The big picture: a taste of freedom in 1970s west Africa

Sanlé Sory’s photos documenting the end of colonial rule have been shown around the world – but 10 years ago he nearly destroyed them

Sanlé Sory set up his studio in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso, a regional capital of what was then Upper Volta, in 1960, just before his 18th birthday. He had bought a Rolleiflex camera with the help of his cousin Idrissa Koné, bandleader of a group called Volta Jazz. To begin with, Sory took photos for record sleeves, but as the freedoms of the 60s came to west Africa, and countries won independence from colonial rule, he became as much in demand as a party photographer, on 24-hour call-out.

His Volta Studio was a destination for young musicians and artists, but also for rural families in their Sunday clothes. The three gentlemen in this picture pose in front of one of Sory’s painted backdrops, the seafront of Cocody in the Ivory Coast resort district of Abidjan, “our Paris, our New York”, as the photographer recalls it. Other backgrounds included a BOAC plane readying for takeoff. Sory had a supply of suits and shades for his clients to try on and props including a telephone, a cassette player and the Yamaha 100 that he went out on at weekends, photographing dances and discos in rural villages.

A decade ago, a French journalist called Florent Mazzoleni tracked down the photographer from some of his dance band photographs. Sory, nearly 70, was living in obscurity in Bobo-Dioulasso and thinking of destroying his huge archive of prints and negatives. Mazzoleni saw how the pictures captured a special moment of west African history. He produced a short documentary film and helped Sory to write books and stage exhibitions of the work across the world (including, currently, in London). They dramatise a time and a place in which, as Sory says, “any young man could become a big somebody with a simple photo”.

Tête-à-Têtes part II, a group exhibition of west African portraiture, is at David Hill Gallery, London W10 until 30 July

Contributor

Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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