On the Streets of Dakar, a Kaleidoscope of Style

DAKAR, Senegal — The clash of cranes and bulldozers and the abundance of concrete and pipes as one walks through the streets signal where Dakar is headed and what it lacks. The atmosphere is not quite chaos. But it is quietly chaotic.

As Dakar, the capital of Senegal, has transformed, it has emerged as a fashion center in sub-Saharan Africa. Dakar Fashion Week, a three-day showcase of collections from 20 designers, took place in December, days before Chanel held its Métiers d’Art show in the city.

But even though Dakar’s profile as a fashionable destination has risen, taking candid photos of stylish people going about their day is not as easy as it is in New York or Paris.

The Senegalese are known for their friendliness and hospitality — two qualities I witnessed in most everyone I met on a trip to Dakar last month — but their relationship with Western cameras is reserved at best. Knowing I wanted to venture beyond the gentrified corners of the city, I hired a guide — Mady Camara, a journalist and former New York Times employee in Dakar — to help me communicate because English isn’t spoken widely.

We started most mornings at sunrise and walked until sunset, breaking only during the hottest midday hours to eat. I shot on film, which presented another challenge: There was a finite number of photos I could take, forcing me to make some hard decisions about whether to press the shutter button on my Leica M4.

Wandering the beaches of Ngor, an area along Dakar’s northwestern coast, and the streets of Plataeu, the city’s bustling downtown, I photographed individuals young and old, in outfits that ranged from the traditional to the eclectic. An elegant student from out of town visiting friends at Cheikh Anta Diop University. An artist on a morning stroll to Plage de Virage, another beach. A woman waiting for a bus. A man standing on a street corner, his pastel striped shirt blending in with the faded colors of the surrounding buildings.

One of my fondest memories was an evening at Yoff Beach, where I watched young men play soccer barefoot as the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. There wasn’t just one game taking place, but scores of them. The men playing, more than 100 by my count, wore shirts from different soccer teams around the world, creating a colorful mosaic that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Looking at my photos from Dakar after returning home to New York, I had one nagging critical thought. I should have brought more film.

After photographing the artist, we ended up having a coffee on the beach. She told me she was born in Cameroon and raised in Jamaica and France, and that she preferred living in Dakar. “I moved to Senegal to be connected to the place where my people originally come from,” she said.
While I was struck by the way that these brothers, both aspiring models, wore coordinating outfits without either looking like an exact replica of the other, I was even more taken by the sense of calm I felt while talking to them. When taking portraits on the street, people’s energy is just as important to me as their aesthetics.

Passengers riding a ferry to Gorée, an island off the coast of Dakar.

Setsy, a fashion brand in Dakar, has a store in the Virage area where I took these portraits. The store is connected to Setsy’s atelier; it was an impressive setup.
Sunrise at the Yoff Tonghor fish market.
The warmth radiating from this portrait evokes the hospitality I was shown by many people I met on my trip.
This photo, taken in the neighborhood of Les Almadies, was the final portrait I took. The print she was wearing spoke for itself.
Finding style in any given place requires looking beyond what people are wearing. When I took this photograph, I wasn’t just looking at this man’s clothes. The bike, the earth — all of the surroundings — are in harmony with his presence. He looks like he’s meant to be there.
When I look at this scene that I photographed on the campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University, the silhouettes created by the midday sun against the backdrop of an interesting piece of architecture make me think of an ad campaign.
Every so often I come across someone so stunning that I cross my fingers when I ask for a portrait. This woman was one of those people. She was waiting for a bus in Ngor when my guide (Mady Camara) and I approached. When Mady knew that I was particularly interested in taking someone’s picture, the tone of his conversation with people would change. He spoke mostly in Wolof, the primary language in Dakar, and I could sense that he was talking me up, as if having a portrait taken by me was some kind of high honor. Thinking about it now, I laugh.
When it comes to street photography, the laws have been different in every place I have traveled. But Dakar was unique in that the rules could change from one neighborhood to the next. We spoke to about five people in order to get permission to take this portrait against a nondescript wall of a private residence.
This scene of young men playing soccer at dusk along Yoff Beach was as memorable, or more so, than any one individual or outfit.
My favorite kind of street scenes happen at golden hour and incorporate life, depth and a singular sartorial focus.
There was something about this young man’s choice of layers and contrasting patterns that I loved. A closer look revealed that he also wore accessories on one wrist, and that his hair was parted. I took about 520 frames of film, and none featured another man with his hair parted.
I shot this portrait of Aïda Sene, the fashion designer who owns Setsy, in an open field not far from the brand’s store and atelier in Virage. The bare landscape reminded me of the mesa in New Mexico, where I lived for a time as a teenager.
Three friends, all students at Cheikh Anta Diop University, sitting outside a building on campus.
El Hadj Babou Samb wearing ceremonial robes near his home in Ngor, where he serves as village chief. “For us, we have to dress remarkably,” he said. “As a traditional chief, there is a specific way we have to look so that people know the position.”
Mady, my guide in Dakar, spoke nine languages: English, French, Portuguese, Wolof, Fulani, Bambara, Mandinka, Malinke and Soussou.
I was looking the other way when Mady saw this young woman walking past us one evening at sundown. Though clearly in a rush to be somewhere, she kindly stopped to let me take a picture, and even invited me to take a second because it was getting dark. But by that point in the day, I had only one frame of film left. Thankfully, it was all I needed.
This portrait happened in a flash. The young man was walking toward me as I approached a three-way intersection. I didn’t want to disturb his motion so I held my camera in a fixed position at my hip as I waited for him to pass in front of me. When he did, he instantly became part of the canvas: All I could see were the colors of his shirt melting into the colors of the street. After the moment had passed, I turned to Mady and said, “I really hope I got that one.”
Photographing this young woman, who had traveled from Saint Louis, Senegal, to visit friends at Cheikh Anta Diop University reminded me of my earliest days documenting fashion on the street, when I spent a lot of time learning how to capture a person’s silhouette.
If you consider the cyan color of the Atlantic Ocean to lean more green than blue, the national colors of Senegal — red, yellow and green — are represented in the picture. (Perhaps a stretch, but I see some green!) I was leaving Yoff Beach when I turned around and took this photo. I shot it at dusk, when the golden sky over Dakar becomes a backlight, and everyone a silhouette — which is a recurring visual theme in my work. If someone asked me to describe the style of Dakar, I would answer by describing this image.

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