During her two month long residency in Saint-Louis, Senegal, photographer Sonia D’Argenzio shot everything on 35mm film, and therefore had to wait until her return to Toronto to see what she had managed to capture. “You forget sometimes what you’ve shot and you just pray that the film isn’t ruined by the heat.” She need not have worried; D’Argenzio’s photographs of her time in Senegal are utterly beautiful, and offer a varied and interesting view of the west African country. Senegal is a place with which she has been intrigued since childhood: what with her father having spent time in the country and having nurtured a correspondence with a Senegalese penpal when she was young. Coincidentally, the organisation that arranged penpal communication between children in Canada and Senegal had been based in the very same building that now houses the residency D’Argenzio attended.
Saint-Louis is an island in the north of Senegal, small enough that “you could probably walk around it in two hours,” D’Argenzio explains, “and I kind of got cabin fever after a while. But there are two islands: there is the island of Saint-Louis, and then there is another island called Ndar Ndar. The latter is even smaller, with a completely different culture, completely different language – it’s entirely separate.” Travelling around the region and between these two islands accounts for the notable variety in D’Argenzio’s shots: stark landscapes and black and white views across the sea sit amongst imposing architecture, or a swarm of pelicans mid-flight. This last shot was taken at a bird sanctuary: home to “thousands of them. I have a photograph of the largest spectrum but you can’t really make sense of it because there are so many and they are such giant birds,” she remembers.
While the residency was not specifically rooted in working with the local community, it was something that was encouraged and undertaken by most. D’Argenzio found herself working with a local rapper named One Pac, on the filming of his latest music video. “I was with one of the guys in the residency that filmed the main thing, but he only spoke English so I helped translate everything for him and picked up some shots. It took six weeks to do but it was great because, through One Pac, we got to meet so many people and go to different neighborhoods that we wouldn’t have had access to and wouldn’t have thought of going to.” It was working on One Pac’s music video that D’Argenzio came across something she could never have imagined encountering in Senegal: a poster of one-time Canadian pop sensation, Avril Lavigne. “It was in this barber shop, and no one knew why I found it hilarious.”
Each photograph is a small but fascinating insight into an aspect of life in the Saint-Louis region of Senegal, infinitely alluring to look at, and each with an anecdote behind it, a few of which D’Argenzio shared over the phone. Take the gargantuan concrete building made up of jutting rectangular shapes and seemingly devoid of human presence: “that’s the campus of the university of Saint-Louis. With all the really odd shapes, it was hard to get a photograph of it where it made any sense at all. And then there were just so many people playing soccer around the building, so it was hard to get an angle where there was nobody around it.” There’s the voyeuristic image of two men wrestling, taken during some town-wide independence day celebrations. “It’s a form of wrestling that they practise there, but it’s cool because it’s really mystical,” she says. “They put a lot of like oils and potions underneath their belts before they fight. There will be two guys fighting in the middle and then there will be another two kind of walking around the ring and preparing themselves, doing what looks like a dance or a chant, then they will be hosed down with water or oil. So there is this kind of magical, mystical element to them fighting.”