In Emmanuelle Andrianjafy’s portrait of Dakar, Nothing’s in Vain, the city feels enigmatic, its heart visible but often just out of reach. The series won MACK’s First Book Award and was published this month. Andrianjafy grew up in Madagascar and studied engineering in France before moving to Dakar in 2011. For several years, her view of the Senegalese capital was mostly restricted to what she saw through the window of a car. But in 2014, she decided to explore the city on foot, “aiming to capture the ‘real’ Dakar,” she has written. The results are a record of an outsider finding her way in.
Several images in Nothing’s in Vain retain that drive-by quality, in quickly observed views of apartment building facades and people on the street seen at a distance. But more often, Andrianjafy gets close. There are chaotic street scenes—butchered pigs hang along a trash-strewn road and vendors sell clothing from under bright umbrellas. Her frank portraits show men and women in traditional Senegalese boubous or chic Western clothing and styles that merge both. And there are depictions of the city’s crumbling architecture, both ornate and plane, photographed from inside and out or from above. Throughout the book, the cultural and political life of the city shows up in glimpses of graffiti, piles of books, heroic statues, and the faces of leaders that adorn the walls of homes or appear on TV. And the ocean is never far away—waves crash into massive rocks, and aerial views show how closely the dense city edges the beach. Even Andrianjafy’s color palette hints at the city’s location at the edge of the Atlantic on the continent’s far west coast, translating dusty salt air and light bouncing off the ocean into off-key pastels.
Returning to Africa, albeit a very different part from where she grew up, was a challenge for Andrianjafy, she says. But photographing Dakar allowed her a way to connect to the place. She says in a statement, “I decided to immerse myself in the environment, hoping it would help me process the city, make sense of it and address the questions it raised.”
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