Documentary photographer Victoire Douniama uses her work to explore and demonstrate the true essence of everyday life in the Republic of Congo or Congo-Brazzaville (as it’s often called to distinguish it from the Democratic Republic of Congo). She shares a little bit about her photography, her country and a unique Congolese sartorial phenomenon, ‘Les Sapeur’.
Tell us a little about your background as a documentary photographer. What influenced and sparked your interest in documentary photography?
My name is Victoire, a 21 year young documentary photographer and writer. My interest in photography started when I was in 10th grade. Back then I had no camera, and my parents are not that enthusiastic about Art, so I knew asking for one would have been a definite NO. I was living in South Africa at the time, so I decided to start taking pictures with my phone. I was obsessed with capturing sunsets, or mostly anything that caught my attention, silhouettes, shadows etc.
After graduating from high school I decided to move back to Congo (my native country) a decision that pretty much sparked my interest in documentary photography. Congo is very different from the places I have been to; from the infrastructure, culture, food, clothing and much more. I felt it would be very important if I could share some of these things that made Congo unique as opposed to the usual narrative of poverty, political upheavals and disease.
When it comes to Africa travel, Congo Brazzaville isn’t as highly publicized a travel destination as say Kenya, Morocco or South Africa, but I’m sure it has so much to offer. Tell us something about the local culture and life in Congo. What would you like people to know about Congo Brazzaville?
Congo definitely has lots to offer. One of the major problems is the media that will either totally ignore or only show the negative aspects of Congo. If I go to Morocco and write about the racism I experienced as a dark skin person, or I go to South Africa and talk about how xenophobic the locals were towards me, someone that has never been to these countries may come up with a totally negative perception of these places.
Rarely is Congo presented in a positive context, but what about the beautiful beaches in Pointe Noire, the placid lakes and the beautiful people? What about the majestic rain forests, home to half of the world’s lowland gorillas, masses of forest elephants and troops of swinging chimpanzees. Who’s capturing or writing about it? Well the answer is pretty obvious, so as a creative I have a burden to document the culture and beauty of my country.
Before we proceed further, we are talking about Congo not D.R. Congo. There are some people who cannot tell whether this two countries are one of the same or different entities. Tell our readers the difference between the two countries.
Where do I start? The misconception is astonishingly real, if I were to honestly write about this it could take me all day. I have already written an article touching about this Congo vs. DRC what’s the difference? In the article I have enumerated the similarities and differences between the two countries. Hopefully people can read the article and gain a deeper insight on these two nations that happen to share a similar name.
A view of Kinshasa (D.R. Congo) across the river from Brazzaville (Congo Republic)
Which place(s) would you personally recommend for travelers interested in visiting Congo Brazaville
For people interested in visiting Congo these are the places I would recommend in Brazzaville (the capital).
- Les Rapide- a beautiful view of the Congo river [Brazzaville]
- Marche plateau ville- A great place to buy all African inspired souvenirs
- An’cas gallery- Art lovers should check out this gallery in Brazzaville.
- Restaurant Mami wata- This is the place you wanna go for great food, beautiful view and friendly waitresses.
Now if you are heading to Pointe Noire (the 2nd city) I would recommend.
- Pointe indienne beach
- Malonda lodge
- La pirogue restaurant- beautiful design and delicious food located right across the beach.
- Mandela lodge
- All the other beaches you should research about in Pointe Noire.
You were involved in a documentary project “Les Sapeur” Please share a little bit about the project.
This is one of my first projects as a documentary photographer. Titled ‘Sapeurism’, it is a personal long-term project I am working on.
Who are the ‘Sapeur’? A little bit about their beginnings and what is it about this trend that seems to attract such extensive interest and notoriety?
There are so many good things to say about these cool folks, let me try and summarize it. The Sapeurs, or members of the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People), are the Fashion dandies of the Republic of Congo. This band of men are purveyors of a sartorial subculture that have turned the art of dressing into a cultural statement, with a style that embodies exuberance, flamboyance, color and impeccable attention to detail.
This movement has become such an integral subculture of the Congolese that we have come to treasure it as it has and continues to bring attention and recognition to Congo on the international stage. An example is the Solange Knowles video “Losing You”, shot in Cape Town, South Africa, where you get to see the Sapeurs doing their thing.
According to this interview Solange originally wanted to film in Brazzaville but was discouraged because of cost and logistics. Hence the choice of Cape Town.
The movement traces its roots in the French colonization of the Congo in the early part of the 20th century. It is said some Congolese that worked under French colonialists would only be offered clothes as compensation. Come pay day, they would go out flaunting their ‘pay’ and inextricably turn the streets of Brazzaville, into a fashion runway.
Sapeurs were and are still seen as revolutionists, an unequivocal statement of defiance to the colonialists in Congo exemplified by their dictum ‘they took our land, we took their clothes and wore it better’.
What was the experience like spending months photographing, learning, and observing Les Sapeur?
We’ll it has been such an inspirational process, and it still is as the project is ongoing. Growing up in South Africa I had little or no idea about my country, hence this project has been so enlightening to me too. It is important that I am fully aware of my culture and how such movements and trends shaped Congolese people and the role they played in the revolution against colonialism.
What was your approach while doing the project? Did you generally strike up a conversation with your subjects or just candidly capture the moment? How did people react to being photographed?
I always create a conversation with my subjects, so that they are comfortable enough to be themselves in front of the camera. Sapeurs are always eager for attention so they were very enthusiastic, after all it is not the first time they’ve been photographed, filmed or interviewed. Practically everyone was okay with being photographed.
How did this project differ from other projects you have done in the past? What was your favorite experience while doing the photography?
This was my first project, but it stands out from the other projects I have worked on because unlike the regular people I shoot on a daily basis, Sapeurs displayed such a flamboyance and joyous exuberance, that there was practically no dull moment. I didn’t need to convince them to open up and express themselves, they already knew the drill and would readily get their groove as soon as I started clicking the camera.
What challenges did you face whilst doing the project and how did you work around them?
I can’t think of any challenges I faced. As a matter of fact, this project really pushed and inspired me to do more.
Parting shot. Do you have any tips for those for those interested in documentary photography?
For those who are interested in documentary photography or for that matter any type of photography. I would advise them to go ahead and start doing something, start with what you have and where you are. (Lol) I know it sounds a bit cliché but honestly, no client will hire a photographer with no portfolio.
I remember when I began working on the Sapeur project, I had no laptop to edit my pictures, so everything had to be perfect from the camera. In hindsight if I did not embark on the project because I had no laptop and came up with excuses like I’m not able to edit blah, blah, blah, I know I would not be this far. So I am glad I did it. Camera or no camera, laptop or no laptop, clients or no clients, take that dive. Do not sit back and wait for projects, go out and look, shoot personal projects to showcase what you can do.
Maybe working in Congo is not the only place I want to work in, but by starting here I am doing work that is getting me clients. Those clients recommend me to people and so on now as time goes on I am able to travel outside of Congo and photograph different places.