This is the story of Koudou, whose future seemed promising, and who became a photographer not by vocation, but because there was nothing better to do. One day, he spotted a poster in the street announcing a photo exhibition at the Cultural Centre
Koudou was an apprentice at the Akwaba photo studio for three years. How did he end up there? Born into a large family of ten children, Koudou was not fortunate enough to be able to finish school. But he did get good grades in class. And his penchant for art and culture in general transpired very early on. But fate had it that he came from a poor social background, where survival is a daily struggle.
It was thus at his uncle’s suggestion that he started his three-year apprenticeship. Although in keeping with his artistic leanings, financial difficulties stopped him from investing in it as much as he would have liked to. Koudou gained the necessary skills. He was capable of replacing his uncle when he was away.
Since the advent of colour, black and white was not popular anymore. The studio no longer had regular work. Which is why, once his apprenticeship was over, Koudou chose to be an itinerant street photographer and to cover domestic events (weddings, naming ceremonies, birthdays). With his camera slung over his shoulder – a 24×36 mm body with a standard 50mm lens – he would wander the streets of his neighbourhood looking for people wanting to be photographed. A brave man, he soon managed to measure up to the difficulties involved in his new status as a street photographer.
Time passed by. Koudou earned himself a fine reputation in the neighbourhood, present at all the ceremonies. His essentially female clientele grew. The regular influx of money enabled him to support his family: his wife and three children and a cousin. To get around more easily and faster, Koudou soon bought a moped. His main concerns were building customer loyalty and respecting the photo delivery times. And he never hesitated to make the return journey from his neighbourhood, Rue Princesse to the town centre, Boribana, to get his photos developed quickly. For which he highly appreciated his new acquisition: his moped.
At the entrance of the laboratory, a sign read: « Photo development and prints in 30 minutes ». The lab owner was Korean, as is the case in a good number of labs in Boribana. The one Koudou went to was often packed. It was hard to make yourself heard: it was like being on the Wall Street stock exchange! The photographers affiliated to the lab each had a pigeonhole, the pigeonholes taking up an approximately two-metre stretch of wall. The room was divided in two by the counter. On one side, the clients, on the other the Noritsu mini-lab for processing and printing the films. The lab was a meeting place for the photographers. There, they had the time to chat, to recount things that had happened during a photo shoot, to criticize the clients, and to joke whilst waiting for their photos.
Outside a motor throbbed: it was Koudou. He turned his moped off. As soon as he entered the lab, a round of vibrant applause broke out: it was his colleagues. Before he could make head or tail of it all, someone shouted: « Koudou! Koudou! The Koudô difference-o! »
« You’re the best! » exclaimed a voice above the rest. Someone slapped him on the shoulder and he heard: « that’s right, they say woodi! » (« you’re a real man, a warrior! »).
All this uproar was to congratulate him on his new purchase. A shy smile, then a hello to the receptionist. « I’ve got two films », he told her. She took an envelope and wrote his name in bold letters: KOUDOU.
– « An AC? » asked the receptionist.
– « Yes », said Koudou.
« AC » was the abbreviation for « after choice »: the film was first of all developed so that the photographer could take the time to choose which photos and the number of copies to print. A « SD » (straightforward development) or a « PD » (print and development) was also available.
When everything calmed down, a colleague called out from the other side of the room:
– « Koudou! Can I borrow your flash? I’ve got a shoot this evening. »
– « My flash is broken », answered Koudou.
It was customary for photographers to lend one another their equipment. It was a sign of solidarity between those who frequented the same laboratory.
As soon as his photos were ready, he hurried home (to his neighbourhood) to deliver them. Once delivered, and when the photos went down well, the clients would not hesitate to order more copies. Which meant that Koudou would have to go back to the lab.
One day, whilst waiting for his photos to be developed, he decided to pop into the town centre: the administrative district with its skyscrapers where everyone meets for business. En route, Koudou spotted a poster for a photo exhibition private view at the Cultural Centre. Unfortunately, the date of the private view had passed, but the exhibition was still on. He decided to go to see it. Ten minutes later and he was at the exhibition where he discovered black and white photos exhibited on picture rails. Large, carefully framed photos perfectly lit by bright spotlights. A Western photographer’s view of rural Africa: an old woman with wrinkled skin in front of her hut, a distraught, smeared snotty-nosed child, a farmer marked by his labours whose hands were covered in calluses, the attractive smile of a bare-chested young girl with pert, firm breasts carrying a bucket of water on her head
« If a foreigner can do that, why shouldn’t I, Koudou, do the same? All the more so, in my own village! »
All night long, he thought and discussed it with his wife. The next day he decided to go to his village to do a two or three week report. First of all, he went to stock up with black and white films on the black market, and then left his wife with enough to feed the family whilst he was away. He also told certain clients. And so off went our Koudou to his village.
Three weeks later he was back. Mission accomplished.
