• June 8, 2015

Market Day in Burkina Faso Is a Feast for the Eyes

Alexa Keefe

The village of Bereba, Burkina Faso, is remote, with no electricity and no running water. The land is flat and featureless, and the average daily temperature is around 100ºF. What would keep a photographer from northern California, with no previous knowledge or desire to go to Africa, coming back every year for the past decade, staying four or five weeks at a time?

Portrait of a woman at an outdoor market in Burkina Faso
On Friday, the main market day in Bereba, the village is noisy, colorful, crowded, and vibrant, says photographer David Pace. The rest of the week, when people are working in their fields, it’s quiet and nearly empty.

David Pace’s relationship with this community began with an invitation from two colleagues at Santa Clara University, where Pace was teaching photography. The husband-and-wife team were involved in an effort to build libraries in African villages and asked Pace to document their work. It wasn’t long, however, before his interest turned to the people. “Everything happens outdoors,” he says. “So many artisans, farmers, tailors. I was fascinated by what they did and how they lived.”

Portrait of a young women at an outdoor market in Burkina Faso
“The market brings together people of many ethnicities from many villages, speaking many languages—some are Bwaba, some Mossi, some Fulani,” says Pace. “Friends, like these two girls, often dress alike.”

He was also taken with the rich colors of the local textiles. There was so much color in Burkina Faso that he was compelled to start thinking like a color photographer, different from his preferred medium of black and white. “I loved Seydou Keita’s images of people wearing patterns,” he says. “I asked myself, What would this look like if I did it in color? I started experimenting.”

Portrait of a woman at the market in Bereba, Burkina Faso
One of Pace’s favorite times to be at the market is around the Christmas and New Year holidays, when people are out shopping for fabric for new clothes.

Before, Pace would work to minimize the amount of elements in the frame. Now he was doing the opposite. “How much color can I get in one frame? How much is too much? How much can I deal with?”

Portrait of a young man shopping at an outdoor market in Burkina Faso
“The sound on market day is intense,” Pace says. “There’s talking, laughing, and joking in many languages. There’s music. People bring radios and stereos powered by car batteries to play West African pop music. There’s a constant rhythmic hum from the huts of tailors working on treadle sewing machines.”

The biggest challenge at first was the language barrier. Pace didn’t speak French, the country’s official language. The one person who spoke English in the village, he recalls, had taught himself by listening to Bob Marley records, which may have led to discussions more poetic than practical.

Pace has since learned French, but it’s really been through photography that he’s forged lasting relationships and become an accepted member of the community. “I have many Facebook friends. I hear from someone almost every day,” he says. (And if you’re wondering, as I was, how people living in a village with no electricity have access to Facebook, Pace explains that it’s due to ingenuity and the sharing of resources, including using a solar-powered car battery to charge their smartphones.)

Portrait of a girl at the market in Bereba in Burkina Faso
“People set up stalls or stands shaded by woven reeds to sell dry goods, hardware, toiletries, shoes, herbs, and dried fish,” Pace says. “The stalls are densely packed, with little space between them. The market is so crowded that it’s sometimes hard to move. I often need to bend over to go beneath the woven reeds that shade the stalls and pathways.”

The village has two photographers, one a merchant and one a farmer, Pace says. They serve as the documentarians of life in the village, taking pictures of new babies, weddings, and other life events. With the nearest film processing place an hour and a half away, portraits are formal affairs—intentional, precious.

Portrait of a young man shopping at an outdoor market in Burkina Faso
“It’s exciting to see the creative sense of style in what people wear on market day,” says Pace. “They dress up for the occasion.”

Pace has a different approach—showing people a more candid, impromptu side of themselves (he’s also shooting digitally). Two places where he’s found particular inspiration are the Friday night dance, when the whole community gathers at a local club to dance under the stars, and the weekly outdoor market, where he pulls aside people who catch his eye to photograph them against the colorful backdrops of textile stalls.

Portrait of a man at the market in Bereba, Burkina Faso

Every time he returns to Bereba, he brings 4×6 prints from his previous visit. He knows most of the faces by now, but a couple of local friends help him identify people who may have come to the market from neighboring villages. The friends then take off on their bicycles to distribute the photos, or people meet Pace at the house where he’s staying.

Portrait of a woman at the market in Bereba, Burkina Faso
“Often people ask me to take their pictures,” says Pace. “Everyone knows me and knows that they’ll receive a print when I return. The process is very quick and the interaction is often brief.”

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Pace. “They show each other their pictures and laugh and joke with each other. The [Friday night] dance pictures get the most reaction. They don’t really see what they look like. People want to be photographed with each other.”

