“I am fascinated by the men who risk their lives by descending into the earth in these narrow shafts.
I often feel like I am experiencing what the California gold rush of the 1850’s must have been like.”
David Pace (born 1951) is a documentary photographer from the USA currently based in California.
In this interview he talks about his project called “Gold Mining” which he realized in Burkina Faso.
Interview with David Pace
David, a great deal of your work was done in Burkina Faso. What personal connection do you have to that country?
I visited Burkina Faso for the first time in 2007.
I was invited to take some photographs for the “Friends of African Villages Libraries”, an NGO that was started by two of my colleagues at Santa Clara University.
I became fascinated with the culture, the landscape and the life in the village of Bereba.
There were endless photographic possibilities.
I received a grant that allowed me to return to Burkina twice in 2008 to work on a personal project.
I was hooked! I developed a study abroad program through the university and took students to Burkina in the fall of 2009.
I have spent the fall quarter there every year since.
One of your recent series is called “Gold Mining”. What is it about?
The “Gold Mining” series is one of ten projects I am currently working on in Burkina.
My overall goal is to document rural village life by looking at a number of discreet activities. The rising price of gold has led to an increase in gold mining throughout the country.
My focus is the small artisanal mining that occurs in the region surrounding Bereba where I live for about two months each year.
I am fascinated by the men who risk their lives by descending into the earth in these narrow shafts.
I often feel like I am experiencing what the California gold rush of the 1850’s must have been like.
How do you prepare a project like that? Do you do a lot of research beforehand like location scouting etc.?
I don’t do very much research before beginning a project.
I talk to people in the area about what is important to them and what issues they think are worth exploring.
I want my work to reflect their interests and concerns. After I find a topic, like gold mining, I do a lot of research to try to understand the significance of what I am encountering.
I want to photograph the people and their activities in an honest and meaningful way.
Every year I give people the photographs I have taken the previous year. It is crucial to me that they see themselves represented accurately.
What comes first: the idea for a series or single images that at some point fit and fall into place to form a particular body of work?
I begin each project with a general concept, like “contemporary life in a remote West African village”.
“Single successful images become the catalyst for more concentrated observation.”
I photograph everything that attracts my attention. Single successful images become the catalyst for more concentrated observation.
I always ask myself how I can improve on or develop an image that intrigues me. That leads to a list of criteria which inevitably evolves into a new series.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case and if so what did you learn during the project?
When I began photographing in Bereba I had only a vague idea of what this project would ultimately look like.
For the first few years I made images which, in retrospect, were very obvious. I needed to simplify the things I was experiencing in order to make sense of them. Every year I learn more about life in the village.
Now, after eight years, I am a participant, rather than an observer. That has allowed me to see the village in a new light and capture more of the complexity that I experience. I have learned that the village is not static. It changes from year to year.
I hope that I am able to continue this project for many more years and create a visual record of this evolution.
What was your most memorable moment realizing that project?
One of the series I am working on involves the weekly dance that occurs every Friday night in an outdoor club called Le Cotonnier. A DJ plays contemporary African pop music on a CD player powered by a gas generator.
Villagers dance all night under the stars on a concrete slab. I join them, taking photographs with an on-camera flash.
My most memorable moment in realizing this project occurred last fall when I organized an event one night at Le Cotonnier to share my work with the village.
I brought a digital projector, built a large screen and projected the photographs of dancers that I have taken over the past four years.
The DJ played the music that normally accompanies the dance. Everyone was overjoyed to see the images of themselves and their neighbors dancing.
I was overwhelmed by the response and gratified that my project was appreciated and celebrated by my friends in Bereba.
What does a single photograph or a body of work need in your opinion in order to stand out and get noticed? Especially keeping in mind the abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society where everything already has been photographed?
“For an individual image to stand out it has to imply a story.”
There are many great photographers working today. For an individual image to stand out it has to imply a story or situation, raise questions in the viewer and be technically very good.
Do you think it’s possible as a photographer to still be unique these days? Or do you rather consider it to be more important to create an own style adding your personal twist to something that has already been done before?
All photographers borrow ideas from the history of photography.
I have been deeply influenced by dozens of photographers. I am always looking at how others have solved problems that I have encountered.
“Photography is about time and the moment in which we live.”
However, I do think it is still possible to be unique. Every good photographer brings his or her individual personality to their work.
Moreover, photography is about time and the moment in which we live. Even if you try to reproduce something that was done 50 years ago, it will look completely different because of the temporal/cultural complex in which we live.
What reaction do you intend to provoke in people looking at you photos?
I want people who look at my photographs to come away with a greater understanding of contemporary life in West Africa.
I hope that my viewers see how much we have in common and that life in an African village can be as rewarding as anywhere else.
One general question: What do you consider the most important developments in contemporary photography? And what have been the greatest changes recently?
The world of photography has changed dramatically. Technology has always been and continues to be a big part of the medium.
The advances in digital photography have made it easier to do many things that were difficult or nearly impossible.
Changes in the internet and online publishing have made it easier to share work internationally.
Philosopher Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
“My work is about engagement with the community.”
I disagree with Susan Sontag’s statement about the camera making everyone a tourist (although that may be her own personal experience).
Being a “tourist” implies distance from one’s subject and a kind of impersonal objectivity.
I use photography to create connections. The portraits I make in West Africa are always collaborations. My work is about engagement with the community and about sharing my experience with others.
Photography has become, for me, a way of exploring and understanding the world.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
I studied with a wonderful California photographer named Morley Baer. He was a friend of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.
Like them, he shot with an 8 x 10 view camera.
On workshops, he would invite students to look under his dark cloth after he had set up his camera and view the image on the ground glass. I would always look at the situation and try to guess what the composition might be.
I will never forget the day I looked under the dark cloth and saw the image I had already formed in my mind.
I realized that I understood and internalized Morley’s point of view and sense of composition.
I continue to look at the work of other photographers I admire and try to analyze how form and content come together in the frame.
For some further reading I recommend this article in “The New Yorker”: Dance, Burkina Faso