Bangui la Coquette: By Ndomété Maliko Dessandé 

Sometimes there is nothing to write about home, but there is always a lot to photograph about it. And that is one of the power of photography, you do not need to speak or write to do it. Just a quiet click is enough. And speaking of home, usually, as photographers, whenever we visit home, in the series of images we make during the time we spend at home while studying them in our past time, words naturally swell in the crevices of our chest, words, at least, about all the things we miss and all the people we wish to see again. Especially words that should not be said out loud. Photography has a way of covering the distance between viewer and subject, it inspires hope about people and places, extreme nostalgia, and time travel as its second power. There is also the pride that comes from photographing places or people because just like people, cities can give consent to be documented or not, so it is always nice when a city chooses you and says yes you can document, the same as when people give consent to be portraited randomly on the street, precious moments preserved, stories told, emotions evoked, messages secretly conveyed. 

Images of Centrafrique by Ndomété Maliko Dessandé look great! and in this exclusive interview, he also explained how part of his home in The Central African Republic swims through the Chari River which also found a home in Chad

Bangui la Coquette is a catchy title, but at first, it was “Remembering home with images”. The synchronization is random, but in our new magazine issue, we flirted with the topic of “remembering with images”, and how taking up the hobby of photography could be great for ADHD or Amnesia because of the habitual process of humans in this day always checking their phone gallery. Images these days are built to collect data which enables mobile phones to replay milestones we often divulge when we check our phone galleries and, if the memory is beautiful, then the image is beautiful. The action of making a photo, any image, makes forgetting such a moment in time impossible as the click of the shutter burns the image into our membrane in a way that preserves even the colour and feel of the day in our memory base.

Are you from the CAR? Tell us a little about your upbringing and how you found your way to photography. (Are you based in Bangui, Did you grow up there, Did you have to leave at some point or grow up elsewhere and visit there?)

It’s the question I dread the most because it’s so simple yet so complicated. I am from the Central African Rep, but I was born in France. Although my dad is from the Republic, my mom is half-Chadian. So, I am also Chadian even though I have never been. For the past three years, I’ve been living in Bangui, which is where I’m based right now. But funny enough this is the first time I’ve lived in my home country. I grew up and was raised in Yaounde, Cameroon until I turned 15, then my dad decided I was man enough to discover the world on my own and sent me to Canada. I finished high school in Ottawa, pursued a bachelor’s degree in finance there and later gained citizenship. So yes, I am Central African, but I am also Chadian (although I do need to get my passport), I do feel very Cameroonian and I am a proud Canadian. To me, it’s very important to mention all these places because it sheds light on my diversity.

Ever since I was little, my parents always encouraged me and my siblings to adopt different hobbies. I got into golf, tennis, and football, and even took dance, piano, and guitar classes. My parents also wanted us to explore the world, so we travelled abroad whenever we had the chance whether it was purely for vacation or for summer camps. I remember going to this equestrian camp in France (very random my sister and I were the only black kids, but it was so fun). This really shaped me into someone who’s always open to new experiences and willing to try new things. To give you a clear picture I went from buying a skateboard because I wanted to be Lil Wayne (the Re-birth version) so bad to buying an electric keyboard because I had this crazy idea of becoming a beatmaker. Well, let’s just say those projects didn’t exactly work out, but I was glad I gave them a shot.

So, here’s the funny thing about how I got into photography. When I turned 18 and got my first credit card, I was looking for something cool to buy. I honestly can’t even remember why I suddenly wanted a camera. As a kid, I never really cared about them. In fact, whenever there were photographers at our house for family celebrations, I used to hide whenever they aimed their cameras at me. I just wanted to hang out with my cousins/friends, not pose for a full-on photo shoot, you know? Anyway, back to the story, I didn’t know much about cameras at the time, so I just walked into a random Best Buy and asked for the best camera they had. They recommended a Nikon D5200, and that’s what I ended up buying.

At first, I didn’t have any plans or aspirations for a photography career. I just wanted to use my credit card for the first time and get something cool. So not knowing exactly what to photograph, I started taking pictures of my friends. Instagram was just starting to become popular, and everyone wanted cool pictures for their social media. Before I knew it, I became the go-to guy if you wanted to look fly in a photo.

