Photo Studios in Africa – Research in African Visual History and Practices

Field course

Basel University, Switzerland

November 2015 - March 2016


   Photos: Mara Knill and Florian Unterfrauner

Please click the picture to get the SSAS contributions (PDF)

The field course offers students of African History, Visual Anthropology and Cultural Studies the opportunity to work with the material of photo studios in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Research work carried out in Cameroon may subsequently serve as an excellent basis for BA or MA theses.

Within the framework of several digitization and preservation projects in photo studios and archives in Cameroon four MA and advanced BA students will carry out research projects based on material produced by professional photographers (studio, ambulant, press, artistic) and interviews with photographers and their respective clients. The main focus of research will be on photographic practices in an urban African context. We will explore the photographers’ strategies of thriving and surviving in a socially and economically competitive environment as well as the clients’ productive and critical dealing with the photographers’ offers and demands, and subsequently, the photographs they received. It is expected to carry out research in teamwork with Cameroonian students from the University of Yaoundé.

The photographers met their clients’ various needs for photographic documentation from the personal to the public: They took photographs of individuals or groups in the studio, documented marriages, funerals and other socially important events, accepted orders from enterprises, documented public holiday parades and made reproductions and rearrangements of old photographs. Hence the photographic material bears witness to a wide range of photographic practices and those who supplied and demanded the services of photographers.

The field course consists of two modules:

  • In order to prepare students for their research and research stay in Cameroon in February 2016 a preparatory seminar course took place during four Saturdays between 21 November 2015 and 23 January 2016.
  • Students spent two weeks, from January 30 to February 13 2016, in Cameroon and carried out the research they have prepared in the first course module. They will compose a paper of at least ten pages in which they analyse and synthesize the results from their research.

For the participation in the preparatory seminar and the field trip, including the research paper, 5 ECTS will be awarded in the spring semester 2016.

Course outline

The theoretical and preparatory work will be done in four seminar-type class sessions which involve preparatory readings and writing. These seminars deal with histories, theories and uses of photography, particularly in west and central Africa. We will in particular prepare for the interviews we will make in Cameroon. We shall deal with specific themes in each class. These are as follows:

November 21: From business to art: African photography from 1840 to now

November 28: A profession of a very special kind: Photo studios in Africa

December 5: Using photographs in social and historical research, part 1: Photo interviews

January 23: Using photographs in social and historical research, part 2: Practical work


P1090518 2

First module at Basel University

field course Feb 16

Second module, Photo Studios research in Yaoundé

Team 2

Family picture