Joana Choumali Interview: Capturing the Grace and Beauty of Africa


Chunky jewelry, impish smile and a camera in hand – Joana Choumali has the face of a saint, with eyes that twinkle. I wish this interview would have taken place in Africa’s sleekest cities, Abidjan from where she belongs, but for now I have to put right with this.

Behind those twinkle in the eyes, lies a face which has seen the harsh reality of living in a city of political crisis, young people subjected to discrimination and rejection from their surroundings. The projects of Joana Choumali deal with many intense topics like facial scarification (a fading practice carried out in the Ivory Coast), young men and girls who want to become independent and reintegrate into society, razed shantytowns and slums of Abidjan and much more. A graphic artist by education Joana was working with an advertising network giant, McCann Erikson group.

Winning the prestigious POPCAP’14 award for her project Haabre, The Last Generation, this famous photographer believes in highlighting equality of men and women in her photos. When I was randomly reading about offbeat works of photographers, The name Joana Choumali flashed out and I decided that I want to know more about her life. Just as I was amazed by her normal but divergent approach to photography I am sure you would too. Let’s jump on to more about her life revealed in the interview.

Joana Choumali

Joana Choumali, tell me more about yourself. You highlight the equal humanity of men and women, what made you pick this ever debated subject specifically?

I am Joana Choumali, photographer from Côte d’ivoire. I live and work in Abidjan. I’ve spent my entire childhood in Africa. This allows me to understand unexpected nuances in African culture. I also travelled extensively in the West, and it allows me to compare and see the nuances of a culture to another. I often deal with identity in my work for others to see. I remain convinced that each photograph has its own feelings and experiences. I am a woman and to show humanity in its entirety without a priori assumptions seems essential to me. Woman or man — the subject is the same. Change in opinions and prejudices are breaking the engine, but I like the discoveries that come to a person who sees my work. You can’t force a person to change his or her opinions, but we can get them to reflect, interact, draw conclusions by themselves.

I was quite eager to know more about this – the famous Haabre, the Last Generation set of photographs (first one above). What challenges did you encounter during this shoot?

By doing research on the subject, there were very few contemporary images available on the subject. There was some difficulty in finding people to photograph because of their rarity. Some refused to speak. I would approach people in the street and ask them to ask if they accept and take appointments. This method was not always successful as many of them had hesitations, or some accepted then refused afterwards. One of them even told me that they did not believe we could be interested in this “old practice”. After I insisted I had the chance to benefit them and showed them photos of the first people who accepted to pose for the project, I was able to convince others of the honesty of my approach. I chose to work in the studio not to be distracted by the decor. I really wanted to focus on the face, the expressions, forms, looks. I chose the same background and the same lighting for all the pictures.The main challenge was to convince them to come to my studio. Most are employed and have fixed schedules. We had to make an appointment early in the morning before work, or holidays and Sundays. Then they took the lines be read,  and we tried not to ask embarrassing questions, respecting the silences of certain subjects.

embarrassing questions

Which photograph is your personal favourite? And why?

My favorite photo is of Ms. Djeneba (above). Besides of her natural beauty. This woman has a lot of dignity her eyes. Both softness, strength, and determination. The way she carries herself.

Akan beauty

You believe that a photo doesn’t need to be demonstrative. Can you give me an example of photograph from your vast collection that brings this out?

Yes. This picture. “Akan beauty.” speaks for itself (above).

Before embarking on your Photography profession, you were an Art Director for McCann-Erickson. Something within you triggered the switch. What was the trigger?

I always loved beautiful pictures. In Artistic Direction, the image holds a great importance.The use of images and ideas is the basis of this work. I had more desire to produce my own images.To tell my own stories through the lens.

Artistic Direction

Your photos evolve around femininity, emotions, beauty. Taking this shot as an example, can you tell me what feelings motivated this shot?

My model wanted a portrait which could represent her as a woman. During a long prior interview, I got to know her tastes, her lifestyle, her style. This young woman, with a well marked sense of fashion was about to leave Africa to go live in Europe. The idea of the yellow sundress and Kenyan jewelry came to mind. She is from the Congo, I chose to put on ” Nakozonga “, a song by the artist Lokua Kanza, which talks about a departure from Africa to Europe. This surprised my model. It made her dance and make movements with her dress. This picture symbolizes joy, femininity, and grace of this continent.

While going for a shoot the next day, do you formulate what kind of photos, background lights, you need for the shot before or you decide it on the spur of the moment?

Yes I decide what kind of photos I want whether it is in studio or outdoor. In studio, I have a lot of backgrounds, decor accessories that I create myself. I also create accessories for some photo shoots. For the outdoor shootings, I like to use natural light and a simple reflector. It really depends on the purpose of my photo shoot. For a documentary series, i will only use a cobra flash with a diffuser, and natural light.

Everyone needs a dose of relaxation to shake off the hectic schedule. May it be vacation, spending time with family, A glass of wine or a wonderful spa. What is your kind of relaxation?

I am really into spending time with my family. On a daily basis, I like to swim. To me, it is the best way to relax and practice exercise at the same time. Also, I need music both to work and to unwind. I am addicted to music.

You always see more of her projects on Joana Choumali.

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