Sapeurs of Brazzaville: The photographic exploration of a fashionable subculture
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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