Laurent Elie Badessi traveled to Niger, Africa in 1987 and 1988 to photograph indigenous tribes for his Master’s Degree thesis project entitled “Ethnological Fashion Photography”. His goal was to study the impact of photography on natives from different ethnical groups, some of who had never (or very rarely) been exposed to this medium. The psychological aspect in the interaction that occurs between a photographer and his sitter during a photo session was also a focal point in his research.

For this undertaking, Badessi adopted the method of “La photographie négociée” (the Negotiated Photography), introduced to him by his teacher photographer Michel Séméniako. Badessi was seduced by this method and decided to use it here, because it allows the sitter to determine most of the parameters for a photo session that captures his/her image. In this case: the pose, the clothes, the make-up, the accessories, the time of day and the location. To make these sittings playful, he decided to use an element specific to human kind—clothing—as the main source of interaction between him and the autochthones.

For his research to be pertinent, Badessi decided to stay extended periods of time with each different ethnicity to better appreciate their culture. He and his team lived with the following ethnicities all across the country: the Haoussas, the Bororo (Wodaabe), the Kanouris, the Gourmances, the Djemmas, the Beri Beris and the Touareg.

The experience with the Bororo happened to be one of the greatest highlights of the project. Because they worship beauty, this highly nomadic group was particularly drawn to the “magic” and playfulness of having their photo taken. Timid at first, they accepted Badessi and his camera with even more enthusiasm than any other tribes.

Photography was totally foreign to this group of Bororo. To familiarize them with the medium, Badessi started taking Polaroid of his teammates, so they could see and understand its process. Little by little they became more comfortable with the team and expressed an increasing curiosity towards the “magic box” known to us as the camera. This particular group of about 100 nomads had only seen their image as a reflection of themselves into the water or in the mirror. When Badessi took their photo on Polaroid, he had to explain what to look for on the image–their face, their hat, their accessories, et cetera. Appearing so small wasn’t rational to them. It was total magic, because they were used to see their reflection as a life-size image, but not as a “tiny person” on a small piece a paper! Once they were able to recognize themselves, they laughed and placed the Polaroid over their heart. It was very emotional to see how touched they were and how precious the Polaroid became to them.

The photo sessions were a success and they became an integral part of the Bororo’s daily routine. After the cores, they could not wait to get ready for the sittings.

It is interesting to know that in the Bororo culture only the men use make-up and the women wear permanent tattoos instead. The elaborated make-up the men create, is usually reserved for special occasions like “la cure salée” (Salt cure). In our case, the photo sessions were an extraordinary event and became the excuse to be made-up on daily basis.

Every day, women and men would line up to have their photo taken—it was always their highlight of the day. As Badessi mentions in his thesis, “we were in symbiosis with them, as much as they were with us. They were excited to have visitors and to share these great moments together. It was very inspirational to look at them getting ready. Somehow it was a meditative experience for us, because they took their time, you did not feel the constant pressure of the clock ticking in the back of your head, like we do in our culture, especially in big megalopolises. They totally lived in harmony with Mother Nature and respected her rhythm.”

Later on during their stay, Badessi and his team set up a rug in the middle of the little Bororo camp. To study their reaction, they placed western clothes they brought, designed by some of the most famous designers from that time including Yohji Yamamoto, Azzedine Alaïa, Marithé & François Girbaud, Claude Montana, and Paco Rabanne, just to name a few. The Bororo attracted by the sight of these unusual clothes, gather in circle around the rug. They asked if they could look at them up-close. They started to go through them very gently and looked at each one carefully. They obviously appreciated the clothes and began dressing themselves by incorporating the western fashion pieces to their own. The men, who were more extrovert than the women, did not hesitate to be very creative. They came-up with stunning combinations of clothes, using their own accessories, jewelry and swords. They elaborated the most amazing make-up to go with each outfit. The women, more timid in general, were reluctant at first to try the designer clothes, because the dresses were too short according to the traditional dress code, as the garment needs to cover their calves. Nevertheless, they wanted to wear the clothes, so they worked around the problem and used the dresses as an extra layer on top of their own wraparounds. In most cases it created beautiful and unexpected combinations of colors and textures.

As the project progressed, Badessi and his team were surprised to witness how the need for fashion even in such remote places, was a very singular human attitude. The Bororo men who spent hours covering their face with make-up made from natural ingredients, and at some point, discovered batteries from Badessi’s team. They managed to cut them apart, extracted the lithium and apply it on their lips. They were very excited about this new lipstick color they found; and to be more attractive to the women, all wanted to wear it. Of course, the team immediately explained that it was bad for their health and that they should not use it on their skin. With the Bic pens we gave them, they created ornaments for their hair and the Polaroid became the utmost accessories to carry around, even when doing cores. As Badessi points out, “Each new element they came across, translated into a new idea to change their appearance and to look different from the others. Immediately after the first one wore it, everyone wanted the same. This context was the ideal situation to experience the mechanism of fashion far away from the Western world.”

The juxtaposition of fabrics and vibrant colors along with the mix of interesting designs and textures magically became the ultimate fashion statement among the Bororo. With the different ethnicities they worked, clothing was the common language during these photo sessions. “Somehow, our culture and the culture of the locals blended together smoothly, so did the clothes,” Badessi recalls. Indeed, when we look at these photographs, it can take time to realize that some of the garments are actually not their own. It gives these images a timeless feeling.

Badessi chose to use clothing as the main vector to interact during the photo sessions, and it was a great idea indeed, as traditional clothes in Africa clearly define each ethnical group. The Touareg called “The blue men of the desert”, with whom they crossed the Tenere desert, got this nickname because of the natural pigments they use to dye their clothes stains their skin in blue. It is interesting to realize that in this case, their second skin of clothing has become a big part of their identity. These courteous people were a precious help for the team to navigate through this extremely remote part of the world. They were also = one of the many great highlights of the project, as they enjoyed very much to be photographed and stood with great natural elegance in front of the camera.

Badessi explains significantly in his thesis, that during the photo sessions, it was clear that the autochthones had an attitude of reverence towards him. The fact that he was the one behind the camera did change the interaction with them for good during his stay. They never approached him physically as closely as they did with his teammates. All men, women and children watched his every action, even when he was not behind the camera. They gave him gifts more than to any of the other members of the team so that Badessi felt totally welcome and never had the sensation of being rejected. They treated him differently indeed, because they probably saw him some sort of magician that was able to catch their appearance and perhaps their spirit. The power of the photography medium is what unquestionably made a difference.

This undertaking was a great success as it enabled Badessi to deeply analyze the psychological aspect in the interaction that occurs between a photographer and his sitter during a photo session. Especially here in a place where photography is not so common, especially back in the late 80s when digital photography was not available—even to professional photographers.

The photographs he took with the people of Niger are a great example of how significant and powerful the impact of the photography medium is on people. They also reveal the cross-cultural fluidity of a human experience, where cultural superiority dissolves in the richness of diversity.

Badessi went back to Africa since this project and created new photographs, which are part of his series called SKIN. This body of work was to expend his research on the interaction that occurs between the photographer and his subject, furthermore the amount of trust that has to develop between them, when doing nudes.

©The ETHNIK project (1987-88) by Laurent Elie Badessi is registered at the Library of Congress, Copyright Office.
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