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Photo Souvenir

by Paul Cohen & Martijn van Haalen
First Run Icarus Films, New York, USA, 2007
DVD, 54 mins, col., 2006
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth


With Photo Souvenir, a documentary film produced by the Dutch Television company VPRO, Paul Cohen and Martijn van Haalen have touched a burning issue: the competing imperatives in marketing African art in Europe against the backdrop of post-colonial history, contradictions which are made transparent both within its content and style. It shows the process of the making of a potentially new photographic artist from Niamey, South-West of Niger, in the context of the European art market in France, the former colonial power until Niger’s independence in 1960. Beneath the surface, the film deals with the issue of poverty and its capital value. This is expressed both through the documentary film style in its montage between the struggles of the main protagonist, the photographer Philippe Koudjina, and the doyens of the European art market who make their commodity by including a sometimes inseparable amalgam between philanthropic sensitivity and a nostalgia for the ‘golden days of Africa’. The filmmakers situate the apparent fascination with the ‘cheerful 60’s’ of a ‘joyful Africa’ in a displacement of an unbearable present with a nostalgia for the past of which the photographs act as souvenirs of both the personal memory of youth and the collective memory of a young, celebratory independent nation. The contemporary political awareness of what might be called a post-colonial sensitivity is constantly at odds with the tastes and marketing strategies for the European art market to sell African photography, while the photographs at the same time are clearly perceived and recognised as powerful catalysts and gateways for the continuous negotiation with the past in relation to the present.

In a similar way, the documentary style itself tackles a precarious balance between nostalgic sentiment and an almost indirect confession of guilt, which could be taken, by a critical viewer, as inherent self-reflection of its medium in its own right. This can be related particularly to the competing forces as they are played out in the documentary film market in the inherent paradox between content provoking social activism and film form striving toward aesthetic appreciation and pleasure. The images are sometimes constructed to create nostalgic templates as when Koudjina is shown in his former studio in which time seems to have stood still. The memories he shares are juxtaposed with what at the surface appears as an artificially created arts discourse in the European context. This indicates how the past can always only be understood through the present, how through the past and memories the present is actively constructed, and the flow of time liberates memory as lived experience and shared consciousness.

The narrative structure in the film is set up from the beginning with juxtapositions between Koudjina in his archive and, towards the end, his situation as beggar, and other villagers who show their personal photographs from the 60s and 70s, pictured at the time when he was well established locally as a photographer. Philippe Koudjina features as the main character of the film; however, his photographs soon take over the narrative drive in mapping out the pathways through the network of connoisseurs, art dealers and doyens. In the very moving first chapters after the introduction entitled SURVIVAL (1), Koudjina shows his PHOTO CABINET: his former photo studio that now seems to serve mainly as repository of Koudjina’s memories among the remainders of old photographic equipment. Among these curiosities, he shows his collection of Polaroid cameras, which at the peak of his career he would rent out when several parties were competing for his attendance. These antiquities in themselves evoke a nostalgia for ‘dead media’ (2) – a curious coincidence that Polaroid has just announced to stop producing their film stock. The lost Hasselblads as well as the fame of photographic encounters with visitors such as Maria Callas, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Georges Pompidou surface as faint remembrances behind the veils of DUSTY NEGATIVES.

The obscurity of his work in his closest environment becomes almost a symptom of the progressive loss of his sight, and the blurring between his vision and the objects’ remembrances analogously reflect the extra-orbital discrepancies between the competing paradigms and imperatives at work in the intercultural and interdisciplinary negotiations of his photographic oeuvre. One remarkable scene exemplary of one of these dimensions is, when Ousmane Gindo’s (Philippe Koudjina’s youth friend) shares his view on art: He defines art as something bizarre, as an unrepeatable, extraordinary achievement and illustrates it through a catching description of the extraordinary goal by Pelé during the Germany-Brazil football world cup final, an elegant interconnection of two dominant currencies of Africa in the global market: art and football.

The main plot is designed along the photographs’ route between the art dealers and sponsors who negotiate a possible new future of a potential star. The film makes transparent the various competing discourses and forces converging around the subject of African art in the art market, which provides some poignant materials for the critical viewer. This becomes particularly evident in the contrasting sequences which show and discuss examples of two photographers who have been ‘made’, such as the acclaimed photographer Seydou Keita, or MALICK SIDIBE (both from Bamako, Mali) who features in the film during an exhibition in Monaco and its glittering art culture, which leads to several encounters and contradictions, reminiscent with traces of an old imperialism. Taken up by the same Parisian art curator who made Sidibe famous, the NEW PRINTS, made from Koudjina’s negatives, return from France to be signed off by the artist in order to lift the market price, elevated by the claim, according to connoisseurs, that they have been produced by ‘traditional production techniques’. Here again, nostalgia for old technologies mixes with market strategies and values, the specific alchemy that creates the price for African photographic ART, somewhere between 3.000 to 20.000 Euros per photographic print. The film does not show us explicitly the final outcome of the negotiations, although it is suggested that the sponsor (a fashion designer) may not have taken the bait. It is also not further contextualised if Koudjina’s side remark, that he would be quite happy to own a second hand clothes store, had anything to do with the involvement of the designer, possibly a coincidence, which almost asks for a sequel.

The anticlimax at the end in which Koudjina is shown in his daily activity begging on the street to make his living, is almost ironically contrasted with the impact of his ‘rediscovery’ in the local context: the repercussions of the MARKET appear to have been picked up in Niamey. A proud owner of some old personal photographs taken by Koudjina comes up to him in the street where he is begging and asks him to sign them. An absurd scene amplified by the fact that the ‘autograph-hunter’ is not equipped with his own pen. A clear understanding of market value is not hidden here in a socio-economical context where survival rules the law. When Koudjina is smart enough not to reveal the existence of the negatives, the embarrassment of the capitalist character of the quest is charmingly covered up in the view that after all: ‘… it is all about ‘souvenirs". This last scene sums up the film’s title and its voyeuristic style, which sometimes is unbearable in its intrusiveness. Through this it becomes a transparent mirroring of its own strategies of nostalgia and the exploitation of a guilty conscience, which is legitimated in the context of a documentary film market that is currently predominantly driven by the vicarious engagement with misery and victim-hood. This problematic that every documentary filmmaker has to negotiate, is compensated here particularly through the main characters’ openness and generosity in sharing their memories and glimpses into their lives. (3)

The last (but not least) word should certainly go to Philippe Koudjina himself whose voice one hopes to hear more. His calm and modest personality, photographic sensibility and legacy should not be left to the archivists and historians of the future – although it may be a constituency who, like anthropologists, would value the present more than the past and could leaver Koudjina’s work from a nostalgic souvenir to a critical, respectful and dignified re-evaluation in a more sophisticated cultural, historical contextualisation than the art market could offer.

(1) The terms in CAPITAL mark the chapters in sequence throughout the film.

(2) Various ‘dead media’ projects have emerged, see for example one of the early ones: http://www.deadmedia.org/notes/index-cat.html.

(3) This asset has been recognised not least through the Golden Calf award for Best Short Documentary at the Netherlands Film Festival in 2006.

For a book that critically deals with this subject area, see for example:
Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace by Olu Oguibe, Okwui Enwezor. Institute of International Visual Arts (INIVA), 1999. For a review of this book see: Peffer, John. African Modernism, from the Margins to the Marketplace. In: Art Journal, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 2003), pp. 101-103.



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