Baudouin Mouanda: The Ins and Outs of S.A.P.E.

As we have mentioned before, the main goal of this blog is to spotlight the work of photographers using Leica equipment. However, we also feel responsible for highlighting photographic works from all regions of the world and offering you engaging content. In this case, we wanted to showcase the work of Baudouin Mouanda photographing Congolese sapeurs even though he doesn’t use Leica equipment.

A member of the “Génération Elili” Collective in Brazzaville, the capital city of the Republic of Congo, Baudouin Mouanda, a young photographer whose work has been one of the big hits of African photography events in recent years, talks about his work on S.A.P.E., the “Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes” (Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People).

Q: How did you get interested in the world of Africa’s sapeur dandies?

A: I wasn’t that interested in this phenomenon back in Brazzaville, but when I came to France in 2007 I was delighted to see the sapeurs livening up the Paris metro. Later, I realized that S.A.P.E. played a very important role in Brazzaville in 1998-1999, after the civil war. There wasn’t anything left to do in town; everything was shut down. The sapeurs recreated the atmosphere that is part of Congolese day-to-day life. For the traumatized population, the attraction of the sapeurs was to show that you had to have hope. Their message was, “We didn’t get dressed up to stay at home! We have been spared by the hostilities and we are lucky to be alive. There’s no point in fighting; we can talk and take each other by the hand”. The sapeurs often advocate this peaceful message. That’s why I, as a photographer, wanted to follow them. Images travel and spread messages. I want to show that a joyful Africa exists. That’s the perspective I adopt in my work.

Q: How do you photograph them?

A: I have my own personal approach compared to other artists who have followed the sapeurs. I don’t ask them to pose. I want to show their life, their mood. I don’t work in a studio like the photographers of the past. My aim is to explore the social aspect of photography, a photography that is out in the streets, in Brazzaville, showing an Africa that is on the move, one that is cultural.

Q: Are there any women sapeurs?

A: There are a lot of sapeur events and groups in Brazzaville. Every neighbourhood, every district has its sapeurs, including women sapeurs. There are a lot, but they tend to be more discreet than the men.

Q: Is S.A.P.E. still as popular today in Brazzaville?

A: One event that shows the phenomenon’s continuing success in Congo is the national holiday. Every 15th of August, the one moment that the population impatiently waits for is the passage of the sapeurs! They all parade in their own way. In fact, you can’t be a true sapeur if you don’t have your own style and jargon. For example, a famous representative of S.A.P.E. in Paris who’s called “The Bachelor” has drawn up his own ten commandments! You can’t just improvise being a sapeur. It’s a specific state of mind. It’s not just Weston shoes that count; you have to have the gift of gab to be able to create a mood and to know how to “argue your outfit”.

Q: Some people find it shocking that the sapeurs spend a fortune on their clothes when a lot of Congolese can barely survive from one day to the next.

A: You hear this argument from time to time in Brazzaville. Personally, I think that all individuals are free. After all, it’s their money and, as they say themselves, it’s a way of enjoying themselves. I have met a lot of sapeurs. While it’s true that those who live in Paris might spend fortunes, in Brazzaville most dress very smartly, but they buy their outfits in pretty cheap stores. It’s not so much the designer label that makes a sapeur, but rather their talent for combining colours.

Q: Your work on the sapeurs has been exhibited in several countries. Do you think you’ve fully explored the subject now?

A: No, I want to go even deeper into sapeurs’ daily life, both in Paris and Brazzaville. I also want to work on the sapeurs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There’s an intense debate between the two countries over who first started the phenomenon.

Q: What photographic equipment do you use? Do you work with film or digital?

A When I started out, I used a Zenith 11, which is a Russian brand that you used to often find among students coming back from the USSR. After their studies, they would sell their cameras to whoever was interested. That was how my father got a Zenith camera, which he later gave to me. Today, the presence of digital on the market doesn’t stop me from working with film when doing personal work. The same goes for the young photographers who are a part of our “Génération Elili” collective in Brazzaville. I don’t think it’s equipment that makes you a good photographer; what matters is the “gaze”. With my series on S.A.P.E., I also had to be able to dance with my camera so for that work, I used a Pentax K10 with an 18-55 lens, but I now use a Canon EOS 7D.

-Leica Internet Team

This has been adapted from the original interview conducted in French by Marian Nur Goni, which you can read on her site Africulture. Also, Baudouin’s work is showing at Casa África in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria through April 29.