During a 2017 residency at Thread, an artistic residence of the Albers Foundation and Le Korsa in the Tambacounda region, Italian photographer Giovanni Hänninen found himself in one of the most remote areas of Senegal. “I soon realised that the region was the starting point for the majority of the Senegalese migrants coming to Europe,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Nowadays in Western countries, migrants are often considered in terms of numbers and fluxes, not as people, individuals like me and you.”
This observation is the crux of Giovanni’s recent project, People of Tamba, currently on show at the Also Known As Africa (AKAA) art and design fair at Carreau de Temple in Paris. Comprising 200 portraits of 200 individuals, the series presents local people – doctors, bankers, teachers and farmers, among others – in their work environments, and is accompanied by Senegal/Sicily, a series of six short documentaries created in collaboration with filmmaker Alberto Amoretti. Giovanni began People of Tamba with an aim to focus on the “roots of the process” in order to describe the society that the Senegalese migrants left on their journey to Europe. Additionally, he pulled inspiration from German photographer August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century – “a series of portraits of real individuals and their roles within German society just before the rise of the Nazi regime”, he explains.
With this in mind, Giovanni asks the pivotal question within his series: “What makes a society?” He responds that it’s the doctor, the teacher, the beekeeper, the waitress, the bank director, the mechanic – each has their part to play in the making of a community. While photographing his subjects, the photographer was joined by a translator in order to fully explain the project and show the images to those he was capturing. “Most of the people were really happy to take part in the project and very often introduced us to other people,” he says.
Much time was spent composing the frame – and this is evident throughout the detailed pictures he’s created – achieved with a slow camera and a tripod, much like that of August Sander, who describes his project as “assisted self-portraits”. Giovanni adds: “This made the subject aware that something valuable was taking place and the response was always to give more time and more care.”
One portrait sees a doctor, named Magueye Ba, sit in front of Giovanni’s lens. Magueye runs the local village clinic, located next to Thread. After studying in Dakar, he decided to move back to the countryside in order to open the area’s first (and still its only) medical centre. “His work has improved the quality of life also for the people in surrounding villages,” says Giovanni. “I photographed Magueye Ba in his clinic and I still remember his calm smile as he asked me what he should do. I didn’t instruct him to pose in front of the camera, but just waited for him to sit and look into the lens.”
Giovanni’s background is surprisingly academic. With a PhD in Aerospace Engineering, his theoretical, practical mindset translates into his photography process: “[Through photography] I used the same methods I learnt in my former studies – I started to build models, using images and points of view of the physical world.” Within People of Tamba, his structural approach to image-making is unmistakable, his soft-hued imagery allowing plenty of space for the lives and narratives of his subjects to become the focus. As a pure marker of its time and of a civilisation underrepresented within Western media, People of Tamba is an impactful documentation, both for its audiences around the world and for the people of Tambacounda themselves.