Jessica Madavo’s Photographs Capture the Everyday Beauty of Senegal

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Black Star
Black StarPhotography by Jessica Madavo

“The project shows Black people in Senegal, but the fact that they’re Black or the Black experience isn’t the focus. I’m just showing everyday people,” says Jessica Madavo of her new photo book, Black Star

Born and raised in South Africa, photographer Jessica Madavo made the decision to leave home and study in the UK when she was 15. It was here that she discovered her love for photography, and began capturing the stories around her as a means to blend into an otherwise alienating setting far from home. “Making friends at my school was difficult for me because everyone would hang out in the cafe and smoke cigarettes and I just felt like that wasn’t me, so the only way I could socialise and kind of fit in was by taking photos of them,” she recalls of her time in boarding school. “I really connected with my photography teacher and he was the one who encouraged me to take photos of people and develop them. It turned out to be such a great way to meet people as I was spending so much one-on-one time with them.”

When it came to picking her A-levels, Madavo scrapped her initial plans of studying politics and economics in favour of photography and art history – much to the despair of her family. Fast forward to today and that decision has paid off, with both a Fashion Communication and Promotion degree from Central Saint Martins under her belt and the launch of her new photography book, Black Star. Shot in and inspired by a recent trip to Dakar, Senegal, the impressive debut, and final project for her degree gathers a collection of film photos capturing the beauty of mundane life in the Senegalese capital; from soft, hazy days at the beach to the dizziness of hectic traffic on the streets. “I always knew that I really wanted my final project to be based on this idea of home and that I didn’t want it to be a fashion story, but because of the pandemic I couldn’t go home. Senegal is a place I have always wanted to visit as well as other West African countries like Ghana, so I went with my mum for three weeks. Neither of us speak French but we got there and instantly, there was a warm feeling. It almost felt like a hug,” Madavo recalls. “It just felt like home, and I thought that was really special, so I decided to start taking photos.”

Having divided her time up to see and experience different parts of the country, Madavo met with local artists who introduced her to the city’s cultural scene for further inspiration and an overall understanding of the work and spaces for aspiring creatives in Senegal. “Some friends of mine had connected me with Senegalese artists who took me to local galleries and showed me some of their work. I actually began a collaborative project that I’m currently working on with one of the artists I met out there named Bassirou Fall, but after the trip I came home with all these photos I had taken and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with them. I knew that I wanted to create something physical, so my tutor helped me print some of the pictures, which ended up becoming around 200 pages,” she explains. While the selection process was hard initially, she eventually narrowed down the photos to the ones that summed up her overall feel for the country. “My favorite photo is the side profile portrait of the girl with her hair in cornrows and these amazing gold star-shaped earrings.  She was walking on the street and I remember seeing her and telling her 'you're so beautiful, this is going to be my next hairstyle.’”

What Madavo enjoyed the most was simply witnessing people going about their lives and catching small snippets of their movements on her camera. “The way of life there was just so beautiful to watch. People really make the most of their surroundings and what they have,” she says. “One thing about myself, especially at this present moment, is that I don’t necessarily feel like I’m making work that needs to be defined or boxed into a certain category. The project shows Black people in Senegal, but the fact that they’re Black or the Black experience isn’t the focus. I’m just showing everyday people living their everyday lives, be it a group of friends on a beach or two boys walking hand-in-hand on a bridge and sharing a beautiful moment of intimacy.”

Black Star by Jessica Madavo is available to buy from Reference Point, and an exhibition of her work is currently on display there until July 5.