I stumbled across this thing recently. Somebody got a grant to digitize and catalog a bunch of negatives from Mali, shot by Malian photographers in the latter part of the 20th century.
To be honest, I don't know how I feel about it. I keep hoping for some great insight, some mass of incomprehensible imagery that yields ultimately some profound insight into a culture. I don't think this is that. This is largely portraits very much in the Western Style, albeit of Malian people with all that implies. Indeed, a sort of low-budget mimicry of The Western Portrait is what we see here. Flat lighting, shabby backdrops, and people self-consciously posing for the camera in basically the same way we do in the west.
The clothing is a weird mixture of what I imagine is traditional Malian dress, purely Western dress from the 1970s (we see dudes with wide pants, flamboyant shirts unbuttoned halfway down the chest, holding boom boxes!), and blends.
In a way, it does provide something of a cultural document. It shows us the violent collision of western style and taste with Malian tradition, among what I suspect is a pretty narrow socio-economic class. The people depicted, whatever else is true of them, are the people who would and could stop in to a relatively low budget portrait studio to get a picture taken, between 1958 and 1985. This covers a few different parts of Malian history, the tail end of French rule until just before the single party system was replaced with options. Most of the pictures were taken during a period of single-party, military-led, rule. Whatever that might imply, I do not know.
This does seem to be a genuinely spontaneous record, as opposed to (say) the orchestrated propaganda of the FSA in the United States. This renders the Malian archive more honest and more valuable. On the other hand, it obviously lacks breadth. It's most likely a specific socio-economic class, mostly in the specific context of Having My Picture Taken, and as such is far less valuable than the FSA archive. We see nothing, not even a propagandized version of, their way of life, the ways people worked and lived. Homes,
work, social activities, food, and so on, are largely absent.
All we really see is how certain people chose to present themselves for the camera, and it is often depressingly Western.
Still, I find a certain interest here. I keep going back, flipping through the pictures, looking for something. Looking for clues in the eyes of the subjects, maybe.
I know a lot more about Mali than I did a week ago, I'll say that.