Lomé’s street photographers have got the blues

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Here, on the beach in Lomé, between the Le Benin hotel, built towards the end of the French colonial period, and the Palm Beach hotel, built shortly after Togo gained its independence, the city’s street photographers gather in hoards on Sunday afternoons.

It all starts at 4pm when the sun first starts to set and is all over two hours later when night falls. The beach is swarming with people, both young and old. Some have been here for a while since they came early to picnic in the shade of the coconut palms. Citydwellers, suburbanites and visitors from the country come to stroll along the beach, stopping to watch or maybe even join in a game of handball or some other game of skill, while noisy young people good-naturedly jostle each other. Everyone is dressed simply but elegantly and with lots of colour. There are few bathers since the rolling rows of frothy waves have a bad reputation around here so the strollers bask in the lukewarm sun or frolic in the seaspray and delight in the spectacle that is everyone else … or themselves.
The mood is right for having a few photos taken, so why not do it?
As early as 3.30pm, the first of the photographers turn up outside the Palm Beach. They greet each other and get themselves ready. Their satchells are veritable workshops. The bag will be covered with a piece of plain blue or red cloth (and sometimes both) measuring around one metre square which will be used as a background for ID photos and portraits. The photographer’s camera and the flash will have been arranged just under the cloth and the light brown enveloppes containing  » unsold  » or  » to be delivered  » photos are tucked down the side or placed on the bottom. The enveloppes are carried around in the hope that any lost clients might be found or reticent clients convinced. The camera is usually loaded – itinerant photographers rarely carry a spare film or extra batteries for the flash. The  » workshop  » always contains a pair of scissors, for cutting the negatives, and a marker for identifying which negatives are to be developed by the lab. In there somewhere will also usually be a pocket calculator, ballpoint pen and notebook, for writing the client’s name and address and how much they owe. Last but not least, the photographer will always have business cards – with a poignant pseudonym or the name of a still-imaginary studio.
The photographer will have their camera draped casually around their neck. It is usually a 24×36 and is almost always a dented and worn reflex – the same old brands and models that are so familiar – that has already been repaired many a time and will have to hold out for a long while yet. Just by looking at it you can tell its owner has a hard life. It is a very moving object, but the photographer does not realise that.
For the street photographer, heaven is a good  » second hand  » camera so that they can  » work well « . The flash is permantently attached to the camera. It is a small battery-powered model in pretty much the same state as the camera. In Lomé, as throughout Africa, they even use the flash during the day to make  » the faces lighter « .
By this time, there are almost 20 photographers on the lawn outside the Palm Beach and customers – usually girls on their own or in groups or young couples – are starting to trickle in. They choose a photographer because they know him or because he is the closest. Together the photographer and his clients cross the Boulevard de la Marina and head back onto the beach. The customer most often chooses the backdrop – usually the sea, the hotel or the beach with other people in background. Otherwise they choose the coconut palms – where it is more private! For young couples, there is only one way to pose … in each other’s arms, on the sand.
The early customers are easy customers; they will have come with the intention of having their photo taken. The others are on the beach, in the thick of the crowd. They have to be sought out, you have to make them  » want the photo  » or at least put the idea into their mind! So, the photographers wander up and down the beach opposite the Palm Beach– which is not much bigger than a football field. There are 50 of them now, or maybe 100. They rarely approach prospective clients themselves and prefer to wait for them to beckon –  » those who seek us out will have the money « .
The money! This is a major preoccupation for the street photographers, and it takes up most of their time too. After the photos have been taken, there is no guarantee that the photographer will be paid, even after the photos have been developed and delivered. They often have to make another trip to get the outstanding 100 or 1000 CFA, or find themselves playing cat and mouse with the customer.
The photographers also think of heaven as having their own photo studio. They would no longer have to run all over town delivering the photos. People would come back to the studio to get them and pay at the same time. A studio is a statement, recognition of their status as a professional photographer, even if they continue their « street » activities.
Today – Sunday the 3rd of February – business is slow, but since  » the recession  » there have not really been very many good days anyway. Government employees were last paid anywhere from three to seven months ago, and school will go back two weeks late. In Togo,  » the recession  » is also a source of worry and pent up, frustrated anger. People harbour bloody memories that are only alluded to, and hope for a future that is slow in coming. It can be summarized in a single expression,  » no one has confidence in Togo ».
Tomorrow, the alarm will go off at an early hour. Some of the labs open at 7am and the photos will be ready. The photographer will deliver them sometime during the morning, with a stop in at the Grand Marché or a stroll through the neighbourhood to see a few friends, retailers or relations – there has to be a couple of photos somewhere out there!

Guy Hersant worked as a studio and freelance photographer in Brittany until 1990. Since 1971, he has made numerous trips to West Africa, in particular to take photos of the Niger River. He was co-presenter for the Rencontres de Bamako in 1994, 1996 and 1998 and his research into street photography in Togo, Benin and Nigeria was carried out in 1999 as part of an Afrique en créations project in preparation for the 4th Rencontres de Bamako. An exhibition of his own works will be held in Aubenas in July 2001.///Article N° : 5532

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