From the paper archive to the digital void :

Burundi - A country loses its visual heritage

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« The recognition of African photographers and the unique visual language they developed », wrote art collector Arthur Walter in his introduction to the outstanding exhibition catalogue « Events of the Self. Portraiture and Social Identity », « has been a long time in coming. » (1) In the context of the opening up of the humanities and the social sciences to visual images, the beginning of scholar’s interest in African photography can be traced back to the mid 1980s. The first art exhibitions, on the other hand, dealing with African photographs opened ten years later. A pioneering role in this played the Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie in Bamako (Mali) which took place for the first time in 1994. (2)
Much of this, if not all, was indebted to the archive. Where else would the founders of the Bamako biennial, the French photographers Françoise Hugier and Bernard Descamps, have found prints and negatives of the now famous Malian photographers Seidou Keïta (1923-2001) and Malik Sidibé (*1936) from the 1950s and 1970s respectively? Where, if not in places such as the archives of the Basel Mission Society, to name a European institution, would such a great number of photographs have been amassed and protected to the benefit of historians, art historians, and visual anthropologists? (3) This might sound banal but it is by no way self-evident. Why? Looking closely at the African continent we become aware that in the course of the widespread use of digital photography a number of countries is about to lose their visual heritage simply because both professionals and amateurs lack the capacity and/or the knowhow to build up as well as to manage digital archives.
From this perspective we will try to undertake hereafter, on the one hand, a review of the photographic history of the small Central African country Burundi‘s as well as its photographers’ current work. The central questions, which will guide us throughout the following lines, are very simple: What has been archived? How were and how are photographs being archived? And eventually: What are the consequences for the country’s visual heritage? For the historical review and evaluation of the present situation we will concentrate on the state’s press agency, the Agence Burundaise de Presse (ABP), on the one hand, and on the local photo studios and professional photographers in and around Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. (4)
The state’s press agency Agence Burundaise de Presse

Covering hardly 30‘000 square kilometres, Burundi one of the smallest African countries is situated between Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like its easterly neighbour once part of German East Africa after the First World War Burundi together with Rwanda became part of the mandate of the League of Nations and later of the United Nations and was administered by Belgium. In December 1961, Burundi achieved a status of autonomy and a few months later, on July 1 1962, became independent. 1993, after the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected president, the country plunged into a disastrous civil war which lasted until 2006 when the last remaining rebel group concluded an armistice with the government of Pierre Nkurunziza. The political situation after the re-election of the latter in 2010 remains fragile. The economy under a growing demographic pressure and a lack of favourable framework conditions still does not pick up. Hence, the country still depends largely on the financial support of the international community.
In 1937 the Belgian Colonial Ministry founded the Fonds Colonial de Propagande Economique et Social, whose purpose was to control and promote the production of images from the colonies and mandated areas. Photography and film had become too powerful media as to let them remain beyond the state’s grip. It was evident that in a global context where colonialism became increasingly disreputable photography and film were used for the purpose of, as we would say today, internal and external communication. The justification of the colonial domination in the form of a positive presentation of Belgium’s achievements in its colonies – roads, schools, hospitals, etc. – was to address the Belgian population as well as the League of Nations, its successor the United Nations respectively and the states representing it.
Five years after the end of World War Two Belgium founded the Centre d’Information et de Documentation du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi (CID). In 1955, the Office de l’Information et des Relations Publiques pour le Congo Belge et le Ruanda-Urundi, better known under its name Inforcongo, took over the functions of the CID. Inforcongo was a service within the Colonial Ministry in Brussels. It had two regional branches, one as part of the Gouvernement Géneral in Léopoldville (today Kinshasa) and the other in Usumbura (today Bujumbura). The Bureau de l’Information in Bujumbura included a Service Photographique (Ciné-Photo). Head of Ciné-Photo was until the end of 1961 the Belgian Pol Laval. He was subsequently replaced by the Burundian Lazare Hagerimana (*1938). The photographs of the Service Photographique are today located in the archives of the Agence Burundaise de Presse.