That’s when things took an interesting turn. Through some mutual friends, I met this awesome photographer, Luna Shakur. He was the first one to really show me the ropes of using my camera to its fullest potential. He saw something in me and helped me recognize my own talent. We started collaborating, and I became his photographer, and he became mine. And let me tell you, through countless photoshoots, I became absolutely obsessed with creating visuals. It was like a fire had been lit inside me.

I later decided to move to London to pursue a master’s degree in international business. While there, I reconnected with an old friend who also happened to be an incredible photographer too, Tamibe Bourdanne. Given that he studied photography at uni he introduced me to a different kind of style. Seeing him hustling from one gig to another really inspired me. It made me realize that, hey, maybe I could make a living out of this. So, I started charging for my own photoshoots and actively looking for gigs on my day offs from class. But even then, I wasn’t fully convinced or confident enough to call myself a photographer. Then, the whole COVID situation hit, and I thought it was the perfect time to move back to the Central African Republic. I wanted to be closer to my roots, and my parents, and join the family business. You see, I had never really spent more than a couple of months in my own country, so this was a whole new journey for me. Plus, knowing that it’s one of the poorest countries in the world and not often well-represented in the media, I knew it wouldn’t be easy to settle down there. But hey, challenges and misconceptions aside, I was ready to embrace it and see where it would take me.

What feelings/cultural stories of your country do you think you’re trying to preserve with your camera/images? 

You know, it’s interesting how my parents and their generation talk about CAR, especially Bangui. They often mention how it used to be such a vibrant and fun city to live in. They even call it “Bangui la Coquette,” which says a lot about its charm. Hearing their nostalgic stories piqued my curiosity, and I knew I had to explore them myself. However, as I wandered around the capital city, I couldn’t help but feel that I was witnessing the remnants of a once beautiful place that had been worn down by political turmoil over the years. I delved into the past, doing my research, and stumbled upon many old pictures showcasing the city’s true charm. But then it hit me – there seemed to be a lack of positive images representing present-day Bangui. Most of the photos I found were either depicting the poor living conditions of the city’s people or poorly captured shots that didn’t do justice to its beauty. I’ve come to believe that emotions often start with a picture. Whether it’s visually attractive or not, an image has the power to trigger something inside the viewer, inspiring them to act or remain indifferent. Before I moved back home, as an outsider looking in, I experienced feelings of sadness and fear whenever I saw pictures of war or impoverished children in my country which frankly didn’t make me want to visit. That’s when I decided to change the narrative and present Bangui from a different perspective. My mission now is to free this beautiful city from the stereotypes that have surrounded it. I want to showcase everyday life moments that could be experienced in any other African capital. I strongly believe that only by doing so, we can attract our diaspora back home and open doors for others to explore and discover all the wonderful places in our country. Since taking on this task, I’ve received so much support from fellow Central Africans and other Africans as well. They’ve reached out to me, expressing their desire to visit and experience the real essence of Bangui. It’s incredible how powerful images can be in shaping people’s perceptions and aspirations, and I’m excited to continue this journey of portraying our city in a positive and authentic light.

Where is home, and when you’re not there, what makes you miss it the most? 

You know, that’s a tough question for me to answer. See, I’ve only been living in CAR for the past three years, which is just a small fraction of my life. So, the idea of home isn’t as clear-cut for me as it might be for others. I used to think home was where your parents live or where you were raised, but I’ve come to realize it’s more about a feeling than a specific place. It’s that sense of being your truest and most liberated self. Now, that being said, I’ve discovered different versions of myself that feel free in their own way all around the world. But if I had to pick one place where I truly feel free, it’s Montreal, Canada. It’s a bit crazy because I’ve never actually lived there for an extended period. The most time I’ve spent in Montreal was just three months. But you know what? Most of my close friends reside there, and whenever I’m in Montreal, I feel this incredible sense of peace. The best part is that I’ve been lucky enough to meet some amazing people there, and they’ve become like family to me. So, you can imagine what I miss the most when I’m not in Montreal – being able to gather with my friends somewhere, just talking for hours about everything and anything. Those moments of connection and camaraderie are what truly make me feel at home. It’s like a little bubble of comfort and happiness that I carry with me, no matter where I am in the world.

