Niamey, Niger, 17th March 2008. This morning, Michel Campeau has a meeting with Stephen Oni, at the photography studio Lumière, address Rond-Point Liberté, departure point for a voyage into the secret treasure trove of photographs of the Sahelian capital. Niamey is still home to a good hundred of these studios, abandoned, but still functional, where the darkroom remains the centrepiece, protected from prying eyes and reserved for those who understand it. This room is also the source of many a fantasy on the part of outsiders, who once went as far as to associate it with the practice of black magic.
The darkroom, it is true, is a well-guarded place, one which does not reveal itself easily. You enter it either by a concealed door or by crossing the backyard. How to reveal the secrets which surround this blind room, instantly recognizable by the acrid, sweaty odour which it seems to give off?
Like an archaeologist armed with his brush – his digital camera – Michel Campeau intends to reveal, one by one, at the press of a shutter, these dust-buried relics which the artist has poetically called photographs of Silver Sahel. The enlargers are worn-out but resist valiantly, while the vats, eaten away at by corrosive chemicals, are still serviceable and the red lamp still functions with the energy of a survivor. Intensive sessions of development have not got the better of this niama-niama¹, according to a photographer’s witticism… A niama-niama of great poetic value, a true Plaything of the Poor, as Baudelaire called his poem.
The workshops of Niamey hold in their thoughts memories rooted in a bygone golden age, that of the studio, of its painted decor and obsolete hearts, of its homemade lighting, of its darkroom and its eternal accomplice, the Krokus², which no digital printer would be able to dethrone. The talent of the master photographer gleaned from his long years of apprenticeship, will always be shown by his prowess in the darkroom, even if this talent is now revealed only through a handful of passport pictures.
The darkrooms of Niamey, today deserted and silent, still retain the imprint of that auspicious era when the same gestures, the same rituals, were repeated incessantly: a few rolls of dusty negatives hanging on a thread, the stack of boxes of paper, the marks of wear and tear on the blue walls. Now that the shipwreck is irreversible and the dust of the Harmattan has invaded everywhere, even going as far as to eradicate photography, these smudged walls have become the most tangible traces of long, sleepless nights spent in the darkroom. The kings of photography have taken their leave.
¹ The term niama-niama (from Mandenkan, a language spoken in West Africa) is used mainly in oral settings, as it is informal and pejorative. It designates a heterogeneous jumble of small objects of no value, sometimes even rubbish.
² The Krokus is a Polish make of enlarger that was in very widespread use in West Africa from 1960–1980.