The Oscura pinhole photography workshops in Mali

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The Oscura association is extending its activities outside Europe and has recently set up in Africa. Its aim (see box) is to reconcile people with the place they live in, using the magical stenopaic, or pinhole, camera. Elisabeth is a member of the association. In this article, she recounts the successes of the Oscura workshops in Mali.

Oscura has been operating in Mali since 1996. The association offers an introduction to the pinhole camera to the local population and in particular, for young people from difficult backgrounds. It has obtained the support of organisations such as ENDA (Environmental Development Action in the Third World) Mali.
An Ordinary Day at Oscura
Understanding laboratory care, rules of etiquette and hygiene are the first steps in the learning process here and it soon becomes apparent that there is a lot more to learn than it would first appear!
For example, many of the « apprentices » do not know how to tell the time. However there is no point in teaching them how to use the camera if they are not able to count the passing seconds and minutes. Therefore, the association had to find a way to teach them this as well.
Teenagers and adults were given the same training. However, the young people’s ability to concentrate was directly proportional to how tired they were – they tend to live by night in the kind of Malian movida lifestyle typical of kids who are left to fend for themselves – and they needed longer than expected to assimilate everything. Later on, as they became more assiduous, they would sometimes turn up at the workshop much earlier than our usual 8am arrival time.
From an early stage, they got into the habit of taking turns to clean the workshop before starting work. At the same time, the others would have a wash or untiringly practice writing their name in their exercise books. For some, learning to sign their names was a complete novelty and, even now, they still get a kick out of it.
After the workshop had been tidied, the materials would be prepared. Every so often, there would be a few glitches in the process, which would only become apparent when the negatives were developed and we would find that they had already been exposed. Likewise, the film paper was occasionally put into the box upside down, or placed over the lens hole.
The young photographers continued to be amazed by the pinhole’s magical powers, even when they had finally perfected their technique and set off into town to use it. As time went on, their interest became an obsession and they roamed the town in search of things that the eye was used to seeing but had not (previously) registered!
Otherwise, when it was so hot in town that it seemed too much of an effort to get there, they would plunge into the world of the human body. They would go to great lengths to capture it in minute detail, to distort it and make it the object of morphological aberrations, just for the fun of playing with the rules and ideals that usually govern our notion of body and beauty.
Sometimes they would go up to a professional photographer, just to watch their disbelief when they were asked to take a photo with a mere Nido milk carton without even have a viewfinder. It was a bit like asking the photographer to take a photo with their eyes shut and no camera. The photographer would view the task – depending on the size of their ego – as a challenge, a simple trick (had the camera been hidden inside the box?), or a lightly veiled insult to their professionalism.
Policy of « transferral »
The teenagers who attended the workshop were not supposed to keep their newly found knowledge to themselves. Since one of our main aims is to encourage people to pass on knowledge and skills, we would get them to « test » how much and how well they had learnt, by looking after and supporting new arrivals through the learning process. As time went on, people like Sidi Ouedraogo, Joubel Dramera and Papou Gaba in Mopti became « assistant pinhole trainers ». Since they were expected to « show their protegés how » rather than « do for them », they needed to gain in self-assurance and become more skilful at using the camera. We were there to lend them support since becoming an assistant was a huge challenge for a population rarely encouraged to take initiative or try new ideas and never given credit for their achievements.
This transferral process is crucial for several reasons: Firstly, it awakens the realm of Possibility. Because we encourage them to become more self-confident they start to see themselves in a new light and begin to act differently. They gradually form a new denser, more demanding image of themselves that is nevertheless more realistic since it is less forgiving. Secondly, this phase highlights the weaknesses and flaws in our own transferral methods. Lastly, this process is essential because it enables the young person to discover the light, laughter and beauty of a world hidden under the chaotic yet inevitable march of history – a world still open to reconciliation.
The way forward: our own venue and the Rencontres in Bamako
Since the workshop is currently of no fixed abode, we have been using a venue under construction for the Don theatre group, situated next to the CJDS (Sabalibougou youth committee for development). The CJDS is managed by Souléman Sidibé and Jimi Traoré and has taken the workshop under its wing, providing space in its community school during the summer holidays. Obtaining our own venue is high on the list of priorities, so that those who have not previously had the opportunity can explore the realm of artistic expression. With this in mind, local associations intend to set up an educational/artistic/humanitarian project in conjunction with local populations.
The venue should be many things at once – a photographic laboratory, a skills-pool, a gallery and a library.
It will also need to be a place where young people, photographers and foreign trainers can carry out research, learn about the pinhole camera, talk about their work and be given a bed for the night. We would also like to try making postcards, T-shirts, posters and silk-screened textiles, for local or foreign sale.
Now, a number of young people, including Allassane Diarra, Gouro Diallo, Bourama Fofana, who organised and ran the pinhole photography workshop in the Sabalibougou neighbourhood from July – October 2000, want to present their work at the 4th Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine in October 2001, with the support of the CJDS.

Elisabeth Towns is a trainer at the pinhole photography workshops in Mali and member of the Oscura association.
A book on the Malian pinhole photography workshops is due to come out: Mlali-Photo. Sténopé d’Afrique, Snoeck Ducaju & Zoon publishers, 120FF (18.30 euros).
The photos shown here were taken by, or with, participants at the Bamako and Mopti workshops between 1996 and 2000.

BOX
The Oscura association has existed for almost 10 years now, and has chosen to operate in Saint-Denis rather than Paris, Ankara rather than Istanbul, Bucarest rather than Brasov and Rubi rather than Barcelona. Oscura has predominantly been active in the outskirts of sprawling supercities or in the heart of fragmented cities and mutant cities, cities open to everything, changed by poverty and today’s collective imaginary. Wherever cities are changing the most rapidly, Oscura is most at home.
The French and Spanish branches include a trainer, architect, iconographer, sales-person, philosopher, squatter, an art historian, cartographer, laboratory assistant, and photographer amongst their members. The multi-faceted association is much more than simply a gathering of city-dwellers. All its members enjoy strolling along city streets, wandering through parks and walk beside railway tracks.
Characteristics
They all carry a box with a pinhole in one end. Pinhole, or stenopaic, photography is a far cry from what we usually imagine photography to be. First of all, each user « lives » the making of the image. You do not simply push a button without taking into consideration the moments before and after the photo is taken. You make your own camera box, you need to think about the lighting situation, you have to know a few technical basics. When taking the photo, rather than merely standing behind the camera and pointing, you belong to the field of vision – you’re never totally infront of or behind the frame. Instead of holding your finger down for a split-second, you spend minutes and sometimes hours drifting in and out of daydreams to get the right exposure. When you finally make it into the developing room, the negative and subsequent print reveal all the deformations, depth of field and movement characteristic of the cinematographic image inherent to pinhole photography.///Article N° : 5535

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