The life cycle of tro tro buses: Caleb Kwarteng Prah fuses portraiture with Ghana’s popular transport
The Koforidua-based photographer uses discarded doors from some of Ghana’s most popular vehicles as a backdrop for his portraits.
- Yaya Azariah Clarke
- 25 January 2024
People, places and the everyday. The dream of photographers has long been to earnestly convey the social conditions of its subjects, and when it comes to the work of Caleb Kwarteng Prah that exposure is promised tenfold. Beginning his journey as a visual storyteller in 2016 at art school in Kumasi, Ghana as a part of the Blaxtarlines community, he “fell in love with the photographic medium,” he tells us. An avid storyteller of the life of everyday Ghanaians around him in Koforidua (in the eastern region of the country), he began creating works of portraiture that speak to their socio-economic standing and lifestyle.
After some time working with portrait photography, Caleb decided that he wanted his work to take a sculptural form. “At the time I was photographing everyday people as my main subject and the decision was to merge the photographs with everyday objects in the lives of the sitters,” he tells us. After looking around he realised that tro tro (share taxi minibuses used by 70% of the population in Ghana, and also in neighbouring countries) would be a mighty backdrop for his work. And, after meeting with several drivers, it became clear that the best way to create these sculptural collages was in using the doors – and since then they’ve been a constant in his work.
For Caleb, one of the most captivating parts of using tro tro doors is in the minibus’ life cycle – often starting as used cars shipped from Europe and North America. “After being used as ambulances and delivery vehicles they make their way to Africa to start their ‘real lives’,” Caleb tells us. “In Ghana they are used, reused, patched and restored several times as they change ownership from driver to driver, until they end up as scraps and are sent back to Europe or China to be recycled,” he adds. Intervening in this life cycle, Caleb collects the doors straight from the mechanic’s yard and brings them back to his studio, before convincing his friends who are also tro tro drivers to sit for him and introduce him to others from the union. In post-production, he then stylises the images in the form of those he’s seen on tro tro buses throughout his town, before taking time for them to be immersed in the culture – “in some cases I even leave the finished works outside in the rain.”
And when creating these compositions, Caleb says that his biggest challenge is in getting the doors because “no matter how damaged they are, they can still be repaired and remodelled to fit into a car”. With the drivers sometimes finding it difficult to hand them over, because when it comes to tro tro, “nothing is truly damaged in their vocabulary,” he adds.
With hopes of turning Portrait of a City – One Minute Instant into a book, and currently creating more work to be included in there, Caleb is still creating, using the doors as his canvas. “I am currently doing research into the labour structure of Ghanaian society in relation to tro tro doors also,” he tells us. Until then, we take in the enthralling quality of his work and his penchant for disrupting the tro tro doors’ life cycle.
Portrait of a City. One Minute Instant was showcased by Nil Gallery at PHOTOFAIRS New York in September 2023. The fair returns 6-8 September 2024.
Caleb Kwarteng Prah: Aware So (Copyright © Caleb Kwarteng Prah, courtesy of the artist and Nil Gallery, 2023)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.