . . People bow down when they see my face! I am proud of that.” (Joana Choumali)

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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