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Discovering Sudanese Photography

Destination Sudan, accompanied by photographer Claude Iverné, who in 2005 founded Elnour,* a not-for-profit that is both a photo agency and a library with a collection of more than 20,000 photos, books, films, and other documents . Objective: the conservation and dissemination of this little-known chapter in the history of African photography. 

1955 © Rashid Mahdi / Elnour

How did you first come across the Sudanese photography scene?

It’s a long story that started in Cairo. An encounter that I had in 1998 prompted me to travel to Sudan a few months later. It became a country where I would go on to live part-time until 2007, and which I continue to explore to this day. Early on, on my second trip, I discovered the studio of Mohamed Yahia Issa (b. 1952). He secretly showed me small vintage prints.

Why secretly?

Starting in 1983, successive regimes began enforcing Sharia law. The glorious days of the free image of the 1970s were even further compromised with the military coup of 1989. Those in power championed a rigid form of Islam. Showing those photographs in plain sight could get photographers in serious trouble. Some of them even destroyed their body of work. Others hid them locally, in poor conditions. I discovered these hidden treasures in the backrooms of stores, in humid, stuffy, dusty places. 

1975 © Fouad Hamza Tibin / Elnour

What did those studio photos show?

In Mohamed’s photos, you can clearly see a shift. After Independence, many of the images featured women, often in laid back attitudes. They posed on sofas in front of home-painted backgrounds, showing off their gorgeous skin, their shoulders, their legs. You could almost still hear the jazz that was all the rage in those years of peace and the crackling of the foam of locally brewed beers. By 1983, the call to prayer had monopolized the music stand. Photography was repressed with an iron fist and from that point forward, any photo slavishly served government propaganda, be it from a manual photo booth or a military handbook. The women fastened their veils around their necks, and, once they were virtuously covered up, could only travel with a male as chaperone. From then on, the request for passport photos was less of an issue for them. Photography became functional. I remain fascinated by the images produced in the 1970s. They shed light on this little known period of tremendous freedom, when going to a photo studio was like going to a bar. The photo shoot was part of the party. 

1975 © Mohamed Yahia Issa / Elnour

How did you meet the other photographers?

Every photographer I met would recommend another one to me. Mohamed initiated the chain of contacts. Trust was established right away. I was “adopted” into their midst, probably because I myself am a photographer and also because I already spoke a little Arabic. He took me to the studio of his friend Fouad Hamza Tibin (b. 1952), who showed me his body of work from the same period. 

How did those photographers approach the medium?

They aren’t necessarily aware of the historical testimony that their images represent, because their understanding of the medium is unique: many Sudanese photographers, and especially these two, felt that the print concerned only them and the model, because it was the witness to an intimate moment. Some even question showing pictures to others. 

1980 © Abbas Habiballa / Elnour

What was the reason behind this Golden Age of the 70s?

Gaafar Nimeiri, who was in power then, was a big fan of photography and even a collector. In the 1970s, he developed a vast propaganda institution, sort of like the equivalent of the FSA [Farm Security Administration] in the U.S. in the 1930s. He had the entire country documented: harvests, major public works, government actions, military parades, festivals, the arts and crafts industry, markets, nomadic migrations, etc. He spent colossal sums of money on it. 

“Sudanese photographers were genuine pop stars!”

How was that organized?

Many photographers were trained, which explains the sudden rise of photography in this country. Such was the case of Abbas Habiballa (b. 1950) who was trained in Khartoum like his colleagues, and then sent to the governor of his hometown to be the photographer for his administration. Each region was provided with an office, a state-of-the-art photo lab. The photos were carefully edited, documented, indexed and archived in large notebooks. Magnificent objects! 

1975 © Mohamed Yahia Issa / Elnour

How were photographers from that time period perceived?

Like genuine pop stars! Photographers assigned to governors were given plenty of means. They were much envied and respected. This status they enjoyed spread to their colleagues in the city by association. Some, like Abbas Habiballa, would finish their film rolls at home, which produced exceptional images of Sudanese society glimpsed at in an intimate and spontaneous setting. These images often make me feel like I can hear and smell them.

Mur Identités, 2000 © Mohamed Yahia Issa / Elnour

How, in the 2000s, did you come up with the idea to launch Elnour?*

It was obvious that it was imperative to salvage this unique cultural heritage and these already endangered treasures. I founded this structure with Sudanese and foreign scholars (archaeologists, historians, linguists, etc.) and with the photographers, of course. We went through the material together, made several selections, including one that is housed in France. Each member (including myself) remains the owner of his originals. Elnour now counts more than 20,000 pieces: 12,000 negatives and prints from 1890 to the present day (including many portraits), films, a well-stocked library, maps, etc., which are also linked to other fields along with the history of photography. 

1960 © Rashid Mahdi / Elnour

What are Elnour’s objectives?

To safeguard this collection for its historical, aesthetic and philosophical heritage, and to promote it: let people know that there is a unique history of photography in Sudan, and that it is worth seeing. I invite scholars and students to draw from it. Recognition is also achieved through exhibitions, as, for instance, at the Rencontres de Bamako (Mali) in 2005 and at the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2017. It’s a long-term, ongoing process. I send proposals to festivals and institutions. We are able to organize incredible, turnkey exhibitions at a moment’s notice! 

1975 © Mohamed Yahia Issa / Elnour

What other means of promotion are in the works?

This recognition is also reflected in acquisitions by permanent institutions, such as the Quai Branly museum in Paris, which acquired a large collection of works by Rashid Mahdi and Abbas Habiballa. And it is also achieved through publications. We have three books that are currently at the mock-up stage: A History of Photography in Sudan, and two books devoted to Rashid Mahdi (1923-2008), whom I consider to be a national treasure. Two of them will be co-published by Kehrer Verlag (Germany) & Elnour, which also started publishing books since 2012. 

1960 © Rashid Mahdi / Elnour

Interview by Sophie Bernard

Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l’Art, a curator and a teacher at EFET in Paris.

* “Light” in Arabic 

Find more information on Elnour and Claude Iverné here.

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