The archives of the ABP are Burundi’s most comprehensive and complete photo archives. They are located in an ancient garage belonging to the premises of the press agency which are located in the capital’s centre. The place is untempting but dry and dark so that the negatives and prints have survived the time since the 1950s pretty well. The archives’ visual holdings bridge the period before and after the country’s independence. The ABP itself was founded 1976 and is today subordinate to the Ministère de l’Information, de la Communication et des Relations avec le Parlement. It employs journalists in all of the country’s 17 provinces.
Part of these more than 10‘000 photographs, largely what was produced between 1955 and 1965, is being kept in hanging file folders. Each folder contains ideally the negative as well as one or more prints. The folder’s cover features a photography as well as written information about when and where the photo was taken and who took it. Furthermore, there is a shelfmark, which refers to a register, which unfortunately is missing today (Fig. 1). From about 1965, the majority of the prints was filed in old photo paper cartons and put on metal racks. These cartons bear only little or no captions and the referring negatives are missing or cannot be assigned properly anymore. Sometime in the 1980s the production of prints from the negatives for filing purposed was ceased. According to the archivist Bernadette Niyonzima the archives then were no longer in funds to buy photographic paper and chemicals. Instead the negatives were cut in stripes of six and put in plastic or parchment paper slips. From some of the negatives however contact prints were still made. Together with the negative stripes they were put in folders and stowed away in a large metal locker. Since a few years the negatives are kept coiled in the plastic case from where they were originally taken. A dozen of such cases was put in a paper bag and provided with a cursory caption, stowed away.
Since lately the photographers working for ABP and the official newspaper Le Renouveau (founded in 1978) whose images are also part of the ABP’s archives work exclusively with digital cameras. Consequently, the photographs are now scattered over a great number of hard disks. What makes things even worse is that neither there is a central archiving system in place nor are there regulations concerning the management of digital data for the journalists mandatory. The same applies to the ABP. The consequences of a defect hard disk are easy to imagine. The problems that will arise when journalists have to change from one format to another need not to be highlighted. If no action is taken to meet the digital challenge, the national press archives will be empty or at least highly fragmentary and fortuitous as from about 2005.
In the midterm, something needs to be done with the existing photo archives with regard to their organisation, management and conservation. The negatives and prints should be rearranged into acid free material, a database established and preservation microfilming at least taken into consideration. Finally, all material should be stored in a place where temperature and humidity are permanently being controlled. A national strategy aiming at the collection, conservation and making accessible of the photographic images from professional as well as amateur photographers which are now scattered over Burundi and the globe should also be considered. For this purpose, adequate institutions with skilled stuff must be created. However, neither the National Archives nor the ABP, only to name two big governmental institutions, are able to achieve such a task. Last but not least the photographers too need to be trained and sensitised.
Studios and photographers
Bujumbura with its estimated 800‘000 inhabitants is a comparatively small African capital. From the German colonial period, practically no buildings have survived. The Belgians however have left their mark on the city: The streets, quarters and central buildings have been designed according to their comprehensive idea of administrative efficiency, repesentativity and racial segregation. The large transport axes are still there as well as many colonial buildings and infrastructures including the golf course, the swimming pool and the Cercle Nautique from where guests have a splendid view on the hills on the opposite side of Lake Tanganyika. In the colonial times, these places were exclusively reserved for a white clientele but today they are open to anyone who can afford it.
The densely populated quarters, which are inhabited by the lower classes and many refugees who have fled the wars in the Congo, are located north and south of the small centre. The slopes of the hills in the east feature the residential areas of the Burundian elite as well as the numerous members of the international community. High walls and iron gates hide copious gardens and lavish villas from curious and envious gazes.
In the centre large studios, which are mainly in the hands of foreigners, dominate. Here digital passport photographs are made or photos entières. These studios alone can afford the infrastructure to develop colour photographs and print out from digital data. This is why all photographers come to these studios with their negatives to be printed and processed. These large studios do not set up archives since the negatives, the managers assured, are thrown away after a short time.
