This summer I have traveled more than usual, the usual being a summery visit once a year to Europe. More than usual also in the sense that whenever I was able to go to Finland, I would stay in my birth town Turku, but this time I spend an entire month in Kristiinankaupunki where we run an AiR programme every summer. This picturesque town is a member of the international Città Slow network, and rightly so: the town has a lovely somnolent atmosphere with old wooden housing, long narrow streets and neat gardens. Yet it is a functional place with a couple of restaurants, a library, a cinema, and it’s by the sea which to me is a huge plus.
I actively slowed down while in Kristiinankaupunki and took part in this Città Slow pace by spending my days sitting on the steps of an old customs house built in 1680. We had an exhibition of Ethiopian church paintings and my photographs in this house as part of the International Art Week and the annual Open Gates event that attracts hundreds and hundreds of visitors into town for a weekend. We had advertised the event in the local media and as a result there were visitors also from far away neighboring towns and there were guests from even as far as Australia! As this town used to build large ships and had a lot of sailors and fishermen, many also left and never came back. Now their grandchildren or grand grand grand children would come to spend a holiday in town and walk in the footsteps of their family members.
The customs house is such a magnificent setting to show art work and as it had been closed for years and years, the locals were now very curious to have a look inside. Some of them would tell stories about who had lived in the house after its original purpose, or argue whether anybody had ever lived there in the first place. Based on these stories I gather that at least in the seventies the house would have been used by three families, and there was also a time when a friendly Roma man called “Black Jack” lived there. “Jack” was “a heavy drinker and always wore black clothes,” customary to the Finnish Roma people.
I mentioned the library.. it deserves a separate thought here. If there is one thing missing in Saint-Louis, it’s the library. Libraries in Finland are notorious for creating public spaces in which you enter and you no longer want to leave! Moreover, if there is a copy of a book in any library in Finland and you would like to borrow just that book, they will order it for you and text you once it has arrived. So I was able to get hold of Arundhati Roy’s most recent novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness that I could dive into with all that craziness of Old Delhi and Kashmir under Roy’s pen. My reading during those quiet hours, sitting on the steps of the old customs house, was only interrupted once in a while by swallows that had ended up trapped in the attic of the customs house. I would wait until they were a little tired first, then climb up those narrow stairs and catch them and take them out.
I asked some of my friends to dive and remain underwater for a short time. When your body is completely submerged by water it often happens that your sense of self takes over for a moment, at least that is my own experience when I’m underwater. I feel at the same time very connected to my body and in a strangely and wonderfully light and easy way more connected to the world and to our planet. The expressions on some of my friends’ faces seem to hint that they may have experienced similar effects, sometimes almost unconsciously!
This is a series of portraits soon to be part of an exhibition – more detailed and updated information on this will follow very soon.
One day I was on the riverbank behind the Great Mosque. There was a pregnant goat that fell into the water. A friend of mine told me:
“Idrissa, you have to save this goat!”
I undressed and put my clothes on an old boat by the water. When I had taken the goat out of the river I went to get my clothes and I saw something pull my clothes into the river. I wanted to dive to get my clothes back but I hesitated because what I had seen was so strange…
Back home I explained to my mother what had happened. She instantly went to see Marabout Amma Lamine Kebe, asking him for advise. Amma Lamine told my mother that the goat belonged to the river spirit Mame Coumba Bang and because her son had saved the goat the river spirit was now angry with her son. He said: “If your son goes back to take his clothes you will never see him again!”
There is a place in the river called wakhande. In general, a body that ends up in wakhande will never be found.
“Oh wakhande! Tell me when you’re full, we want the bodies of our loved ones back!”
“DEEP” is a series that dives into the waters of the Senegal River and the Atlantic Ocean, off the island of Saint-Louis, called Ndar in Wolof. It’s a selection of underwater portraits, which for many locals have a frightening aspect. Not without reason, since among the fishermen there are frequent drownings due to strong undercurrents, lack of swimming skills and boat accidents. Yet, there are those who are not afraid and who can swim and dive deep. The most notorious of these will even fetch the drowned from the depths of the water. Some of you may have heard of the famous man called Seydou, who throughout his long life would always be called to locate and fetch the body of a person who had drowned in the river.
While for many crossing the river requires a prayer or two, or offerings to the spirits who live in the dark waters, to me the feeling of free diving and being surrounded by water is just thrilling. It’s the soft resistance of water that gives you a very special sense of body and dimensions and a complete “out of this world” feeling that does the trick every time.
With this photography project I have discovered what it’s like to share that feeling, as some of my friends who agreed on being photographed were able to “let go” and just float freely under water until I had made my shots and gave them a sign that we can return on the surface again. These are friends who are good swimmers and would normally work in the summer as life guards on the beach. For example to Babacar, who also teaches swimming to children at the university’s Olympic pool, this type of free diving experience has been a discovery of a new form of meditation. As for me, that is certainly the case too, except that I also need to focus on shooting, holding my hand steady, actually holding my entire body steady and resist to resurfacing – not easy when your lungs are full of air. Next thing on shopping list: a weight belt! Or why not make one myself..
Exhibition “DEEP” in Kristiinankaupunki (Finland) 10.-17.6. 2018. Images printed on canvas, dimensions between 50 x 60 cm and 50 x 100 cm.
