Ananias Léki Dago | Shebeen Blues

At first glance, one can see that Ananias Léki Dago has an impenetrable bond with photography. There is a slow deliberateness to his creative process, with particular attention paid to the subtleties of a gesture, a landscape or a place that might have otherwise been missed. His purposeful images, primarily in black and white, have a linear continuity often found in documentary projects that span years at a time. Léki Dago’s ‘photographic grammar’ can be described as framing, composition and shadows. Together they create intricate social examinations of life.

Léki Dago is a self-proclaimed ‘young dinosaur’ that remains dedicated to the use of film and the perfection of his craft, in an era where digital advancements are rampant. For him, photography is often a therapeutic process. From a young age he embarked upon what he calls an intimate relationship with photography, which in turn has affected his view on life, as told through the lens of his Leica M6 camera.

Over an email exchange we spoke with him about his photographic book Shebeen Blues, his project with photography Biennial, Bamako Encounters and how he balances his analogue preferences alongside digital progress.

Ananias Léki Dago, Shebeen Blues, Alexandra, Township, 2008.

Ananias Léki Dago, Shebeen Blues, Alexandra, Township, 2008.

What is the inspiration behind Shebeen* Blues?

Ananias Léki Dago | When I was a young boy, I had two countries I dreamed of:  Senegal and South Africa. I am in love with the cultures of both, something I cannot explain, it is just a feeling. My first meeting with Johannesburg was in 2006. One day Andrew Tshabangu, a friend and South African photographer, and I took a walk around Soweto. After a long walk, we were thirsty and he suggested we quench our thirst in a Shebeen. I didn’t know what it was but I was curious. I remember we were in Zola, Soweto. We entered a shebeen there, and I received a very strong feeling. I began asking questions about it, I am very curious. From the different answers I received, I quickly understood that shebeens were a phenomenon that played a very important role in the history (political, cultural, social) of the country. I decided to do a story on shebeens for three reasons: (1) my love for the country, (2) relevance of the story, (3) I found shebeens to be very photogenic.

There is an essay accompaniment to Shebeen Blues, written by Mongane Wally Serote, titled The Wheel is Still in Spin. How did this come about?

ALD | Andrew Tshabangu introduced me to the writer Mongane Wally Serote, when I finished working on the subject in 2009. Serote knows the subject very well, as he was an activist for freedom during the apartheid period. He told me stories about how they used to meet clandestinely with other brothers in shebeens. On top of that I like his work; he is a brilliant person. When my publishers wanted to publish a book on my Shebeen work, I showed Serote my work and asked him to write a short story. We wanted two different stories, one from the photographer – who visited the shebeens in the post apartheid period, and another from the writer – who survived that period.

Is Shebeen Blues a metaphor for loneliness or is it a social commentary about the effects of ones environment?

ALD | I think that it’s about both. My photographic language is subjective; the opposite of photojournalism, hence all I do is about my own feelings. I don’t take pictures unless I feel closest to my own truth. This harmonious [balance] is decisive when I have to work. It’s like my compass. Yes, I’m lonely, despite being surrounded by people. It’s a state of mind. I went into shebeens with that feeling that is part of me. That’s why I added “blues” to shebeens. On the other hand, in spite of my subjective point of view my work can be classified as documentary, because I take pictures from reality. I document what happens around me from a subjective point of view.

There is an intimacy yet respectful distance in your photographs between you and the subjects. Did you establish relationships between you and your subjects?

ALD | I feel most comfortable engaging with people when I have the camera with me. I take care not to invade people’s space. Although I can feel comfortable with the subjects after spending a long time around them, I don’t loose that decency when I bring out my camera. In the case of shebeen’s, it was much more tricky and delicate. As you see, shebeens are a place where people go to drink. I had to respect their intimacy as I wasn’t there to judge them but rather to share, which is about respect and love. On behalf of sharing, I drank a lot with people and it was a way to involve not only my spirit but also my body in the subject. I needed it.

In 2011, you curated a show with local photographers during Bamako Encounters. How did this come about, and what was the feedback from the local community?

ALD | I was chosen by Samuel Sidibé, the director of the Museum of Mali. Samuel wanted to provide a platform to local photographers, so that they would receive visibility during the Biennial. I led the workshop, based on the same theme from Bamako Encounters, “A Sustainable World,” – we gave local photographers an opportunity to share their point of view. The workshop was a great experience for me as well as the Malian photographers. I tried to make them aware of the importance of defining themselves, instead of being defined by others. Plus as photographers, I told them they had the power in their hands to respond with their work, to the negative pictures showered throughout the media about Africa. We all are struggling for another Africa. I think it was a good start, and I hope the experience will be renewed.

In a world where technology is advancing and everyone can pick up their iPhone or digital camera, how do you remain dedicated to the craft?

ALD | Changes always come with both a sweet and bitter taste. It depends how people adjust themselves and take what they really need from these advancements. I know some photographers still working with box cameras. In the same vein, digital had its revolution in 2000. Photography is still the most productive medium. Digital has changed a lot of things, but I refuse to see it as threatening. I see the progress; it’s cheaper, faster and much more accessible. And moreover it comes with its own aesthetic, which is different from analog’s. I take what I really need from that progress. I scan my negatives so that I can send them via the Internet or put them on the web, which is fine. I even have my own printer, another old dinosaur, a very experienced man; Toros is his name. We both go into his darkroom to develop my pictures. It’s a delight working with him in the darkness. Since I have access to the Western world where it’s still possible to find film and chemicals, I make the most of that. However, I think of my colleagues who are in Africa, where it’s not easy anymore to find these things. In that case, digital can be a very important option to keep on working.

Where do you currently reside?

ALD | Honestly, I must admit that I’m like a modern nomad. I have one foot in Paris and the other roams around Africa. I have a strong interest in what happens on the continent. Currently, I spend a lot of time in Bamako, finishing up a project  that I have been working on since 2006. It began around the same time as Shebeen Blues. Ivory Coast is the country where I was born, so I go there as well.

What inspires you?

ALD | Two things feed me.  The street, I love being on the street watching people and secondly, Blues music.

*A ‘Shebeen’ can be described as an illegal bar or club where alcoholic beverages are sold without a license. Under apartheid many black South Africans were unable to consume alcohol legally, and shebeens were established in resistance to the laws, and became settings for refuge, entertainment and social dialogue. Many Shebeens in South Africa are now legal.


Ananias Léki Dago was born in 1970 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. He studied at the Institut National Supérieur de l’Action et de l’Animation Culturelle in Abidjan from 1990 – 1993. In 2000 and 2002, he initiated and coordinated the Recontres du Sud  (Southern Encounters), a month long photography biennial in his home -town. A nomadic traveler, exploring other cultures is an essential ingredient to his work.  He has ventured to the Caribbean, Middle East, Europe as well as throughout Africa. Léki Dago has numerous accolades, such as first prize of PhotoAfrica on his work on identity in 2009, and is a part of several collections in Europe and the US. Léki Dago works with the Jean Brolly Gallery in Paris, France and the Sanaa Gallery in Utrech, Holland.


All images courtesy of the artist, Ananias Léki Dago. All rights reserved.

Another Africa © 2017 All Rights Reserved