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Magnum Photos and returnees join forces to tell stories from West Africa

Amanda Nero
West Africa
Cowrie 5

Photography is to capture an image that should leave an impression in someone's mind.

-Abdul Kharim, Migrants as Messengers Volunteer in Sierra Leone.

Together, the international photographic cooperative, Magnum Photos, and IOM’s Migrants as Messengers (MaM) project trained returnee migrants from West Africa to tell vivid and poignant stories from their countries to create a photobook showcasing 16 unique stories. More than just a visual exercise, the training was a dialogue between communities and storytellers. Through their stories, MaM Volunteers (returnees) provide genuine insights into the complex realities in Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone, unveiling contrasting fragments of reality.

MaM volunteers are returnees who have left their countries for different reasons –some were looking for education abroad, others hoped to improve their economic status, and some fled family violence. Instead, many faced the dangers of irregular migration, including imprisonment, economic hardships and physical abuse.

One of the photo stories, captured by Fatou in Senegal, sheds light on a practice that affects nearly 2 million women (UNICEF, 2022) in Senegal: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Using a tomato, a white tissue, the help of her daughter and the guidance of Lindokuhle Sobekwa, the Magnum Photos photographer, Fatou exposes and explores this taboo.

Caption: On of the images created by Fatou to compose her story “The tomato and the blade” about FMG. Photo: Fatou Guet Ndiaye/ IOM 2022

“I am aware of the intelligence and capacity of women and how we can develop the world, yet women still suffer in our society. As a woman who is involved in gender equality, including combating all violence against women, I believe that one of the biggest violations of women’s rights is to deprive us of our happiness and to reduce our sexual pleasure,” explains Fatou.

Caption: Fatou working on the “The tomato and the blade” story under Magnum Photos’ photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa guidance on the dunes of the Pink Lake in Senegal. Photo: Amanda Nero/IOM 2022

In June 2022, a 5-day photography and storytelling workshop run by Magnum Photos in Dakar, Senegal, trained 21 MaM Volunteers from seven countries to create captivating photo stories. While all volunteers received online guidance from Magnum Photos and IOM, Magnum Photos photographers Cristina de Middel, Thomas Dworzak and Lindokuhle Sobekwa, worked with the Volunteers in three selected countries - Guinea, Sierra Leone and Senegal - to help shape their stories. .

“Participants offer inward-looking stories about their lives and community stories which are all connected but different. These stories come alive in the pictures: loss, grief, healing, pride, bond, and joy. Photography is a great vehicle of expression. These stories open a much bigger conversation,” explains Lindokuhle Sobekwa, Magnum Photo Photographer working with the MaM volunteers in Senegal.

Caption: Abdul Kahrim working on his story “Strangers in the Night” under Magnum Photos’ photographer Thomas Dworzak guidance in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo: Badara Fall /IOM 2022

Exploring another important issue in the region, human trafficking, Smith in Liberia created a photo story on a Liberian woman who was tricked by the promise of a well-paid job abroad only to end up in modern slavery. Smith was initially connected with this young woman because he met a family member of hers at the airport on his way to the workshop in Dakar. The case was referred to IOM who were able to help the young woman return safely home to Liberia.

The stories in this book expose different perspectives of returning migrants, shedding light on their challenges and reasons for embarking on these dangerous journeys, whereas media reports often only focus on the difficulties migrants experience on an irregular migration journey.

Caption: Under the guidance of the Magnum Photos photographer Cristina de Middel, the young farmer Maurice works on his project to inspire the youth's interest in agriculture. Photo: Amanda Nero / IOM 2022

In 2019, Fatou became a volunteer in Migrants as Messengers (MaM) to empower young people in West Africa to make informed decisions on migration. She is a mother, a graphic designer and is one of the authors in this photobook.

“Being a young dreamer, I wanted to study medicine in Spain,” explained Fatou.

In 2006, Fatou got on a “pirogue” heading to Europe. After several days floating on the vast sea, the fuel bottles were empty. They turned back and returned to Saint Louis in the north of Senegal.

The collaborative process of creating the photobook encouraged the Volunteers to look at themselves, not as migrants but as protagonists in their countries, where they are building a life for themselves and their families. The photobook is titled Cowries, a seashell commonly found in West African clothing and jewelry. Used as money in the past, the white shell is also used by the Yoruba (an ethnic group in West Africa) to tell fortunes. The photo stories are like cowries, in that they are unique and plural at the same time. Each unique story mirrors similar realities in this region, amplifying the voices of its people. Cowries is available online here.

Amanda Nero is a Media Development Officer for the Migrants as Messengers project at IOM Regional Office for West and Central Africa

The cooperative press agency Magnum Photos was founded in 1947, following the aftermath of the Second World War, by four pioneering photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour. After 75 years, the agency and collective of photographers is still committed to maintain its ideals and deontology, an idiosyncratic mix of journalists, artists and storytellers; sharing a vision to chronicle world events, people, places and culture with a powerful narrative that defies convention, shatters the status quo, redefines history and transforms lives.