The next stage consisted of getting the photos developed and printed. Koudou went to the town’s only photographic supplier. He wanted to buy chemicals and good quality photographic paper. But he was out of luck! The European photographer, who reigned over the advertising market for years now, had just snaffled all they had in stock.
It was tricky situation because the supplier in question was not prepared to order anymore in the near future as black and white was much less popular than colour. Far from being discouraged, Koudou went to his normal seller (the black market), hoping to find a solution. But the shortage in black and white products was general. The sharp drop in demand had considerably slowed down orders. So stocks would be exhausted before new deliveries arrived. Which would be when? It was impossible to get an exact answer. Koudou was demoralized.
Just then, his supplier suggested that he go to see Marouf, a Nigerian photographer who ran a photo studio that was sadly not doing so well anymore. He had always worked in black and white and mainly did identity photos. Marouf had not managed to make the transition to colour. He now used part of his studio to sell photographic products and to run a phone booth. His studio was not far from the Derrière Rail district’s central market.
This time Koudou found what he was looking for. However, it had all been badly stored, which can have a disastrous effect on the quality of the development: a significant detail that Koudou failed to notice so happy he was to have found what he wanted. He struck up a friendly conversation with Marouf, explaining all his difficulties. Marouf offered to lend him his darkroom, for a small fee. Koudou was not expecting this, and took it to be providential. It was a deal!
He came back to Marouf’s the next morning. He was immediately shown into a tiny room: the darkroom. The worn-out developing trays were positioned around an ancient enlarger that had been much used for identity photos. Koudou shut himself away for a long time to develop his films. When he emerged, he was covered in sweat. A sharp smell wafted out of the room, a mix of sweat and chemicals. Koudou took a breath of air before going back in to dry the films on a wire strung across the room. He hung the films up with clothes pegs.
Just the time for them to dry and he came back after to print the photos. He admired his negatives on a partially functional light box. He then turned to the enlarger and started printing the photos he thought were interesting. It was suffocatingly hot in the darkroom. Big beads of sweat ran down his face. His hands were sweaty. The temperature of the baths was high. The conditions Koudou worked in were far from ideal. The result left a lot to be desired, but Koudou did not realize. He spread all the photos on a table to dry.
He came back to get them a little later and headed home with them. There, he made his selection, getting rid of the photos he thought were no good. Then he got back on his moped and headed for Boribana, the Cultural Centre, to meet the director this time.
His secretary received him.
– « It isn’t possible to see the director today », she told him.
– « When will it be possible? I’m a photographer », said Koudou.
– « He will have more time to meet you in two days time. »
– « At what time? » Koudou asked.
– « In the late morning. At 11 o’clock.
Koudou showed up spot on time on the day of their appointment. The secretary showed him into the director’s office. She offered him a seat in the lounge where the director came to join him.
« Well sir, what can I do for you? » asked the director.
Koudou cleared his throat before speaking and said: « I am a photographer and I would like to exhibit my work here. »
Slightly taken aback, the director asked to see what kind of work he did.
Koudou drew his selection of 13×18 photos from his bag and handed them to the director, adding: « It’s a three week photo report I did in my village ».
Listening to him speak, the director looked at the photos one by one, totally disinterested.
« That one is my grandmother, she’s 80. That one is the village women coming back from the well », Koudou explained enthusiastically.
After the last photo, the director looked up and thanked him for his courage. Unfortunately, he told him, he could not help. The director’s frankness, like a slap in the face, shattered Koudou. He left the place with difficulty, his feet heavy The woodi was at the end of his forces. He stopped suddenly, turned his moped off, put his feet on the ground, and slumped over the handlebars of his motor.
Someone recognized him from afar and called out to him. It was the husband of one of his clients, accompanied by another person. He went over to them. « My wife has been looking for you for some time », the husband said to him. He went on: « She has had herself two new bazin boubous made (the long tunics worn in Africa) and would like you to take her photo. »
He did not notice Koudou’s moroseness and carried on speaking, turning to his friend to boast Koudou’s skills. « He’s the best photographer in the neighbourhood. If you saw the masterpieces he’s done of my wife! » he exclaimed. Turning to Koudou for his consent, he now noticed his mood and asked him what was wrong.
In answer, Koudou explained his whole misadventure.
To which the husband retorted: « That stuff is for White people. You are already a good photographer, why bother yourself with that stuff? »
He put his hand on Koudou’s shoulder and said: « Stay with us here. Moreover, my wife is expecting you for her photos. »
With that, they wished him goodbye and left.
Koudou watched them go then started up his moped and went on his way.
Ananias Leki Dago’s work has contributed to reviving Ivoirian photography. He was the initiator of the Rencontres du Sud, the first edition of which was held in Abidjan in March 2000. An exhibition of his work will be held in Aubenas, France, in July 2001.///Article N° : 5537