In an unexpected way, the life here reminds him of his childhood in California in the 1950s, growing up near a farm in an area that is now part of Silicon Valley. “The things I remember from my youth have disappeared,” he says. “Going to Africa rekindled that memory.” Without the stresses of technology and outside diversions, “I realized how little one needs to be happy.”

Portrait of a young man shopping at an outdoor market in Burkina Faso

And what message does he hope to convey to the outside world with his photographs? “I believe people don’t know what life is like in West Africa. We have so many misconceptions, so many negative images. People are really like us; people have the same concerns, the same issues we have. It is really a vibrant, changing, modern culture, concerned with the rest of the world. We are truly connected.”

See more of David Pace’s photographs of life in Burkina Faso on his website.

There are 15 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Lisa
    June 22, 2015

    I see smiling …in their eyes. Your photos depict the clear, colorful and proud people of Burkina Faso. The textiles are phenomenal!

  2. David Pace
    June 9, 2015

    Zach, thank you for clarifying the issue of non-smiling. Many people unfamiliar with African customs misconstrue the lack of smiles in these portraits as an indicator of unhappiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. As you point out, it is merely a cultural convention. The villagers of Bereba are my primary audience and the recipients of these images. I strive to portray them as they want to be, (and expect to be), seen. For evidence of happiness in Bereba I direct you to the portfolio Friday Night on my website. I have rarely witnessed such expressions of pure joy.

  3. Zach
    June 9, 2015

    J. McKee, Amanda, my wife and I served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Burkina, and we can tell you that the reason for the non-smiling photos is just cultural norms. They typically don’t smile in photos for the same reason that we do – cultural inertia and normative expectations. It’s very unlikely that some sort of particular statement is being made

  4. Elizabeth Robey
    June 9, 2015

    Magnificent article, Alexa! Invigorating. It reminds me of an article by Robert Draper on Kinshasa, with photographs by Pascal Maitre. I carry a copy of that issue of Nat.Geo. with me everywhere – yours will have a permanent place on my desktop. I am not in the least surprised to find you enriching and broadening my life, yet again. Thank you.

  5. Ángel Pascual
    June 9, 2015

    It’s a very beautiful report about this community, I’ve remembered my childhood when we live in a small village in the Alpujarra (Spain). Thanks. And great photographs, I don’t know if in the USA black people use to wear this kind of clothes, But here in Spain people who come from Africa usually wear clothes like the people in your pictures.

  6. Nicki Moffat
    June 9, 2015

    David is a fantastic photographer, whose heart and humanity show through in his photographs, which, in turn, capture the heart and humanity of his beautiful subjects. He’s an amazing artist, but also a loving human being. The world needs more like him.

  7. Amanda Sheward
    June 9, 2015

    J. McKee perhaps no smiles as a show of strength their world versus the rest…judging a book by its cover etc.. no smile doesn’t mean no inner peace and happiness sunglasses hide the windows to the soul some choose to guard theirs….walk a mile in my shoes before your judge me also comes to mine

  8. Shaheen Sultan Dhanji
    June 9, 2015

    What a brilliant photo-essay ! Thoroughly relished your journey. Cheers

  9. tikku
    June 8, 2015

    The author is great as usual and also the photographers. Everybody desires to feel happy and people there are trying, but the faces gives away the shadow and trouble and poverty despite the colorful attires.

  10. M. Y. Mim
    June 8, 2015

    The way Mr. Pace shows the dignity and the humanity we all share deeply moves me. Here is a great photographer.

  11. bibol
    June 8, 2015

    Great story will they be able to develop a civilization without handouts

  12. Brian Taylor
    June 8, 2015

    Such lush, rich, imagery and positive, honorable portraiture! Great job capturing so may colors in surreal, often hallucinatory compositions! PROOF– truth is stranger than fiction!

  13. Reginald Williams
    June 8, 2015

    Alexa, thank you for sharing David’s work. It is an inspiration to me and comes just as I have left a similar market town in Ecuador, Otavalo, which similarly brings many ethnicities and varying tribes of indigenous together in one place. Here, too, all seem to dress for the occasion. Though certainly not as remote nor difficult in terms of living conditions and climate, my experiences in rural Ethiopia lend additional perspective to David’s experiences. His interactions with the people meant more to me even than his work. That he shares it with his subjects is what I find profoundly important; I have done some of this but hope to do much more and to learn from his example. Great article. Thanks!

  14. J. McKee
    June 8, 2015

    Great shots. And yet, no smiles. Why?

  15. colleen tsoukalas
    June 8, 2015

    Beautiful, beautiful, work! Thanks for writing this up.

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