Nyaba Ouedraogo,
The Phantoms of Congo River

To celebrate the launch of The Study – a new co-working and research space at Manchester Museum – Nyaba Léon Ouedraogo’s latest project, The Phantoms of Congo River, is exhibited alongside a selection of artefacts from the museum archive. Ouedraogo’s book of the same name includes an extended series of photographs, accompanied by a selection of writings by artists, curators and commentators. We spoke to Ouedraogo as the finishing touches were being added to The Study to find out a little more about this striking series of photographs and the man, the method and the inspiration behind them.

Stating that the project is “both a ballad to and a deconstruction of” Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Ouedraogo intrigues us by the journey that he has taken in order to compose such images. Explaining his initial reaction to Conrad’s novel he says, “I bought the book Heart Of Darkness and as I read it I was very disturbed; very upset. I shut the book and left it there.” Six months later, returning to the book that had provoked such a strong initial reaction, Ouedraogo decided that a more developed and considered response was necessary, venturing to the river Congo itself. “I had the idea that instead of just reading I would go to the site itself and see what was happening on the river. So I went there in 2011 to explore the reality of life on the river and also as an exploration of my own reality.” The project is a result of a darker experience: a discomfort that Ouedraogo found in reading Conrad’s controversial novella.

Challenging the Congo portrayed by Conrad, Ouedraogo explored further and deeper into the region. “I didn’t want to take the same path as Conrad”, Ouedraogo tells us. “For me it was a ballad about the river so I wanted to take his point of view and transpose it to myself.” This “ballad” flows out from the process of becoming aware of another perspective on a place as well as critically aware of his own experience of reality. Expanding his journey beyond the limits of the 10-15km of the Congo that Conrad explored Ouedraogo developed a deeper understanding of the place. “Everyday I was walking about 25km meeting different people, over two months each year I was doing the same sort of thing.” Furthermore, Ouedraogo’s exploration of this place was developed over an extended period of time: “Every year in February I took the pictures so that the light was exactly right. When people see [the photographs] they think it’s been taken all at once but it’s actually spaced out over three years.” By extending the project over this longer time frame, Ouedraogo was able to develop a relationship with the people and the place which extended far beyond the limits of Conrad’s journey. During this process Ouedraogo captured candid moments from the daily lives of these people. However, others stand out as majestic compositions, as though staged. Ouedraogo attributes this balance of intimacy and strength to the ‘magic’ of the photographer: “You could say that things were put in place in a way but it’s also about instinct. Because I lived there for two months it enabled me to see what was happening and to wait until things came together and then take the picture at the right time. This is the magic of chance for the photographer and I was ready to take this chance and get the picture at the right time.”

Published in 1899, the Congo portrayed in Heart of Darkness has undergone considerable change to become the place it is today. This is something Ouedraogo was keen to capture in his photographs: “I was exploring a new, changing Congo and also exploring the type of relationship that people had with the river. At the time of Conrad the Congo river was like a natural border, it was a way of moving riches to Europe and the US. Today the same applies in the sense that there is still trade. But back then it wasn’t just goods that were transported it was slaves as well. So Congo has changed obviously since then and my purpose was to seek to show how this change is taking place.” Change is a common theme in Ouedraogo’s work, in particular in reference to the changing relationship between man and nature. As Michket Krifa observes in her contribution to Ouedraogo’s book, the people he photographs are continually confronted by the power of the elements. In previous series, such as The Hell of Copper (2008) this evokes an atmosphere that is verging on apocalyptic. “In order to survive, man no longer struggles with hostile nature, but with a nature that he must destroy, poison, and render ugly while he himself is destroyed and poisoned”, Krifa describes. In The Phantoms of Congo River the power of the river is violent and unwavering. However in this series there is a sense of humanity that responds to Conrad’s novel, conveyed through the relationships Ouedraogo himself formed on the river.

