Arts

West African Friday nights

West African Friday nights
Photo by David Pace
by Kate Levy |
SCU photography professor David Pace received Daylight's 2011 Work-in-Process prize for his work on Friday night dance parties in the West African village of Bereba. The following interview first appeared in Daylight Magazine on March 20, 2012. Santa Clara Magazine featured a photo essay by Pace in the Winter 2007 issue.

Since 2007, David Pace has been working on an extensive body of work on the small West African country of Burkina Faso. Pace now leads a study abroad program for photography in Burkina Faso. He is the 2011 recipient of Daylight's Work-in-Process prize for his work on weekly Friday night dance parties in the village of Bereba.

Photo by David Pace

Kate Levy: Can you give the readers some information on the country of Burkina Faso—politics, demographics, geography, specifically the Bereba region, on which most of your work focuses? What about Bereba and Burkina Faso compelled you to engage the region as a photographic subject?

David Pace: Burkina Faso is a small, landlocked country about the size of Colorado. It is located north of Ghana and south of Mali in sub-Saharan West Africa. Formerly known as “Upper Volta,” the French colony gained independence in 1960. French is the official language although the population of approximately 17 million is divided into 63 distinct ethnic groups, each with its own local language. Burkina Faso has been a relatively stable and peaceful republic for many years.
With an annual per capita income of $580, Burkina Faso is one of the world’s poorest countries. Life expectancy is 54 years. Adult literacy is only 26%—one of the lowest in the world. Subsistence agriculture is the primary occupation and cotton is the main cash crop. There are basically two seasons—the “wet season” and the “dry season.” It is always hot. Infrastructure is limited, so there is very little tourism.

Bereba, the village where I spend most of my time as a photographer, is located in the southwest of the country, about five hours drive from the capitol city of Ouagadougou. There is no electricity or running water. Roads are unpaved dirt. Most of the villagers are cotton farmers. They also grow corn, rice, millet and peanuts and raise chickens and goats. There are several different ethnic groups, including Mossi, Bwa, Fulani and Bobo. Villagers are Muslim, Catholic, or animist.

KL: Tell us about how you first came to Burkina Faso.

DP: My first trip to Burkina Faso was in February 2007. I had never been to Africa and it was not a place I had thought about visiting. I had been working on a photographic project in El Salvador during the previous four years and was planning to continue exploring Central America. Two of my colleagues at Santa Clara University, where I have been teaching photography since 1998, saw my El Salvador photographs. They thought I might be interested in seeing the West African village where they had been doing research for more than ten years. They suggested that I visit them in Burkina Faso during their sabbatical year in 2007.

My colleagues had formed an NGO called Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL), devoted to building libraries in rural villages to promote literacy in Burkina Faso. The first library was built in the village of Bereba in 2001. FAVL now operates ten libraries. I was asked to photograph the libraries and the villages in order to create promotional material and documentation for FAVL. I spent four weeks in West Africa during my first trip. I knew I would return. I now spend part of each fall in Burkina Faso.

KL: What are some of the challenges you have faced while making this body of work?

DP: I have faced many challenges in making this body of work. Each challenge opened up into a significant opportunity.

Photo by David Pace

One preliminary challenge involved photography itself. The people of Burkina Faso are not accustomed to being photographed, especially by westerners. There is little tourism, and very few Burkinabe have cameras. I always asked permission before taking a photograph but, at least in the city, almost no one consented to having a picture taken. It was very frustrating to see so many interesting subjects and not be allowed to make photographs. Villagers, on the other hand, were a bit more willing to be photographed, but each portrait required a lengthy explanation, with the assistance of a translator, about why I was in the village. I offered to send a print to each subject, and my request to take a photograph was, somewhat reluctantly, accepted. I returned to the village in 2008 with several hundred prints. Since then I have been enthusiastically welcomed into village homes and activities with my camera. I continue this practice: after each trip I send or bring 600–700 prints back to the village. For many villagers, this is the only photograph they own.

A second challenge was language. French is the official language in Burkina Faso, along with local languages such as Dioula and Mossi. When I first traveled to Burkina Faso in 2007 I did not speak French. This proved to be a tremendous challenge since almost no one speaks English. Although I worked with a translator from the village who had learned English (by listening to Bob Marley tapes!), I struggled to make myself understood. After my first trip I was determined to return but knew I would have to learn French. It took nearly a year but when I returned for a month in January 2008, my French, although rudimentary, was good enough to get me by. My French improved with each visit. As my connection with the community deepened, I began to feel that the villagers and I were able to communicate in ways that included language but also transcended it.

A third challenge involved film, cameras, and equipment. On my first trip I was shooting B/W film for the work I considered “serious,” and using a digital camera to take notes. It was only after I returned home that I began to really see the photographic possibilities in Bereba and to understand the opportunity I had been given. The “notes” were more vibrant and compelling than the “serious” work. By 2009 I was photographing in color, solely with a digital SLR, and, for the first time in my life, left my film cameras at home. Then came the challenge of re-charging batteries and downloading digital files in village with no electricity.

