Take a moment and consider, how do you interpret your surroundings and how you fit into the grand scheme of events? Not what a book told you or a famous artist said you should think about a situation, place or feeling. But you, as an individual, being curious enough to go out and learn for yourselves? Based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, Joana Choumali is a fine art photographer. Born in 1974, she was at first an art director in an advertising agency – after studying Graphic Arts in Morocco. She eventually transitioned into her photography career which uses a blend of documentary, conceptual portraiture and mixed media to help her learn about Africa and the myriad of cultures that surround her.
As scary as a career shift can be, pursuing her passion paid off and has garnered her awards such as the POPCAP 14 Award (CAP PRIZE) and the Emerging Photographer LensCulture Award. She also received the Magnum Foundation Emergency Grant in 2016, as well as, the Fourthwall Books Award in South Africa. Not to mention, Choumali has exhibited her work at the Museum of Civilizations, Lagos Photo Festival, the Donwahi Foundation for Contemporary Art, the International Photography Biennale of Bamako, Photoquai Biennale at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, the Rush Art Gallery in New York, and the 50 Golborne Gallery in London; according to the World Press Photo.
Her honest introspective journey, to examine her own assumptions and expand her conceptions of the world, has gotten her work international attention. Everyone from the New York Times, The Guardian, CNN and Forbes Magazine, to The Huffington Post and Le Monde have published her work and she even had a book, “Bitter Chocolate stories”, published in Amsterdam in October 2017. While all this is fascinating, what truly grips us about this photographer is how she approaches her imageries. Like a movie, Choumali considers motion while envisioning her images and what detail the scene would require. Thus, she’s made the habit of mentally recalling the moment before and after taking the picture. An arduous task, but she considers it important to absorb and remember every detail of a scene accurately.
It’s this process of entirely immersing herself into a concept that translates into her work, giving it the profundity and intricacy to make it a story; as opposed to just a picture. And it’s not just the scene she takes in, but her subject’s testimonies; verbatim. “I never abbreviate them… It’s important for me to show this kind of integrity and to respect the whole story. I want to catch exactly what people say. I don’t want to assume and judge, because the basis of my work is not to judge but to observe,” she told Gup Magazine. Despite spending a considerable amount of time researching each of her projects, she doesn’t allow the facts she gathered to overshadow the truths of her subjects, contributing to a more balanced interpretation of an idea, culture or experience.The following are just some of her projects that have made her stand out as a photographer. But we encourage you to head over to her website (link at the end) to see her full body of work and her thoughts on each of her projects.
Ça va aller
Ça va aller, which means ‘It’s going to be fine’, is a common expression that people use in Côte d’Ivoire to uplift each other. The phrase is often used since they desist from discussing or sharing psychological issues or feelings. She started this project a month after the March 2016 Grand-Bassam terrorist attack, using her iPhone as her lens to capture the aftermath. While she could have used her professional gear, she wanted to capture a more authentic representation of what her subjects were experiencing. The embroidery incorporated in the images were Choumali’s way to process her feelings about the tragedy. However, the time it takes to incorporate the embroidery also represents the time it takes to process and heal from tragedy.
“Hââbré is the same word for writing / scarification” in Kô language from Burkina faso.
Scarification is the practice of performing a superficial incision in the human skin. This practice is disappearing due to the pressure of religious and state authorities, urban practices and the introduction of clothing in tribes… This fact leads us to question the link between past and present, and self-image depending on a given environment. Opinions (sometimes conflicting) of our witnesses illustrate the complexity of African identity today in a contemporary Africa torn between its past and its future.” ~ Joana Choumali
“‘Resilients’ show that lineage is inextinguishable. Clothed with their mothers’ and grandmothers’ ornaments, they reveal legacies. Inheritance. The Black women, revealed in their ancestrality through their photographs, demonstrate the importance of their cultural heritage. In them, there is the memory of an aesthetic tradition.” ~ Writer and Sociologist, Stéphanie Melyon-Reinette.
“Emotions à nu ” is a serie of female portraits without a face. As the “naked truth”, human, beautiful unadorned, without makeup. Women are plural, fragile and strong. This work is an intimate journey, an emotional state to another, a quiet quest towards physical self-acceptance and serenity.” ~ Joana Choumali
“”Adorn” deals with contemporary Senegalese women reinterpreting European beauty standards with modern makeup… They are not shy, they strive to be noticed, to please and impress. And they are celebrated at baptisms and weddings, social events where they flash their shine. Yet some criticize this ornate makeup… But who defines what is beautiful or ugly? What influences our relationship to beauty, our perception of what is good or bad taste? Where does tradition start? Where does it stop?” ~ Joana Choumali