Though he is never visible, we are aware of the role photographer in these moments he collects. The relationship between subject and camera results in an honesty that is bold, the candid ease of shoulders resting, eyes wide open to the soul. In these images Ouedraogo wrestles with intertwining realities. Through his own view he explores the relationships the people of the Congo have with their river and his images display a complex spirituality: pagan rituals; ancient traditions; the symbol of the cross. Ouedraogo tells us: “They want to protect the river because they believe that mermaids are there so they are protecting them as well [as themselves]. They see the river as a way of healing them: it’s not just water they think that it’s actually a gift from God, and although I don’t believe that’s what the people I met believe.” But their reliance on the river goes further than just a spiritual object: “Most people I saw were fishing,” Ouedraogo tells us, “they’re fishermen so to them the river is a means of living and they said if the river disappears we’ll disappear as well.” Ouedraogo has discovered a complex relationship between the river and the people who live on its banks: the same power that gives life, food, healing and spiritual fulfilment could turn and destroy at any moment.

In his contribution to The Phantoms of Congo River book, curator John Fleetwood discusses the use of the medium of photography to communicate such complex nuances in the understanding of reality. “In photographs symbols and reality are fragmented into intertwined lines of blur. No longer can we distinguish between the sign and the signified. No longer can we read the image merely as an accurate reflection of reality. It is about possessing the power to engender multiple interpretations that coincide in one reality. We tell many different stories from what we have seen and experienced.” These stories, these many realities experienced by Ouedraogo inform his own gaze and the production of these photographs. Self-taught, Ouedraogo refers to himself as a “photographic author” engaged in the project of understanding and communicating what he learns of about the people he meets in a form of narrative. In his essay, titled ‘Implacable Brothers’, Simon Njami discusses the limited capacity of photography and its inability to place the viewer in the same way as the cinema: in the context of before and after. However, Njami states that Ouedraogo compensates for this by presenting in his images a dual experience of time, two coexisting realities: “the time of people and the time of the river”. Here, the river is central to Ouedraogo’s exploration and understanding of these people and the reality of this place. Though acknowledging the tension between man and nature, in this series the focus of Ouedraogo’s gaze seems to accept this tension as a matter of course and instead rests upon the people themselves: those who live on the banks of this powerful river, manipulated by changing tides, relied upon for food, work and travel. Just as the river isn’t always visible in every image but its presence still felt, Ouedraogo doesn’t directly address the ‘phantoms’ present in this place in every image. The darkness, however, lingers in every image.

As we conclude our conversation, Ouedraogo is keen to make clear that, although much of his work takes place within Africa, he is not out to make bold sweeping statements. “I’m basically trying to find out about people”, he says. “In Africa there are many cultures, many countries. I don’t know them all and I don’t pretend to know them all, I’m just from Burkina Faso, so I don’t know every one of them. But what I do is try and understand and know the people there which are people like you and me.” Though the photographs have a serious, weighty quality Ouedraogo is warm and funny. Behind these poignant images is a man who loves people, and whose approach to this work very much echoes The Study’s statement that favours “the curious, the makers, the searchers and the sharers.” Despite the ‘phantoms’, the shadows of colonialism and racism that linger, Ouedraogo remains positive and uplifted by an increasingly multicultural world: “I see things in a positive light,” he says, “I go to Paris, Manchester, Italy, South Africa so I see it as an advantage and I make the best of everything.”

In his investigation of this series, titled ‘Implacable Brothers’ and published in Ouedraogo’s book Phantoms of Congo River, Simon Njami poses the question “What form of exorcism does Nyaba Léon Ouedraogo engage in? What does he mean to reveal to us?” Ouedraogo answers this himself: “I didn’t have something specific in mind that I wanted to do. It was about projecting the people I met; projecting them and what I experienced. I’m trying to understand the views and perspective of other people as well as my own and put the two together in pictures.” However in revealing the humanity of these people the ‘phantoms’ and shadows cannot be ignored: a challenge for all of us to address the shadows of our own reality.

Naomi Cull is a participant and recipient of the CVAN NW Critical Writing Programme and Bursary.

This article has been commissioned by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North West (CVAN NW), as part of a regional critical writing development programme, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England – more information available here .

Image courtesy Manchester Museum.

The Phantoms of Congo River: Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo, Manchester Museum, Manchester.

11 September 2015 – 10 April 2016.