Are there photographers whose work you draw photographic inspiration from? 

Oh, absolutely! I learned photography by watching a bunch of YouTube videos. I never went to school for visual arts, or anything related to photography, so I’ll be honest, I don’t know all the big names in the industry (maybe I should look into that). But there are a few renowned photographers that I’ve read about, like Cartier-Bresson in the Western world. Still, my real interest lies in the works of African giants like Seidou KeitaMalick Sidibe, James Barnor and Samuel Fosso. Their creations are so inspiring and carry immense significance for the continent. However, I must say that my main source of inspiration comes from the current generation of black African photographers. These talented individuals are absolutely killing it right now. There’s Nadine Ijewere, Daniel Obasi, Prince GyasiNybe Ponzio, Marc Posso, Ahmad Abdallah, Sarah Stalon, and Nyangone Tshimanga, just to name a few of my favourites. The cool thing is, I follow all these brilliant minds on social media, so I’m constantly exposed to their work. It’s like their art is right at my fingertips, drawing me closer to their vision, unlike the previous greats whose work I’d have to actively research. Social media really makes it so much easier to connect with these talented photographers and feel inspired by their amazing creations!

In your own opinion, what do you consider a good photograph? 

You know, I think the answer to that question can vary a lot from person to person. I
mean, photographers all around the world could never agree on just one shared
opinion. But personally, for me, a good photograph is all about how it makes you feel.
It’s like when you look at it, something inside you just ignites, you know?
Sure, the composition is super important too. I mean, when the right colours and elements
come together perfectly, I’m instantly in love with a photo. So, yeah, having all those
technical aspects down is essential, but at the end of the day, what really matters is the
emotions it stirs in you. Whether it’s a picture of a grand building or a simple cat taking a nap, if it manages to create some kind of emotion inside you, then that’s what makes it a truly good
photograph, in my opinion. It’s that emotional connection that really counts.

In the series of images, you shared with us, which is your favourite and what is the story behind it? 

I love them all to be honest, but if there was one that I believe stands out is the one where you can see a girl washing clothes. To celebrate Women’s Day I was working with a local company named Ndara Ti Beafrika which makes various products out of wax and also employs women workers and teach them how to become entrepreneurs from teaching them the basics of education to teaching them how to sew. To do that I went to each women’s home to take portraits of them and their family, the goal was to show how the work they did at Ndara contributed to their emancipation and to put a light on their family. This girl is one of the daughters of a worker named Marlyse. I love this shot because it is a great example of our culture, and it shows the values that Marlyse is teaching to her daughter. It also shows the precarity in which these families must live; she’s washing her clothes with a mere gallon of water which means she must refill it every time it ends but there’s a certain sense of tranquillity that remains from the picture. Her daughter seems to be enjoying the task at hand which in a way defies the idea that African children are exploited which in certain cases is true.

How long have you been photographing and are there any projects you are currently working on that you want to talk briefly about?

For the past six years, I have been exploring the world of photography, but it was only in the last three years, upon returning home and discovering my purpose, that I truly began making it seriously. Documenting my country feels like a calling, and there are so many fascinating subjects I’d love to delve into. However, among all these subjects, one stands out as the focus of my serious efforts—the rise of the moto-taxi business in Bangui. Over the past five years, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of motorbikes being used for both taxi services and personal transportation, almost doubling in quantity. This surge can be attributed to the escalating fuel prices, which have made car travel financially burdensome. Consequently, people have turned to moto-taxis as a significantly more affordable alternative to move from one point to another. Unfortunately, the industry lacks proper regulation, leading to several issues. Many riders operate without licenses, some are underage, and they often carry more passengers than the bikes can safely handle, turning the streets of the capital into a captivating yet chaotic scene. With my project, I aspire to highlight not only the difficulties of transportation in Bangui but also the incredible resilience of Central Africans, whether they are passengers or drivers of these moto-taxis. The photographs will reflect the challenges they face and the remarkable spirit with which they tackle these obstacles.