Imaging Culture: Photography in Mali, West Africa

The following is a guest blog post written by Candace M. Keller, author of Imaging Culture: Photography in Mali, West Africa

People often ask me how I came to study photography in Mali. 

In 1999, early in my graduate studies in African art history, I wrote a seminar paper on the work of Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé shortly after their images were first popularized in international exhibitions and in a handful of influential publications, especially two monographs by André Magnin published in 1997 (on Keïta) and 1998 (on Sidibé). Featuring a stunning collection of portraits and party photos, my interest was readily piqued. Accompanied by a dearth of information, however, I was left with far more questions than answers: What were these photographers’ networks, social roles, and professional contributions? When and how did a local market for photography in Mali develop? Who were the first photographers, and what avenues were available to young practitioners at that time? What relationship did photography have to other visual cultural practices in the country, and what ideas are expressed in these images?

In the summer of 2002, after studying the local language, Bamanankan, for three years, I traveled to Mali’s capital city Bamako hoping to learn more. Shortly after I arrived, Malick Sidibe’s cousin, Brehima—a language professor and research assistant to several American scholars in Mali—introduced me to the famous photographer at his studio in the Bagadadji neighborhood. I was worried that he might not be interested in my project because he was used to being approached by dealers and collectors. As a graduate student, on a grant, I had nothing to offer but my time and my interest. I quickly learned these were precisely the resources he had been seeking. Committed to researching the broad history of photographic practice in Mali, Sidibé helped to facilitate the project by introducing me to many of his colleagues, particularly elder photographers, from many different areas of the country. After a few months, I had become acquainted with dozens of practitioners, some of their patrons, and many of their associates, who agreed to work with me. With the support of Fulbright-Hays, I spent 2003-4 conducting field and archival research throughout Mali, working with over eighty professional photographers and their studio archives, tracing their networks from Bamako to Ségu, Mopti, Timbuktu, Gao, and back, forming the foundation for my doctoral dissertation in 2008. Over the past thirteen years, I have continued this research, learning from photographers’ technical processes, aesthetic approaches, and business practices, as well as the cultural, political, and spiritual aspects of photography in Mali. In the process, I became aware of the primary challenges many of the photographers and the custodians of their archives face in the 21st c.: the physical preservation of their archives; their protection from theft, retention, and unauthorized exploitation in international markets (see video below for more information); and their accessibility to research and education around the world. 

To address these concerns, since 2010, several photographers and their archival custodians have collaborated with me and Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University to develop the Archive of Malian Photography (AMP). Thus far, AMP has preserved, cataloged, digitized, and rendered globally accessible over 100,000 negatives from the archives of five locally and/or internationally renowned professional photographers: Mamadou Cissé, Adama Kouyaté, Abdourahmane Sakaly, Malick Sidibé, and Tijani Sitou (the archive of a sixth photographer, Félix Diallo, will soon be added thanks to a partnership with his family and photo historian Érika Nimis). As a result, Imaging Culture and AMP are closely connected, with the book’s digital appendix of photographers’ biographies accessible on the AMP website (

I hope both Imaging Culture and AMP prove valuable to diverse audiences around the world. I anticipate Malian audiences will feel proud of their cultural heritage and the talented photographers who served their communities documenting popular trends, social movements, and political events over the past seventy years, now bringing local cultural values and aesthetic principles to global audiences. I expect international audiences will appreciate the artistry, creativity, and wisdom these images communicate—challenging cultural biases and misinformation and offering new ways of seeing and participating in the world as global citizens. 

About the Author

Candace M. Keller is Associate Professor of African Art and Visual Culture in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design at Michigan State University. She also directs the Archive of Malian Photography (, and is Associate Director of Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University. View more of her work on:

Imaging Culture: Photography in Mali, West Africa

by Candace M. Keller

Available wherever books are sold.