But that’s another story …

Yet another challenge involved working with Santa Clara University, where I teach photography, to develop a study abroad program. After my third trip, one of my colleagues at the University suggested that we propose a study abroad program in Burkina Faso. Our proposal was accepted. We became co-directors of “Reading West Africa” and we began to learn about the challenges (and joys) of bringing a group of college students to a developing nation for a semester. We took our first cohort of students in the fall of 2009 and the second in the fall of 2010. This allowed me to spend three months in Burkina Faso each year. I had already become a familiar sight in the village, but by 2009 Bereba began to feel like home.

It was during this period that I began to attend the weekly Friday night dances at Le Cotonnier with my friends from the village. We drank warm beer and danced all night under the stars. Other than the generator that powers the music, there’s no electricity and no light—a challenge for any photographer! I began to experiment with flash, dancing while I was shooting, and rarely looking through the viewfinder. This was not a “project”: it was my life in the village. Boundaries collapsed: I made photographs as a participant rather than an observer. The element of chance became an integral part of the process since I never knew what images I was going to get.

KL: Are there any issues you address in this work that speak to the human condition on a more global level, or would you call this work strictly site specific?

DP: My work in Burkina Faso began as a site-specific project. My first photographs documented the contrasts between West African village life and western culture, focusing on the uniqueness of the village. Life in the village was completely different from anything I had ever experienced. It seemed at first to be timeless and unchanging. But after spending more time in Bereba I realized that even this remote village is closely connected with the rest of the world. Once I knew what to look for I could see continuous, and often rapid, changes. The Friday Night series portrays the villagers as part of contemporary global life. The dance, music, and styles of clothing are different every year. The dance series, which started as a site-specific project, became a project that emphasizes the fact that we all share the same humanity and experience the same joy of being alive, no matter where we live.

I hope that my photographs convey something more broadly about Africa. In the western media, Africa is often portrayed either as a place of catastrophes—famine, genocide, poverty, corruption, etc.—or as an exotic place for safaris and tribal rituals. While those things certainly exist, Africa is a huge continent of tremendous diversity. While poverty is a reality, most people live meaningful and fulfilling lives. The simple, beautiful aspects of everyday life seldom get portrayed. My goal is to present Africa in a positive and realistic light, to show that even in a very traditional village like Bereba, the villagers are very much connected with and part of modernity. My work challenges both Afro-pessimism and the tendency to exoticize African culture.

KL: In the Burkina Faso series, you chronicle the Karaba Brick Quarry. Can you please describe the cultural significance of this site, as well as its importance in your representation of the village of Bereba?

DP: The Karaba Quarry is located beside a cornfield outside the village of Karaba about 20 km from Bereba. The house I live in is built from Karaba bricks. I was curious about where the bricks came from and how they were made. When I was taken to the quarry in 2008 I was amazed by this incredible, colorful, sculpted landscape, and fascinated by the men who work there. The work is so basic–cutting bricks out of solid rock using only a pick and shovel. It also has a timeless, almost primordial quality. One of my African friends in the city remarked that he could imagine the pyramids being built when he saw my quarry photographs. For me, the quarry is like a colossal earth art installation that is constantly changing. It also provides a wonderful backdrop for portraits of the workers who enjoy being photographed.

I stop by the quarry at least once a week when I am in Burkina. I have learned a great deal about the history of the place and the circumstances of the workers. They work together in informal associations but each man works for himself, receiving all the money for the bricks he makes and sells. A quarryman makes about $4/day, which is more than 2 ½ times the national average. Although it is a strenuous occupation, the quarrymen earn a good income by village standards.

KL: Over the past year, how has the Friday Night series and the larger body of work evolved since you won the Works-In-Process prize? Are you working on any other projects?

Photo by David Pace

DP: Receiving the work-in-process prize was very affirming. It encouraged me to continue working on the Friday Night project. The series continues to evolve. After receiving the award in the fall, I spent the month of December 2011 in Bereba photographing every dance I could, including the New Year’s Eve party at Le Cotonnier. I had been told that the New Year’s Eve dance is the biggest dance of the year, and I was not disappointed. All my neighbors attended, and others from neighboring villages joined in. The music was transporting, the skill of the dancers was unprecedented, and the photographs are stronger.

I continue photographing the Karaba Quarry and the weekly market. I also started a new project this year. I began photographing the villagers as they return from their fields at the end of the day. They pass by on the dirt path in front of my house on foot, riding bicycles or motorcycles, or driving wooden carts drawn by mules or oxen. They carry firewood for cooking, cotton or millet that that they have harvested, or prey that they have hunted. The light is spectacular for about 30 minutes just before and after sunset. Every evening I stand on the path and make portraits from about 5:30 until 6:15 when night falls.

To see more of David's work, visit http://www.davidpacephotography.com

 

Excerpts from David Pace's Friday Night series

Spring 2014

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