‘Le Vendeur Sénégalais Qui Fume,’ Sory Sanlé, 1972
IN 1965, when Burkina Faso was the République de Haute-volta and only five years free of French colonial rule, the photographer Ibrahima Sory Sanlé opened a shop in the thriving city of Bobo-dioulasso. Many came to Volta Photo to strike a pose. Some clients stood before Sanlé’s elaborately illustrated backcloths. Others preferred to fill the frame themselves, like this sharp-suited Senegalese sunglasses salesman, with a moustache as thin as his cigarette, and a lottery ticket in place of a pocket handkerchief.
The images exist because of a French record producer, Florent Mazzoleni, who noticed the photographer’s work on local album covers while researching West African music. When, in 2010, he eventually tracked down Sanlé, he was in the process of burning his archives; nobody cared about his old work, was the explanation. Thanks to Mazzoleni’s intervention, most of the negatives survived the flames—thousands of images from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s—and the photographer had his first exhibition in 2013. In a film on a website created by Mazzoleni, Sanlé, now 74, expresses pleasure over the resulting fame. But his studio remains much the same, its name now commemorating a vanished country. “Volta Photo, Burkina Photo,” he says. “It doesn’t change anything about my rates.”