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Studios and photographers in Bujumbura

Field research, 2007 - 2008

S. Top NiIveauS. Top Class

S. Tel AvivS. Quick Photo

S. Photo RapideS. Photo Pierrot

S. Number OneS. Mungu ni Jibu

S. L'UniteS. La Confiance de Kinama

S. KwebeS. Kiragi

S. JoyS. Espoir

S. Energizer de BwizaS. Daz

S. Confiance BuyenziS. Chez Freddy

S. Big Stars-bel-ami

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”. 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.  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. 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.

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.

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. 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.  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.

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.