As a child I was warned by this terrible creature that lived in the depths of the nearby river. It would snatch children with his long white arm and eat them. In winter, when my uncles took me to skate or sledge ride with our dog on the river, I was secretly terrified to know that we had but some ice and snow between us and this creature. I could almost see it gliding under the ice right below us and follow us and it was just a matter of time when it would find the opportunity to break the ice so that it would clutch me. This creature was called Näkki.
The Senegal river has its own stories, of which I will publish a photography book later in 2018. Being in Saint-Louis means that you are always in contact with both the Senegal river and the Atlantic ocean and with all the buzz related to fishing. The number of different types of fish is dizzying to begin with – and at times it’s also confusing as the names of different types of fish sometimes depend on who’s saying! You have sipakh, diané, coty, talar, thiof… and many others, not to mention hammerhead sharks or cuttlefish and what not. I am fascinated and quickly absorbed by what is happening around me here: the fishermen prepare their pirogues and leave, or return with their catch, they occupy entire streets to fix their nets, walk on the beach and into the rough sea up to their armpits and set their nets, or throw their nets in the river; there are also carpenters making new pirogues or fixing old ones, welders working on motors, horse carts carrying stuff back and forth between Goxum Bacc and Ndar Toute neighborhoods, boat painters, immense areas where fish is being dried, ice factories, freezer vans and trucks of all sizes, and then of course the fish market frenzy, especially upon the return of the boats..
I have now come to a point where it’s time to show some of my work in this series on Guetndarian fishermen and their boats. A fantastic opportunity to do so opens in June in Kristiinankaupunki (Finland) where we will be running a one-month long artists’ residency and several exhibitions by our guest artists. I know that Nappkat is a series that I will keep alive for as long as I stay in Saint-Louis so I will always make more and more photographs on this topic. The vibrancy of it is not letting me go just yet!
One recurrent dream of mine is to find myself deep in the ocean on some sort of a mission, or diving deep into the sea and returning on the surface. While in the depths of the sea I seem to have no need to breathe and being underwater appears a prolonged and pleasant experience. Having been a swimmer all my life, I actually never thought of diving until more recently when I started an underwater photography project. Now I am discovering the whole world of free diving and would like to learn it in practice and develop skills related to this sports. I am not so much interested in going into any record depths or anything like that, rather I would just love to be able to stay under water for a couple of minutes and make the most of that – and take more pictures ! Among some friends that I have photographed I have already witnessed this fantastic transformation from their first being somewhat uncomfortable when under water and then getting used to it and being able to relax.
Water – compared to air – is so “thick” that is is a challenge to get good contrasts when working with cyanotype. While I am still experimenting, I am also hoping to get better paper in the future (I am now using Canson) with more texture and higher densities of blue.
Xóot is a series of underwater portraits printed on fabric that I will exhibit in the Dakar Biennale 2018 OFF in May. I am also printing a larger number of these portraits in cyanotype that I will publish later this year in the form of a a photography book with the same title. This sample portrait “ID goes deep” is murky on purpose as the print is made of a photograph of two layers.
I am using #goesdeep to trace back to all my current and future work with underwater portraits available online.
How many sand dunes can you photograph on a trekking holiday? Walking from Chinguetti to Tergit took us six days and now I have some four hundred photographs to work on – so the answer to my question is: way too many.
Mauritania is big and beautiful and for me being out of radar, without computers and mobile phones, is what I call a holiday. Plenty of fresh air with beautiful night skies illuminated by the Pleiades, Orion and Andromeda, among thousands of other stars. There were also scorpions, camels, and more camels, acacias, and even a few people from day three onward, mostly wrinkled nomadic men on their camels and with charmingly brief toothless smiles directed at us. Or their wives selling dates and necklaces made out of dried camel poop. The scenery kept changing from sand to rocky hills to mountains as we moved on, and this was in direct relation to the increasing number of abrasions on our feet. Our guide E was a football coach who took a special pride in walking very fast especially in deep sand and steep slopes. He did this also partly because we needed to reach our night camp early so that he would be able to cook for us before dark. Truly a man of many talents. As a result to this speed walking I ended up with a surprisingly large number of blurry pictures and a lens cap that would not close as I would have to focus more on seeing my steps and keep balance… but the dinners were always tasty!
There were also a few palmeraies, peaceful lush valleys with thousands of date palms (I must have eaten thousands of dates in a week to keep myself high on sugar like a local) that I eagerly photographed in all possible lightning. These oasis looked fantastic, like mirages from the Orientalist French paintings by Vernet. My plan is to develop these shots with gum oil sometime in the future.
Mauritania is also quite a contrast to my adopted home country Senegal: so much quieter and almost secretive, as things seem to happen behind closed doors and gates and darkened car windows. Not to mention that everybody is wrapped in practical chèches, fighting the ever present dust and sand. A New Year’s Eve in Nouakchott and we were more or less the only walking persons in that part of town. I realize now that when I am away from Saint-Louis, it is the soundscapes produced by humans and animals that I start to miss first. But the desert is a mind expanding experience because of its vastness that literally swallows you. I’ve had similar experiences earlier in Libya in the Akakus region and in Dallol in Ethiopia. That vastness, in a way, puts you in a place in new proportions and you come to realize your true size on this planet – small that is – just like the ocean does, and your dreams turn big and vivid. Not a bad start for this new year, never mind the abrasions!