The village of Bereba, Burkina Faso, is remote, with no electricity and no running water. The land is flat and featureless, and the average daily temperature is around 100ºF. What would keep a photographer from northern California, with no previous knowledge or desire to go to Africa, coming back every year for the past decade, staying four or five weeks at a time?
David Pace’s relationship with this community began with an invitation from two colleagues at Santa Clara University, where Pace was teaching photography. The husband-and-wife team were involved in an effort to build libraries in African villages and asked Pace to document their work. It wasn’t long, however, before his interest turned to the people. “Everything happens outdoors,” he says. “So many artisans, farmers, tailors. I was fascinated by what they did and how they lived.”
He was also taken with the rich colors of the local textiles. There was so much color in Burkina Faso that he was compelled to start thinking like a color photographer, different from his preferred medium of black and white. “I loved Seydou Keita’s images of people wearing patterns,” he says. “I asked myself, What would this look like if I did it in color? I started experimenting.”
Before, Pace would work to minimize the amount of elements in the frame. Now he was doing the opposite. “How much color can I get in one frame? How much is too much? How much can I deal with?”
The biggest challenge at first was the language barrier. Pace didn’t speak French, the country’s official language. The one person who spoke English in the village, he recalls, had taught himself by listening to Bob Marley records, which may have led to discussions more poetic than practical.
Pace has since learned French, but it’s really been through photography that he’s forged lasting relationships and become an accepted member of the community. “I have many Facebook friends. I hear from someone almost every day,” he says. (And if you’re wondering, as I was, how people living in a village with no electricity have access to Facebook, Pace explains that it’s due to ingenuity and the sharing of resources, including using a solar-powered car battery to charge their smartphones.)
The village has two photographers, one a merchant and one a farmer, Pace says. They serve as the documentarians of life in the village, taking pictures of new babies, weddings, and other life events. With the nearest film processing place an hour and a half away, portraits are formal affairs—intentional, precious.
Pace has a different approach—showing people a more candid, impromptu side of themselves (he’s also shooting digitally). Two places where he’s found particular inspiration are the Friday night dance, when the whole community gathers at a local club to dance under the stars, and the weekly outdoor market, where he pulls aside people who catch his eye to photograph them against the colorful backdrops of textile stalls.
Every time he returns to Bereba, he brings 4×6 prints from his previous visit. He knows most of the faces by now, but a couple of local friends help him identify people who may have come to the market from neighboring villages. The friends then take off on their bicycles to distribute the photos, or people meet Pace at the house where he’s staying.
“It’s pretty exciting,” says Pace. “They show each other their pictures and laugh and joke with each other. The [Friday night] dance pictures get the most reaction. They don’t really see what they look like. People want to be photographed with each other.”
In an unexpected way, the life here reminds him of his childhood in California in the 1950s, growing up near a farm in an area that is now part of Silicon Valley. “The things I remember from my youth have disappeared,” he says. “Going to Africa rekindled that memory.” Without the stresses of technology and outside diversions, “I realized how little one needs to be happy.”
And what message does he hope to convey to the outside world with his photographs? “I believe people don’t know what life is like in West Africa. We have so many misconceptions, so many negative images. People are really like us; people have the same concerns, the same issues we have. It is really a vibrant, changing, modern culture, concerned with the rest of the world. We are truly connected.”
See more of David Pace’s photographs of life in Burkina Faso on his website.