Interview with David Pace, 2011 Daylight/CDS Photo Awards Work-in-Process Prize Winner

Interview with David Pace

Winner, Daylight/CDS Photo Awards Work-in-Process Prize

The images in Friday Night seem formally quite different from your other work, such as Re: Collections, or even the series Kiosks and Market Day from Burkina Faso. Would you agree?

You are quite right that the images in Friday Night are different from my other work. I am by nature very formal in my approach to composition. I favor simplicity and symmetry in an attempt to foreground my subjects, whether they are people or objects, and emphasize their similarities and differences. This is clear in the Re: Collections project and in the Kiosks portfolio. Both are classic typologies in the tradition of August Sander and the Bechers. I think my African portraits fall into this category as well.

But I also like to experiment with the element of chance and challenge myself to move outside my comfort zone. That is what is behind Friday Night. I am literally shooting in the dark. I can see my primary subjects dimly, but the background of each image is unseen until my flash fires. Everyone is in constant motion, including myself, so every image is a surprise. The juxtaposition of contorted bodies, hands and feet, shadows and expressions is not something one can predict.

Another thing that distinguishes Friday Night from my other work is that I am an active participant in the process rather than an objective observer. I am caught up in the music, moving and sweating alongside the other dancers, reacting and interacting. This was not possible the first two or three times I visited Bereba. I had to get to know the villagers and earn their trust. I now feel very much at home in the village and an insider at the dance. Everyone expects me to make photographs and they are delighted with the results. I should add that I take back and distribute all the images that I make on each subsequent trip. I have more than 500 prints that I’ll be handing out when I visit Bereba in December.

How have your travels and photographing in Burkina Faso affected you personally? 

My work in Burkina Faso has affected me profoundly. I feel very connected to the country and especially to the village of Bereba. I have also come to really appreciate the value of the immersion experience in education. The American college students that I have brought to Burkina have been dramatically transformed. Like me, they become connected to the world in a new way. I am a big believer in “person to person diplomacy.” When you have friends in a foreign country you have a personal interest in their success.

I am also working with Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL), an NGO that promotes literacy in West Africa by building self-sustaining libraries in rural villages. The adult literacy rate in Burkina Faso is extremely low and FAVL is doing a lot to help. Their first library was built in Bereba ten years ago. It is gratifying to be able to do something practical and useful to improve life in the village.

You present photographs of people doing everyday things in Burkina Faso, like dancing, or enjoying social gatherings, or at work. How did you come to choose these specific sites?

Life in the village is endlessly fascinating and beautiful to me. There is an incredible encounter or experience around every corner. It is so visually rich that I see a dozen possible photographs everywhere I look. The hardest thing is to decide what not to photograph. My challenge has been to focus on a few subjects to try to create a coherent view of several aspects of village life. Here again I resort to the typology approach—“people at work,” “people at home,” “people dancing,” etc.  As I have become more comfortable and familiar with village customs I have tried to introduce more complexity into my images. The market is a riot of color and activity. I am pushing myself to try to capture this and make sense of it. Every year I see something I never noticed before and begin a new project.

I am also drawn to the brick quarry in Karaba as an amazing constructed landscape as well as a backdrop for both portraiture and men working. The vibrant color and the architectural forms offer endless possibilities. Because it is constantly changing, there are new areas to explore every time I go there.

How do you want the viewer to feel when looking at images from Friday Night?

I hope viewers will feel the same happiness, exhilaration, and sense of wonder that I feel when I am on the dance floor. I want them to sense the heat and hear the pounding rhythms of the Afropop music.  I also want them to see the village as part of contemporary life in the modern world and be able to imagine themselves participating in the celebration. The weekly dance shows that we all share the same humanity and experience the same joy of being alive no matter where we live.

I also want to convey something more broadly about Africa. In the western media Africa is portrayed either as a place of catastrophes— famine, genocide, poverty, corruption, etc.—or as  an exotic place for safaris and romanticized tribal rituals. While those things certainly exist, Africa is a huge continent of tremendous diversity. Most people live meaningful and fulfilling lives. The simple, beautiful aspects of everyday life seldom get portrayed. My goal is to present Africa in a positive light and to show that even in a very remote and traditional village like Bereba, the villagers are very much connected with and part of modernity.

Read more about David Pace’s work

CDS undergraduate student Becca Bau conducted this interview as part of the “Multimedia Documentary” class in the fall of 2011.  


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