Roger daSilva began his journey in photography against the backdrop of World War II. Having left his native Benin to serve in France, he started to document wounded soldiers and concentration camp survivors. However, his recently discovered archive of work is a world away from these beginnings.
Following the war, daSilva arrived in Dakar and began capturing the more jubilant moments in life, attending weddings and night clubs with his camera in hand. Taken primarily throughout the 50s and 60s, daSilva’s photographs illuminate life in Senegal as it was going through a pivotal period of transition from World War II to its independence from France. Though daSilva continued to do studio work, his candid street photography reveals a time where West African culture met Western influences, and offers a rare visual accompaniment to an important time in Senegalese history.
The fruits of daSilva’s photographic and social endeavours form part of a substantial archive rediscovered following his death in 2008, some of which will be on display at AKAA Paris in November. Roughly 75,000 negatives were found, and so began an extensive restoration effort carried out by The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, its nonprofit offshoot Le Korsa, and Senegalese conservation initiative Xaritufoto. The project only came about through chance, when Nicholas Fox Weber, the Foundation’s Executive Director, met daSilva’s son Luc in Senegal.
“We saw that [Luc] was working hard with his organisation Xaritufoto on maintaining the legacy of his father’s work,” says Matthias Persson, Director of Artists’ Residencies at The Albers Foundation and Le Korsa. “We immediately saw the importance of this work – we simply found the photos incredible and felt that they should be seen by people in Senegal and abroad.”
Since the Foundation already works in Senegal with Le Korsa, it seemed a natural step to partner with Xaritufoto on the project, which offers “a refreshing perspective on Senegalese cultural history”.
“The selection process [was] difficult, because there were so many good photos,” Persson recalls. He and Weber worked their way through the reams of negatives by grouping them into themes, as well as a selection of reportage and sports images that also stood out to them.
The restoration process was a different beast. They consulted professionals who examined which negatives could be treated – many couldn’t be properly restored due to damage caused by mould. “We have stayed true to the original photo and didn’t do anything to improve the photo itself artificially, but have removed dust, mould, and scratches,” Persson says.
“At that time, photography was considered a job rather than an art,” he continues, adding that “it was a sign of status to have your photo taken, so [daSilva] naturally met people from higher classes in society.” daSilva was evidently a welcome and central figure of the party – no doubt helped by the fact he was also an actor and tap dancer. One self-portrait shows him shaking hands with a gleeful Ella Fitzgerald, while another places him mere steps away from President Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first president when independence came in 1960.
Based on accounts from researchers as well as daSilva’s son, it became to clear to Persson that daSilva was “a humble, elegant personality, who had a talent to easily fit into any environment”. These characteristics are seen just as much in his photography, which helps to form not just an image of Senegal at this time, but of himself too.
Roger daSilva’s photographs will be on display at AKAA art and design fair in Paris from 9-11 November; akaafair.com