In the suburban quarters like Kamenge, Bwiza, Buyenzi or Cibitoke the painted facades of small studios are prominent. Recognizable often through a painted camera they stand adjacent to tailor shops run by Senegalese migrants, hairdressers, carpenters and bars. They bear names like « La Confiance », « Top Class », « Espoir » or « Number One » (Fig. 2). They promise quality, reliability and quick service to an affordable price. It is hard to say how many such small studios there are but we estimate their number to be around 50.
An ordinary studio in the suburbs consists of three rooms, the entrance area where the clients are received and the payment is made, the room where the image is taken and the dark room. In the former, there is hardly space for more than two persons at a time. The walls are covered with photographs in black and white and colour. Very often, a print of the photographer with a camera hanging around his neck features prominently among the former client’s portrayals. A price list and a poster of an African or European football club and, depending on the owner’s nationality, a portrait of the respective president, complete the interior decoration.
The room where the image is taken is between 6 and 12 square metres large and separated from the entrance area by a curtain, which serves as a light barrier but also marks the separation between the real world « out there » and the world of imagination and desire. One wall, sometimes even two or three, are covered with different themes either painted or printed on large photo posters originating from China. Sometimes it is merely a plain panel of fabric. In front of such backdrops, which we all know from 19th and early 20th century European studio interiors pose the clients. Apart from these various backdrops there are hardly any other props such as chairs, plastic flowers or hats and ties so well known from other African studios with which the clients experiment and prepare for the exposure.
The motives of the painted backdrops repeat themselves. (5) A lake with fishing boats framed by palm trees, the garden Eden with flowers, trees and animals, landscapes, skylines of imaginary cities or mosques in the quarters where the Muslim population is preponderant. Most remarquably are Frère Wilongwa’s backdrops, a young Congolese, whose artistic and unconventional interpretation of urban landscapes for which he finds his inspiration in glossy journals and books is to be found in several of Kamenge’s studios (Fig. 3). Some studio owners however prefer the cheap and flamboyant photo posters which some clients fancy. The result of such layered coverings is an amalgam of plasticised looking colours, which accentuate the clients’ features and pose. These Caribbean beaches, alpine landscapes and urban views are all imports from China and form part of a mundane but global visual repertoire (Fig. 4).
The studios offer two different services and formats, namely passport photographs in black and white as well as portraits taken in front of the above mentioned backdrops. The latter are asked for less frequently than the former for which, it seems, the demand is immense. In fact, many of the official documents Burundians are required to procure demand such a passport photograph.
Black and white photographs are being developed immediately in tiny darkrooms where one can hardly stand upright. It is narrow there and stuffy. A water tap would be something to dream of. An old enlarger, a couple of plastic or enamel bowls and a box of photographic paper which the photographer cuts as he needs it make up all the equipment. In the first case customers will get four passport sized photographs and pay 800 Francs burundais, the equivalent of half an Euro. Colour negatives will be developed in one of the studios in the centre. Two copies of one pose cost 1200 Francs burundais, not even one Euro. Like the large studios, the studios in the suburbs have no archives. Why should they keep negatives, which they cannot process? Consequently, they cut the filmstrip and attach the negative neatly on the back oft he colour print hence creating a huge decentralised archive. The black and white negatives will be kept by the studio but put up on the walls carelessly (Fig. 5).
35mm cameras of all kind equipped with a 50mm objective and a simple flash are commonly used in the studios. Halogen bulbs integrated into iron kettles serve as additional sources of light. Their zinc grey whitened with a thick layer of paint they make very good reflectors (Fig. 6). Not many digital cameras are in use presently but their number is growing steadily.
More than 70 % of all photographers in the suburban quarters are Congolese originating from the nearby Kivu provinces. Most of them have fled the war, which ravaged the Eastern provinces in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As photographers, a profession, which can be practised on a basic level without prior knowledge, they have found a way to make a modest living. The camera is a working tool for them nothing more. This explains why practically all the studios we visited during the course of our research were founded after the year 2000. There are in Burundi, contrary to the situation in other African countries, no studios, which have been existing for several decades without interruption.
