By: Nicole Dreon
In April of 2014, I visited Senegal for the first time to write and shoot a story on the local surf scene. While for most of my visit I stayed on the mellow and cozy Ngor Island which is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and about 25 minutes outside of the capital city of Dakar, there was no way I was going to travel all the way to West Africa and not check out Dakar.
“Dakar”, “Dakar”, “Dakar”—I just love the name, and I’d always wanted to cover the Dakar Rally (the world’s most famous off-road race which has since moved to South America.) Plus, the city was known for having some of the best music in Africa.
With only three days left in Senegal, I decided, along with my friend Katie who was traveling with me, and our new friend Austin, that we should negotiate a cab to take us into the city. (One of the things we quickly learn is that while French is the national language of Senegal, only those who go to school learn French. Everyone else, like the taxi cab drivers, speak Wolof which makes going anywhere a game of charades.)
I’m traveling with my favorite lens—an old Nikon 35mm 2.0. If I could only own one lens, this would be it. 35mm on a full frame camera like my Nikon D800 forces you to compose the perfect photo. Plus, the lens is really small and I can slide it into an inconspicuous bag. And finally, this older lens on a newer camera gives it more of a film look. New cameras, in my opinion, tend to be too sharp and perfect, but this 35mm lens takes the edge off.
I don’t think there can be anything more intimidating than a busy African city, and Dakar was certainly no exception. The idea of personal space is almost non-existent. For Katie, who had never been to Africa, it was an eye-opener, and her apprehension was apparent. I didn’t blame her. I would be too if I hadn’t already experienced something similar in places like Kampala, Uganda and Kigali, Rwanda. There is absolutely no way to tune out the chaos and bustle--your senses go into overdrive. Even if you don’t like it, though, there is no denying the feeling of being alive.
From the moment we got out of the cab, everyone we pass on the street wants to be our guide. As we enter the big city market where there is stall upon stall of small shops, one gentleman insists on following us. He is a younger and more aggressive than the others. “The others,” he tells us pointing to the crowd, “the others are not good men, but I’m a good man.” He follows us through the rows of clothing stalls, past guys selling watches and women hawking pineapples that have been sliced and put into small plastic bags. There are small, plastic bags everywhere, littering the street. The way plastic bags litter the streets and landscapes in developing countries kills me—but that is another story.
I don’t feel threatened by our new friend, nor does Dakar make me nervous. I know from reading that Senegal is one of the safer countries in Africa and whatever that womanly intuition is that goes off when you’re in danger, it isn’t happening right now. I realize this might sound naïve, but gut instincts are gut instincts. In fact, I don’t even try to conceal my camera as I’m walking around. (Keep in mind, I wouldn’t be doing this in Nairobi or Rio de Janeiro.) I also have the comfort of being with Austin, who at about 6’2 and 200 pounds serves as a bit of a blankey.
When our new friend starts leading us down a small ally-way to see a wood carving shop, Katie decides she has had it. It looks sketchy and she wants nothing to do with it, so she goes back out to the main road. Austin and I stick with him, though, and follow him past small makeshift homes and a fuseball table. Finally, in front of the dimly lit entrance to one of the shacks, he says, “Go inside.” I step inside first, and it’s so dark, my eyes have to re-adjust. When they do, I look around to see about seven men sitting on the floor holding knives, diligently carving the African wood-figures that we saw earlier back in the market. They acknowledge us but continue working and we have to step carefully around their feet.
Then through the slit of a window I see a woman braiding the hair of a young girl. She and I make eye contact, but then she returns to what she’s doing. From a photographer’s point of view, this is the kind of shot—an intimate off the grid moment--that we always look for, but seldom find. I’m always drawn to the humanity of maternal scenes and how motherhood is so universal. Anyone could relate to the relationship of this mother and her daughter.
I figure out how to get out of the shop and over to the house of the woman with the young girl. At first the woman is apprehensive of me, as any mama bear should be. Then I share the pineapples I bought back in the market with her daughters who are sweet and curious. Finally, our new friend/guide has come looking for me and explains to her in Wolof that I’m a journalist. I ask if I may take a photo of her with her daughters. She motions with her hand that it’s fine and then goes back to what she’s doing. I only click my shutter twice, but everything I wanted filled in the frame of my 35mm lens. If my lens had been longer, I would have lost some of the environment. Any wider, and it would have diluted the subjects.
How I got this shot was not easy. It’s not easy to get to West Africa and even less easy to find yourself in the back alley of one of its biggest cities, but I’ve learned that some of my favorite shots have come when I least expect it and when it took a little bit of work. I didn’t take many photos at all that day, and there were times, when I, like Katie, was simply over the bustle. But I’m glad that I rode it out and let things fall into place. Ultimately, that huge and overwhelming city seemed smaller and more trustworthy, simply by stumbling upon this familiar scene.
This photo is part of a series I’m working on called, Mama Africa. Please check back as I will be profiling more photos from the series in my posts to come.