Remembering Cameroon: by Gaëlle Beng

Cameroon is five and six with Nigeria and this friction was mistakenly established in the 60s around the same time that each country achieved independence. It can be argued that the admin was created on purpose. Ever since, the relationship has revolved, to a large extent, around their extensive shared border, as well as the endless and messy trail of colonial trade agreements under which “areas” of Cameroon were administered as part of what was then considered British Nigeria. The consistent shoulder rubs between the two countries almost brought them close to war in the early 90s following a long-running dispute over who owned more rights and sovereignty of the popular Bakassi peninsula, forcing thousands to migrate & become displaced.

Three complex humanitarian crises plague Cameroon:

  1. The Lake Chad basin conflict.
  2. The North-West and South-West crisis.
  3. The Central African Republic refugee crisis.

Language plays a key role in the unification process of a Nation, it is a key. It is, or might be a barrier that some two hundred different linguistic groups found Cameroon as a melting pot. Pygmies, Bantu, Sudanese, Arab-Berber, and others make up the extraordinary explosion of population, each bringing its own traditions, art, music. Music also plays a great role in exporting Cameroonian culture, the country is well known for, particularly, makossa and bikutsi, and, of course, football.

At random we are thinking about and remembering Cameroon, not for music or football, not for food, but for a quick conversation that helps moves the spotlight from Nigeria to its silent neighbor and the communication problems they are currently facing, just like Nigeria, and we are lucky enough to have Gaëlle rides us through.

Hello BENG! and welcome to Random Photo Journal!  Briefly introduce yourself, what you do and where you’re currently based.

I’m Gaëlle Beng and I am 26. I currently live in Paris and work in the protection of refugee minors. I started a thesis on the anti-colonialist women’s movement in the 1950s in Cameroon. It is a thesis that I had to stop due to lack of funding, but that I hope to resume one day! I’ve been making photos since I was 13/14 years old, but I’ve only been showing them on networks for a short time. I didn’t dare to do so. I mainly make pictures of everyday life in Cameroon and as I’m absolutely passionate about photography so I’d like to do some portraits on my next trip too. The dream would be to do only photography.

You’re not grounded in Cameroon, obviously, what are the reasons for your visits back home and what made you passionately start documenting and archiving the lives of everyday Cameroonians? Also, are you photographing as an outsider looking in, or an insider appreciating the beauty of her country? 

I am indeed not grounded in Cameroon. However, the reason I document so much (I really like the idea of visual archives) is that I was born and raised in Cameroon until I was 8. My father has remained in Cameroon and living far from him and the country is always something that brings me melancholy. We went to see him as much as possible. So I very unconsciously started to make pictures at a young age. And my photos have always been documentation of everyday life (maybe because I miss it?).

Concerning my gaze, I thought a lot about it and I still think about the fact that I am from Cameroon and France but don’t feel entirely part of either gave me a feeling of illegitimacy for a long time. I was extraordinarily shy, but today I know my family history, I know that I am from Cameroon and from France and I know that I have a place of great respect and great observation but that I also take a stand through my photos and my discussions. So I have a feeling of making pictures while being both an inside and outside observer. Things are not fixed and I am still learning with great joy. The question of gaze is essential for me, without it being heavy. You never belong to anywhere by chance.

Are you English speaking or anglophone, AND whichever your answer is, are you aware of the current anglophone and English speaking crises currently going on in Cameroon, and what are your opinions on the issue? 

I am not an English speaker, but I am of course aware of the situation with anglophones in Cameroon. During my studies, I worked on women’s anti-colonial movements in Cameroon, which led me to look at the dynamics of power and coercion in Cameroon and the colonial legacies that remain. Paul Biya and his comrades are, for me, wreaking havoc with the Anglophones. It is quite tragic and it is happening in a very big media silence. I am saddened by the situation in my country, and words fail me to describe this tragedy. Hope is no longer enough because people are dying and it is no longer possible to be patient.

Movement and migration are obviously not new to you, you’re in Paris today and some place the next, also on the African continent, too, but, can you speak briefly about the relationship you have with Cameroon as a country to visit, did you grow up there, what parts of it shaped you, artistically, or as a human being in general?

As you have seen, I am very attached to Cameroon. I was born and raised there until I was 8 years old and then I went there as much as possible to see my father. My relationship with Cameroon is very visual and very sensory. Having spent a lot of time in airports, the first thing that moves me when I arrive in Yaoundé is a very particular smell, of humidity, heat, earth, and all the mechanics of aviation that make me say I am there. I grew up with very politically committed parents, and the first art form I was given was literature. The power of words. I was lucky enough to have parents who were humanly quite incredible. We weren’t expatriates, we didn’t have those means, I saw my parents all my life fighting to make sure we had everything we needed. But I say that because I feel like it’s pretty rare for a métisse family not to be in the rich neighbourhoods (I realised that later).

This economic situation made us citizens of Cameroon not out of the ground. We have always been aware of the political and economic situation in Cameroon. I say this while being very conscious of the privilege of our lives. I have never lacked anything, nor have my brothers and sisters. Only we were not among the expatriates who live a little bit isolated in one world. 

Which of your images of Cameroon is your favourite and why do you prefer that particular moment?

I really like the photos of women on motorbikes. I’m glad you asked me to add one of the ladies in the profile in blue clothes. I really like it. There is a calmness about her that calms me. I also really like the one with the parasols because it tells of the last hour with my father when we left each other last time. It’s his arm that you can see. I think it brings a contrast of joy with the sadness we felt. It’s very personal, it’s true. But a lot of people talk to me about this picture without knowing the story and that touches me. 

There is a word in German called “Heimat” that I like very much because it means home (where you were born) but not in a material sense but more in an emotional sense and my photos have a bit of this emotional function for me.

Who are the image makers, writers or filmmakers that have shaped how you think about the photography work you have produced, or what inspires the direction your art follows? 

I have a lot of references that guide me. I would mention Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Virginia Woolf whose writing has inscribed many images and sensations in me. I am very attached to photographers: Gordon Parks (who changed everything when I discovered him, I am still amazed), Tyler Mitchell, Vivian Maier, Carrie Mae Weems, Deana Lawson, Saul Leiter, Malick Sidibé, Joana Choumali, Ernest Cole and so many others but these are always with me in my head.

In your own opinion, what do you consider makes an image a good one?

This is a rather complicated question, but personally, a good photo is first and foremost the story it tells (no matter what we each see in it). A photo that enlarges the viewer’s imagination, that’s what counts to me. Even if I am very political, I think that there is no need to show everything in a heavy way to suggest emotion. I think that a photo with a reflective frame, relevant colours, and emotion makes a photo touch and express something in the viewer. You have to trust the observer. 

Because Cameroon is often in the shadows, rarely talked about until it is time for football, can you tell us what we have all been missing out on in Cameroon? 

I think Cameroon is a varied and very rich country and I only know a little bit about it. But I know how happy I was to discover philosophers like Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, an immense thinker. And having started a thesis on women’s anti-colonial movements, I think it is not only essential that this history be discovered but also that it be passed on because these are extraordinary stories of the daily life of women’s resistance.