Photographer Shawn Davis swears he prefers a bucket bath to a shower any day. He’ll even say that he longs to once again visit a crude latrine instead of a bathroom full of chrome and porcelain. It seems easy enough for the 26-year-old American University graduate to say this from his cozy Adams Morgan home, where he waxes nostalgic about his two-year Peace Corps experience in Africa.
But Davis proves his sincerity when he talks about the time he drove his motorcycle into Kedialy, a village of about 200 people in Mali, and found himself smack dab in a naming ceremony for a 7-day-old boy. The village leaders slit a goat’s jugular vein, handed Davis a hot chunk of liver from a grill, and spontaneously named the American as well, pronouncing him “Ambasagou,” Dogon for “Faith in God.” He soon met his namesake, Ambasagou Kassogue, the oldest man in Kedialy, a revered figure who had fought in World War Iand was proud to say he had once eaten spaghetti. Later, Davis spent a few millet-beer-filled evenings learning the local language from him.
Davis left his native Vermont for the cliffs and plateaus of Mali’s Dogon region in November 1996. At every turn, Davis’ shutter finger was itchy. But he says that he resisted the urge to shoot for a whole year: “They had invited me there. This was going to be my home. I didn’t want to come across as a tourist.” When Davis got the village children to help him build latrines and sing a jingle about not having diarrhea ever again, he knew he was fitting in. Eventually, they let him take pictures.
Seventeen images from the time that followed are on view at the BlackPearl Gallery through Dec. 31. In “Through the Lens: A Personal View of West Africa,” Davis challenges stereotypical images of the continent. “This is not just one more woman from your coffee-table book with a basket of water on her head,” he says.
Accompanying each photo is a page of personal history to connect viewers with the lives of the people in the imagespeople who became Davis’ friends. The texts are captivating, and even though Davis studied photography for only a year before leaving for Africa, many of the shots are stunning. In Humanitarian Daily Ration, a young boy finishes off a can of sardines in front of a chalky blue wall. And perhaps the most touching photo is Ambasagou “Faith in God”: Kanaga Masked Dancer at Edge of Village, which captures a pastel-colored mask with a jutting chin worn during the funeral of Davis’ namesake.
These are “not just pretty images,” says Davis. The people in Kedialy “have names,” he says. “They have kids.” Ayesha Morris