A practice of care for a neighbourhood and its inhabitants flourishes at KENE in Bamako, Mali, a permanent photography lab for young adults, a place for education, relations, care for the neighbour and its collective memory construction. It was built from scratch and founded in 2017 by Mohamed Keita, a 28-years-old Ivorian. After having travelled for years, he discovered his vocation as a photographer in Rome, where he arrived in 2010, after civil war broke out in his homeland. After a few years studying photography at Civico Zero in Rome, he travelled back to Africa and settled in Bamako with the intent of giving back and teaching what he’d learned to young people in the neighbourhood of Kanadjiguila: he wanted to give them an alternative to living on the streets. Indeed, in Mandigo, ‘kene’ means ‘space’, and as such, KENE hosts people who gather to observe the reality of the things around them, including their education in photography, the images they create and and their life experiences.Mohamed Keita in discussion with the author in May 2021. What’s going on at KENE is a radical pedagogy, one that I’m going to describe through the theoretical framework of Paulo Freire’s notion of conscientização. Roughly translatable as ‘critical consciousness’, the concept has both discursive and material effects when linked to a community practice that uses photography as a social glue. Drawing on the concept of social transformation, I argue that photography in communities is potentially an empowering tool that can be used to foster self-determination, conviviality, and mutual recognition.
Freire’s concept of critical consciousness is embedded in the methods of participatory research that proliferated between the 1970s and the 1990s in the field of social transformation studies, as the sociologist Stephen Castles has argued.Stephen Castles, ‘Social Transformation’, International Political Science 22, no. 1 (2001): 13-32. Indeed, Freire’s practices combine social learning with action research and gravitate around the belief that the oppressed can analyse their own situation and create a change themselves. According to Castles, social transformation should be studied ‘in a new, more specific sense as an interdisciplinary analytical framework for understanding global interconnectedness and its regional, national and local effects’.Stephen Castles. ‘Social Transformation’, International Political Science 22, no. 1 (2001): 13-32. Moreover, it’s in the local that social transformation is better experimented on the human and qualitative level, meaning from a perspective of rights and freedom of expression rather than from a purely quantitative and economic perspective. Although participatory practices can’t resolve conflicts and need policies and political methodologies to support strategies of social transformation, it’s important to study community-based projects such as KENE, that strive to empower communities and shape them into agents of change.
When interviewed on the role of young people’s roles in the wider project of social transformation, Keita expressed the belief that they’re the future and that they need to be given the opportunity of education so they can be taught that they are responsible for the tomorrow. Street photography is used to lead them through the discovery of their neighbourhood and better understand the different realities that constitute it. Young students move around the city with cameras that the school provides and through their sensibilities, they depict what catches their eye. As Keita explained during our interview, hands-on photography sessions are accompanied by theoretical classes that help students understand the tools and techniques. Moreover, discussions about the images they create are often at the center of everyday life with the intention of fostering critical analysis and the exchange of ideas.
At the same time, students learn studio photography so they can portray each other and acquire knowledge of the tool itself, thereby building trust and self-determination. KENE has developed a lot over the years, and some of the people who started as students in 2017 now teach, making it clear that collaboration and shared practices are at the core of the project. Seydou Keita, Tenin Terra, Namakan Keita, and Issa Diallo are some of Keita’s assistants, among other people that contribute daily to KENE’s durable development. Circular knowledge-making and sharing are essential to a practice of empowerment and social change.
Indeed, photography serves the purpose of triggering critical thinking and fostering the interplay between individual expression and collective action. As such, it challenges the social conditions that usually frame education. Subjectivities merge into a singular and diverse narrative with the aim of constructing visions of a neighbourhood developed from bricks and concrete over the last decade on the western periphery of Bamako. The aim of collectively forming memories through images is that of training open-minded, self-aware and responsive critical thinkers.
Using Freire’s words, the search for self-affirmation solicited by the awakening of critical consciousness makes it possible for people to enter the process of history as subjects in direct relation to objective aspects of reality. The main goal of Freire’s radical pedagogy isn’t to impose knowledge but to make educationally deprived people knowledgeable through collaboration and active understanding and acting. Through the use of the photographic medium, the young people at KENE are indeed inspired by Keita to express their point of view, voice, and life experience, and a dialogue among peers is fostered through the use of photography, a tool for engagement that facilitates discussions and has at its essence the pleasure of discovering entities beyond the self.
Freire’s theories and the photographic tool itself although being valued as possibilities of freedom, they present some contradictions, namely the risks of manipulating people through education and misusing images. Indeed, looking back at the origins of photography, one sees that it was used as an instrument to objectify and othering subjugated cultures and populations in the colonies, and it was also a means of land and identity exploitation. The colonial camera was indeed a pseudoscientific tool of observation, systemic racism, and the cataloguing and stereotyping of minorities from the Global South. As those images became part of history, a colonial perspective was normalised and reproduced both in history and photography with the effect of barring the liberation of diverse ways of knowing and making. The colonial, Western-imposed gaze needs to be deconstructed now more than ever, and what Walter Mignolo calls ‘delinking,’Walter D. Mignolo, ‘Delinking’, Cultural Studies 21, no. 2 (2007): 449-514. a decolonial epistemic shift, is directly needed in a world where right-wing extremist ideologies and movements seem to be gaining renewed again. All this is to say, that because images are a powerful means of education and communication, it’s important to question them and the technologies that permit their production, and it’s also important to take into account the bigger quest to decolonise and give space to oppressed people so that they can activate their stories, visions, and legacies.
An example of this delinking is KENE’s role in the enablement of educationally deprived youth in Kanadjiguila, which is fully led by the local community and its networks. KENE is an inspiring example of a strain of community development that encourage people to debate, collaborate, and interact socially. By providing the means for local people to learn photography, Keita and his collaborators have brought the neighbourhood’s inhabitants together to interact and discover not just photography but the community they live in. Empowering uses of photography could play a significant role in social transformation by allowing multiple voices to express their views. Moreover, photography can be understood, appreciated, and used to actively criticise reality through the attentive depiction of the people and things that constitute it. Additionally, it is through knowledge of the photographic medium and the students’ own use of it that the community can become capable of representing itself through its own perception and thereby break free from the monopoly of Western gazes.
Yet, KENE also provides proof of what Ariella Azoulay meant when she said photography is 'part of the world and not just about it’ during an interview with by Nato Thompson.Nato Thompson, ‘Photography and Its Citizens’, Aperture, no. 214 (2014): 52-57. In their accurate observation of Kanadjiguila’s everyday life and the making of its living memory, students are simultaneously photographers, photography subjects, and spectators of the images created every day. They’re brought together by the organic act of photography, a mutable event among others, a process of constantly observing and getting to know, confront, and deepen reality, making the invisible visible and producing discourses and occasions for social advancement. Photography seems to serve the purpose of disenfranchised communities that lack cohesion and a common voice to act towards a reconstruction of identity. Photography, used as a community-based practice at KENE, shapes the cultural realm of the neighbourhood and possibly Bamako at large. In the context of participatory social transformation, it takes the shape of a silent, intimate image, the intent of which isn’t that of capturing attention, as social media and informational means do, but rather that of telling true, authentic stories and constructing a playground for people to come together and share, listen, and understand more about themselves and the community itself. A better sense of cultural identity can be achieved through this closeness and openness to an indeterminate and unpredictable relationship with the other. The outcome of this kind of community-based practice is the discovery of the beauty of singular but simultaneously common experiences. It’s an exercise in citizenship and the reappropriation of a public space by common people, for once not just passive spectators but actors shaping a collective memory.