Very often, however, the studio work does not allow a living and hence additional services like a copy machine or a landline telephone have been added. Another survival strategy consists in ceding the studio business to a younger brother and to look for clients in places outside the studio. The beach is such a place and hence frequented by numerous itinerant photographers. Social events such as baptisms, marriages and funerals also offer many job opportunities. There are nearly no professional photographers working for the media or the advertisement business. The market is small or does simply not exist. Solely Jooris Ndongozi, the son of one of the first Burundian photographers, acts as a kind of official photographer of the government and is always present when the president leaves his palace to fulfil his duties. However, even Ndongozi has built up a second mainstay with activities in public relations and advertisement which takes him frequently to Dubai.
The history of Burundian photography started in the late 19th century in the context of its colonisation and proselytization. (6) Burundian photographers only began in the 1950s to document political and cultural events, the everyday life of the citizens as well as landscapes and urban developments of their country. The largest and most comprehensive compilation of such photographs is kept today in the archives of the Agence Burundaise de Presse. Additional material can be found in the collections of the first professional photographers if they are still alive or their heirs have deemed such material worth of being kept, and of course, in the hands of individual amateurs in Burundi itself or outside the country. Nobody knows with certitude how many images still exist and where. A first probe which took place in the scope of a publication and exhibition project leads us to the speculation that a more thorough research would unearth much more material. (7) [6].
Today Burundi’s visual heritage is threatened in two ways. On the one hand, black and white prints and negatives from the 1950s as well as colour prints, slides and digital data dating from the later years are at risk to be lost irretrievably through ignorance, lack of infrastructure and attention. On the other hand, if the development favouring digital imagery continues with the same speed the visual heritage of the country will disappear forever in the binary nothingness, the digital void. The country must decide how it will react on this development and threat. The West could if required make available its experience and knowhow.

1. Arthur Walther in Enwezor, Okwui (Ed.): Contemporary African Photography from the Walter Collection. Events of the Self. Portraiture and Social Identity. Steidl: Göttingen 2010, 7.
2. For a list oft he most important art exhibtions which included contemporary African photography until 2006 see Enwezor, Okwui: Snap Judgements. New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, New York and Göttingen 2006, p. 350-355. Enwezor however qualifies his own chronology (page 44, FN 51 und 52) and points to various precursors.
3. The Basel Mission Society has re-discovered its photographic treasures in the early 1980s. Since then more than 25 000 photographs have been digitalized and made accessible to the interested public  [http://www.bmpix.org]. For one of the first surveys see Photographs as Sources for African History. Papers presented at a workshop held at the School of Oriental and African Studies/SOAS, London, May 12-13, 1988. Edited by Andrew Roberts and a few years later and only with regard to West Africa, West African Museums Programme/WAMP, Répertoire des archives photographiques en Afrique de l’Ouest, Dakar 2001.
4. See Schneider, Jürg: La présence du Passé. Une histoire de la photographie au Burundi, 1959-2005, Bujumbura 2008.
5. For more readings about painted backdrops for instance in Ghana, see Wendl, Tobias: Ghana. Portraits et décors. In Anthologie de la Photographie Africaine et de l’océan Indien, Editions Revue Noire. Paris. 1998, p. 105-117 and Wendl, Tobias / Behrend, Heike: Snap me one! Studiofotografen in Afrika. München, London et.al. 1998.
6. See Collart, R. and Célis, G.: Burundi, trente ans d’histoire en photos. Namur et Bujumbura 1983.
7. For this publication and exhibition project see  [http://www.afriqueinvisu.org/la-presence-du-passe-une-histoire,156.html]
///Article N° : 11087

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Les images de l'article
Fig. 1 Hanging file folder in the archives of the Agence Burundaise de Presse. © Photo: Jürg Schneider
Fig. 2 Studio Kwebe. Kamenge, Bujumbura. © Photo: Rosario Mazuela/Jürg Schneider
Fig. 5 Studio Confiance. Buyenzi, Bujumbura. © Photo: Rosario Mazuela/Jürg Schneider
Fig. 6 Studio Joy. Cibitoke, Bujumbura. © Photo: Rosario Mazuela/Jürg Schneider
Fig. 3 Studio Dazi. Buyenzi, Bujumbura. © Photo: Rosario Mazuela/Jürg Schneider




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