David Pace has been teaching photography in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. As Resident Director of Santa Clara University’s study abroad program in West Africa from 2009-2013, Pace spent ten weeks each fall in the small country of Burkina Faso, where he has been photographing annually since 2007. He continues to document daily life in the remote village of Bereba and works with the NGO Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL), which builds libraries in rural villages throughout Burkina Faso and Northern Ghana. Pace’s photographs have been exhibited and published internationally.
David's photo essay "Market Day" appears in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, published October 2015.
Q. When did you first become interested in photography?
A. I started taking pictures as a child. I received my first camera as a birthday present when I was eight. I got seriously interested in photography many years later and began taking photo classes in the 1980s. I went to graduate school at San Jose State University for an MFA in 1987 and have been working professionally as a photographer ever since.
Q. What do you see as the qualities of a good photograph?
A. Talking about his films, director Alfred Hitchcock used to say, “Drama is like life with the dull bits left out.” My sense is that a good photograph is similar. It requires a strong subject with the distracting elements left out. A good photograph must have great light and strong composition, and must be taken at exactly the right moment.
Q. It has been said that photography is the language that can be understood by everyone. Do you feel that this is an accurate statement? Why do you agree or disagree?
A. Photography gives the viewer an immediate experience, which may be richer and more direct than a written or verbal description. But some photographs, especially those involving other cultures, require a bit of background information to be completely understood. For example, most of my subjects do not smile for the camera. Some Western viewers have interpreted this as a sign of unhappiness. However in West African, there’s no expectation that one should smile for a portrait. Smiling for the camera is not a convention in Burkina Faso.
Q. When our readers think of Under the Gum Tree, they likely first associate the magazine with the nonfiction essays we are known for. How do you feel a photo essay fits in with these narrative glimpses into our contributors’ lives?
A. My photo essay fits quite well into the narrative structure of the nonfiction essays in Under the Gum Tree. I’ve been photographing in Bereba for ten years. My project is to document daily life in the village. I’m trying to construct a visual narrative that reveals the reality and complexity of life in a typical village without romanticizing or contributing to the many common negative stereotypes of Africa. The market day photos are one chapter of a larger visual narrative.
Q. Everyone has heard the anecdote "a picture is worth a thousand words." In what way do you see truth in this statement and how understand photographs to tell a story?
A. A photograph is full of visual information on many levels – personal, cultural, historical, geographical, psychological, etc. One could spend a lot of time unpacking the many layers of meaning in a single photograph. A series of photographs invites comparisons. Exploring their differences and similarities tells a story.
Q. How do you choose a subject for your photos?
A. I look for people with expressive faces and interesting clothing. Often my subjects approach me and ask to be photographed. I take many more photos than I could ever use. The editing process is extensive. I select the photographs with the best lighting and compositions.
Q. Do you pose the subject before taking the photograph? Is there a reason one way or the other?
A. I choose the background first and tell my subjects where to stand. But I don’t give them any other instructions. I wait for them to be at ease. My subjects all know me so they’re comfortable being photographed.
Q. At the heart of these photographs are bright colors. How do you feel that this represents the village?
A. People in the village are very creative and intentional about the way they dress. Bright colors and contrasting patterns are very characteristic. To me the color in the photographs emphasizes the vibrancy of the culture. I enjoy the challenge of creating a coherent composition from so many disparate colors and patterns.
Q. All of the photographs use clothes or fabric as a backdrop. Why did you opt for this background over other scenes of the market?
A. For the Market Day series I am drawing on a tradition of West African portraiture that uses complex patterned backdrops. I have been influenced by the work Seydou Keita, a portrait photographer from Mali. All of his work was in black & white. I am adding the element of color, paying homage to him and his style in the context of contemporary Africa.
Q. In what ways do you feel these photographs accurately portray the people and culture you have photographed?
A. These photographs accurately portray my relationship with the people. The villagers of Bereba know me well. They trust me to photograph them the way they want to be seen. I’ve lived in the village long enough to understand the customs and traditions, so I feel that there’s a mutuality of respect. Every photo is a collaboration. We each have a role in the creation of the image. Together we are creating a visual record of the community. Each year when I return, I give prints to all the people I photographed the year before. They know that they are collaborating in the creation of a portrait that they will receive.