Abdoulaye Barry: “Through photography, I Want to Take On My Share of Responsibility”

Abdoulaye Barry is a Chadian photographer, who was born in N’Djamena in 1980. Following the presentation of a monographic exhibition of his work at the recent Rencontres de Bamako photo festival, we spoke with him about his Pêcheurs de nuit (Night Fishermen) series taken on Lake Chad in 2010, about his professional path and about the reception of documentary and art photography in Chad.

Q: How did you first become a photographer?

A: I was fascinated by photography from a very early age. As a child, I was struck by the mystery behind the reproduction of images. My friends from my neighbourhood and I used to go to the “Normandie”, “Vog” or “Rio” cinemas to collect the worn-out and damaged film reels so we could try to set up our own cinema. We made a kind of wooden projector with an electric bulb and a magnifying glass. When the light was projected through the film, you could see the film images quite distinctly, which were, in turn, enlarged by the magnifying glass fixed in front of our wooden projector. This home-made cinema we created was art in itself; I just didn’t realize it at the time! Today, now that I consider myself an artist, I can say that it is a path that I embraced even in my childhood.

Q: What happened next? How did you decide to make photography your profession?

A: The real catalyst was a cousin who was an amateur photographer. For two years, I helped him during photo sessions. We would send the negatives to be developed and printed in Maiduguri or Kano – in neighbouring Nigeria. I have to point out that I worked for free at the time. What drove me then was none other than a natural passion for the miracle of photography. Getting people to pose and immortalizing some of their moments filled me with pleasure. Finally, in 1995, my uncle gave me my first Yashica camera. I can still remember the intensity of the emotion that I felt when he gave it to me. It was then that I began taking pictures at school, during wedding ceremonies and other festivities. As the eldest of a fatherless family (my father, a soldier, was killed in combat in 1987), it was my duty to help my mother bring up my four little brothers in a dignified manner. This meant making sure that they got a decent education from the money I earned from my photography. As it’s not always easy to pursue two goals at the same time, I had to give up my studies to devote myself exclusively to photography to support myself and my family.

It was in 2006 that I had the chance to take a documentary photography course for the first time at the French Cultural Centre in N’Djamena. There, I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with the rich experience and advice of internationally renowned photographers like Bruno Boudjelal and Bill Akwa Bétoté. Thanks to this experience, I began to work on a series of photos focusing on street children living in the Chadian capital. In 2009, I participated in another, equally enriching training course bringing together emerging photographers from West and Central Africa which was held at the Alliance Française in Accra, Ghana.

Since then, I have been to several workshops and training courses in other African countries. They have enabled me, professionally speaking, to more effectively broach my own areas of interest and the issues of the society I live in.

Finally, in November 2009, my work was chosen to be presented in one of the exhibitions at the Bamako Biennial, in Mali. My series on street children drew considerable attention and I was awarded the festival’s jury prize. That enabled me to purchase a laptop and a new camera to continue my career.

Q: In 2010, you produced a series on Lake Chad, which was the object of a monographic show presented at the last Bamako Biennial. What were you trying to show in this photographic work?

A: Lake Chad, which is the source of millions of people’s livelihood, is at risk of disappearing due to global warming and the invasion of the sands. Through this gallery of portraits and night atmospheres caught around the lake, I wanted to testify to the fishermen’s fragile existence and the threat weighing on their lives. I am concerned by this issue which goes well beyond the Lake Chad region. Thus, I exhibited my photos as an appeal to the need to save and preserve this natural environment, an essential freshwater reserve for my country, Chad, and for all the countries of the African continent. So, in the monographic exhibition you mentioned, I wanted to show how men can continue to live and retain their dignity in a protected natural environment. As I suffered a great deal in my childhood, I don’t want the fishermen and their children to suffer.

Q: In what conditions did you take the Night Fishermen series? What equipment did you use, given the lack of light?

A: I have to confess that the working conditions were hard, due mostly to the proliferation of insects which wreak havoc day and night. Working on the lake, with the fishermen, in their dugouts was a considerable effort – especially at night. Every night, I accompanied the fishermen on their fishing trips and my only source of light were the torches that the fishermen fix to their heads. I caught their gestures with my Nikon D50 camera, without a flash. Which is why, in the pictures, there is very little light. Even though my camera isn’t particularly sophisticated, and I wasn’t using particularly sensitive film, I still managed to immortalize the dignified people who live in a state of complete vulnerability. It’s true that my equipment is inadequate, but that’s not an obstacle that can stop me from taking photos.

Q: How is fine art photography like yours perceived in Chad?

A: Chad is, in this respect, still a virgin territory: documentary photography is embryonic. It’s only thanks to coverage from the Chadian press that I am able to draw some of the country’s authorities’ attention to what I do. I must add that this press coverage of my work was limited to several lines published in the local columns announcing the exhibition of my work.

Otherwise, the social categories that take most interest in my work are, for the moment, expatriates, diplomats and, above all, the Chadian youth who regularly send me messages of encouragement and congratulations for what I do. That gives me a real boost to continue my work.

Q: In a context that’s apparently not easy, other than purely commercial photography, what sources do you draw on to continue your personal photographic work?

A: I would say that my first source of inspiration is my own life. As I explained earlier, I discovered the daily realities of our society marked by poverty and hardship at a very early age. My photos recount the lives of men and women who struggle in difficult circumstances just to survive. Secondly, I am influenced by Bruno Boudjelal’s style, whose works I find deeply moving – notably La traversée de l’Afrique (Across Africa) – and also by Robert Capa, whose photos of the Spanish Civil War have also greatly impressed me and guided my professional practices.

But your question also needs to be answered from another angle: I receive no funding for this personal work. The income that allows me to work comes essentially from the photographs I take during weddings, baptisms, mourning ceremonies, birthday celebrations, family photos, etc. But that doesn’t discourage me. My passion for photography and the problems that need to be shown in our society are so great that I cannot wait until I’ve made it financially before taking on my share of responsibility.

Q: Finally, what projects do you have for 2012?

A: I have big dreams for 2012. Firstly, I am currently working on a project I’ve called N’Djamena By Night. This project aims to highlight the moral depravity amongst young people that has opened the way to the terrible ravages of HIV/AIDS.

In 1995, I met a woman in a nightclub who was crazy about night-life photography. After prostituting herself for years, she managed to buy a concession for her family, but then she ended up contracting HIV. As if by magic, the concession she bought was later demolished by the town authorities, on the pretext that the land belonged to a state reserve. This young woman’s tale moved me so deeply that after her death, I decided to take up my camera and journey back into the town’s “hot spots”, with a professional eye. It’s a way of drawing attention to the high-risk milieux that our youth frequent.

Secondly, I am planning to produce a compilation of the series of photos that I began in 2006 on N’Djamena’s street children and expand it to street children in Central Africa – then to the whole of the African continent. My plan is to produce a big photographic book on the conditions of this category of African children.

Thirdly, it’s my dream to finish the Lake Chad… Two Faces project during the dry season. Indeed, the first phase of this series, carried out in 2010 with the photographer Bruno Boudjelal (thanks to funding from the European Union and the French Cultural Centre in Chad), focused on the rainy season. This second part would make it possible to see this environment in all its dimensions.

Thank you, Abdoulaye!

-Leica Internet Team