Lost negatives bring back the Ivorian miracle

By Billie McTernan

Posted on November 5, 2015 10:00

One man’s quest to rescue the work of photographer Paul Kodjo reveals the importance of archiving and documenting the continent’s post-independence history

In the forests of Ghana’s Western Region, close to Elubo, on the border of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, is the stilted wooden house that Ivorian-Ghanian photographer Paul Kodjo built for himself 20 years ago in Sowodadzem.

To see black men as captains of their own ships and planes made me feel like I could do anything

Here he sits, surrounded by his family, or welcomes travellers to his guestrooms. Around Kodjo’s home there is little to indicate that he was one of the most revered photographers of a newly independent Côte d’Ivoire in the 1960s.

As a photojournalist he documented and captured the “Ivorian miracle”, the early days of a country prospering and redefining itself, led by its first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Now aged 76, it’s been years, he confesses, since he picked up a camera to do a reportage.

Kodjo’s long-spanning career began with him working for and opening several photo studios across Abidjan, then working with agencies in the capital. But eager to grow in his craft, Kodjo wanted more.

“I was inspired by Kwame Nkrumah and the Black Star Line [Ghana’s national shipping company] and Ghana Airways,” Kodjo recalls. “To see black men as captains of their own ships and planes made me feel like I could do anything.”

In 1967 he left for Paris, where he became the correspondent for Fraternité Matin. He was one of the few black photographers to capture on film the May ’68 student and worker riots in the French capital.

When he decided to return to Abidjan, after spending years participating in exhibitions and gaining a reputation and recognition in France, Kodjo was high in the hope that he would return to a hero’s welcome.

But that wasn’t to be the case and promises of funding made to him by the country’s powerful leaders were not kept. So Kodjo set up his own media agency and had a stint teaching photography at the Institut National des Arts in Abidjan.

He then turned to cinematography where he enjoyed success with films such as Baby and Bouka, but eventually left for Ghana – where he had spent his formative years – in the 1990s.

Stored in a suitcase

In 2008 the Ivorian photographer Ananias Léki Dago visited Kodjo at his home in Ghana, 180km from the Côte d’Ivoire capital. By this time the older photographer had retired to his farm, and in doing so retired from his life’s work, putting it to the back of his mind, concentrating instead on building his lodge for homestays.

Before Léki Dago left, Kodjo presented him with a suitcase of his old negatives of about 30,000 images, ruined by neglect and humidity.

“When I opened the suitcase,” Léki Dago pauses and shakes his head, “there were cockroaches and spiders running around.”

“Seeing Paul Kodjo’s work spoilt was like losing an important part of our history,” says Léki Dago who remembers, as a young teen, seeing Kodjo taking pictures in his neighbourhood, Cocody, in Abidjan.

Moved by the gesture and the history behind the work, Léki Dago took on the project of restoring the negatives. But it would be another six years before he could bring himself to work on them.

Last year, in 2014, with the support of the Goethe-Institut in Abidjan, he finally began the restoration and preservation process.

“I see this as a kind of injustice,” Léki Dagos states. “You cannot dedicate your life to photography like he did and finish your career like that. Paul Kodjo’s story can be a case study in Africa of how we have to take care of our legacy.” He now hopes that the work will be exhibited around West Africa.

As he watches his grandchildren play on his farm, full of the innocence of childhood, Kodjo smiles as though he holds a secret.

“For me it was lost, I wasn’t thinking about photography anymore,” he says. “But if we can save some of them and if as Africans we can take charge ourselves, I think it’s great.”

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