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Sapeurs of Brazzaville: The photographic exploration of a fashionable subculture

The story of Tariq Zaidi’s pursuit of a subculture of fashionably dressed men trying to bring joy and exuberance to a disadvantaged community

fashion and trends Updated: Jun 10, 2019 17:16 IST
Sarang Gupta
Sarang Gupta
Hindustan Times
Sapeurs,Tariq Zaidi,Photographer
Basile, 51, has been a sapeur for 30 years and works as a manager of human resources. His most treasured item of clothing is his (Tariq Zaidi)

Most people working a well-paying corporate job might never give it up to follow their passion. But back in 2014, Tariq Zaidi, a freelance photographer based out of London, quit an executive management position to pursue photography that focused on inequality, social change and endangered communities. Zaidi has since worked in 18 countries across four continents, mainly in the developing countries. His work has been showcased in over 60 exhibitions throughout the world and has been featured in over 700 prominent publications. Zaidi, now working on the Sapeurs Portraits Series in Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo) has also been recognised with various prestigious awards. In a conversation with HT City, he talks to us about his journey, the tenets of photography and his latest photo series.

Celebrated photographer Tariq Zaidi
What drove you to pursue photography? For how long have you been doing it?

After almost 20 years in the corporate world, I was tired of the corporate environment. It was just killing me, and I needed to live — to do what I love and give it a shot. A friend of mine, who is a successful professional photographer, gave me stats that there were close to 22,000 photographers in the city itself who were trying to make a living. He told me I wasn’t going to make it because it was too hard. He also suggested that I make sure I had enough savings to survive the first four to five years at least. I thought to myself that I loved the challenge and was going to go for it irrespective of what he said. I set myself targets and budgets, and also knew that I couldn’t spend too much as I needed to buy a computer, software, a camera, and all of it costs upfront money. I knew I needed to sell my photographs so at least I was not losing money. The last thing I wanted to do was lose a job I could probably never go back to.I was very lucky — I had a tremendous amount of success for a beginner in my first year. I was involved in multiple assignments. I was lucky enough to be teaching. People were buying my photographs, I was getting published and things just flew! Even though my target for year one was not to lose money, I actually made some money, enough to try another year and then another and well, here we are now.

What’s your latest project about?

It’s the Sapeurs Portraits Series, Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. La Sape — Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society of Ambiance Makers & Elegant People) — is a fashion subculture in the cities of Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Brazzaville. Someone who follows La Sape is known as a sapeur (sapeuse in case of women).

The portraits in this series are of people who follow La Sape in various districts across Brazzaville. Most have ordinary day jobs as taxi-drivers, tailors and gardeners, but as soon as they clock off, they transform themselves into debonair dandies. Sashaying through the streets, they are treated like rock stars – turning heads, bringing joie de vivre to their communities and defying their circumstances. Spending money on ornate umbrellas and silk socks might seem surreal when almost half the population of the Congo lives in poverty, but the Sape movement aims to do more than just lift spirits. Over the decades it has functioned as a form of colonial resistance, social activism and peaceful protest. Traditionally passed down through the male line, many Congolese women have recently begun donning designer suits and becoming sapeuses.

Adzo, 46, is married with 10 children and owns a small clothes shop. He has been a sapeur for a decade ( Tariq Zaidi )
How did you get to know about this place and subculture that you have documented?

I used to travel a lot. My aim was to see the world — as many places as I could, travelling with a small backpack. I did that for many years and fell in love with looking at different cultures, languages, falling in love with the world. I didn’t take my camera with me all the time in the past. Today, I am more interested in telling stories of the places I travelled to when I was younger. I saw amazing cultures, people and places, and I want to try to share their stories before these traditional cultures and places become part of the homogeneous world we now live in. I saw a sapeur first when I was travelling by land from Morocco to South Africa and was fascinated by how he looked given his surroundings. I promised myself to come back and find out more about sapeurs. I went back again in 2017 to start my work and have been working on them since then for the past three years.

Yamea, 58, who has been a sapeur for half a century, brings colour and joie de vivre to his community. He has nine children and works as a bricklayer. His hat is his favourite item of clothing ( Tariq Zaidi )
What standout aspect of it you wanted to especially shed light on?

I wanted to show the joy and happiness the sapeurs bring to their community. They are treated as celebrities and rock stars in their community. They are respected and literally followed down the streets in their neighbourhoods and my larger body of work on the sapeurs focuses on these moments. Today I am only presenting a small series of 10 portraits which were taken in their neighbourhoods.

Maxim, 43, has been a sapeur since he was seven years old. He mixes labels such as Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior with suits that he designs and makes himself. Now married with two children, he teaches others ( Tariq Zaidi )
Their red-carpet look is in such a contrast compared to their economic status. Who do they take inspiration from for their chic and fashionable sense of dressing?

Their ideas come from themselves. Yes, of course, they are aware of what the latest styles and trends are in Vogue, GQ, Esquire magazines and TV fashion in general, but as Papa Wemba (Congolese singer and fashion icon who popularised Sape) once said, ‘White people invented the clothes, but we make an art of it’.

Kass, 42, has been a sapeur for 20 years. He has three children and sells clothes in a small shop. His favourite item of clothing is his expensive JM Weston shoes ( Tariq Zaidi )
Could this exposure bring a positive change in their lives?

I very much hope so. Perhaps someone will pay them as models or ask them to model their clothes as a fashion designer (some sapeurs have previously been invited to Japan to model their fashion designer clothes ). Some may also ask them to star in a film, perhaps. Any exposure that can bring interest and respect to the sapeurs is welcome. They all come from very humble environments.

Are you working on any other projects based in India, or do you plan to in the future?

Not at this time (as I already have projects planned for most of 2019) – though I would love too. India has so much to
offer to any photographer, artist, painter, traveller – I could easily spend years documenting the variety, complexity, culture, people and traditions across the country. India is truly remarkable in so many ways. I would love to do
it at some point soon.

Tips for budding documentary photographers
  • You need to research. What has already been done, what are you going to do differently, what are you going to do better. I spend a lot of time researching what is out there already. Either about the countries, the people or the subject matter I want to tackle.
  • You also need to plan your trip well, logistically — factors like, Is someone going to help you? Do you have enough money? Who are you going to meet with? Who would you like to meet with? What story do you want to tell? Everything will most probably change when you are there, but it’s good to have a thought, an idea, a dream in your mind before you start. Also, be humble with the people you are working with, no judgment ever. If you are respectful, they will allow you to get closer to them, closer into their lives.
  • A lot of time is spent waiting. I don’t tell somebody, ‘Why don’t you walk across there and stand right in the middle of those two cows’. That’s not my practice. I wait for it to happen. But, when it does happen you think to yourself that I absolutely nailed it. A lot of time is spent waiting for the right moment. Making a photograph is about having an image in your head and running around to get the right position, light, components to make it happen.
  • You really do not need lots of equipment. I basically use one camera body and one 24-70mm lens, that’s pretty much it. To give you an idea, my total stuff that I take on a trip for a month — clothes, sleeping bag, camera, lenses, batteries, laptop — weighs less than 10kg.
  • If you are doing a photo story, then you need to keep going back and stay around for a long time to develop that relationship with communities and places. When you have your set of 50-100 images that you absolutely love, find an editor to have a look at the images with you. They are the only one who can say this doesn’t fit, this is rubbish. You have to get an editor to help you cut it down to 20 or so images.

Interact with @htlifeandstyle on Twitter for more.

First Published: Jun 07, 2019 18:28 IST