December 31, 2009

But why THAT photo? / « Et vous là bas, votre permis il est où, hein ? »


Above: the church in question / L'église  de JC en question

Burundi is a country, one could justly say, with a tormented history splashing from its tumbled colonization, wars and genocide. The people are still on whole subjected to their traumas which are compound and ever present. Saying this then, it is but a preface to understanding why in some countries such as Burundi, photography is less welcome than in others. That is completely understandable and more so to be respected. To pull a camera from ones bag is always a complex gesture which needs constant reflexion and regularly should be justified. Quite often in Africa, the psychosis of misunderstanding leads to the assumption that “whites come to photograph poor blacks to sell for the defamation and misleading image of a place/people for great quantities of money.” This sentiment exists, though not overwhelmingly, in Burundi. Though more often the case, Burundians mistrust the camera as a tool of spies infiltrating their still shaky frontier.

Eugénie had only minor problems herself with this matter, but began her very first day in the country while visiting a trade town in the south called Makamba. A minor authority of the region, and apparently also plain-clothed police officer, happened to be walking by as she jovially captured a photo of a gorgeous building housing the office of the “Church of Jesus Christ, conduit for the Holy Spirit, and garage, hair salon, studio, and center for mechanic studies”. The man blurted out rudely,

“Eh, hey you! Show me your authorization papers for the photo! You have a permit?”

“(naively) Not really, I thought (though hadn’t really considered it) there was no need for authorization unless it was a strategic military space or government building. This church and street are public space, right?”

The fine sir quickly reflected deeply, searching whether there was any permit in existence needed for photos in a public space. He clearly didn’t know what was the law, and wasn’t sure whether or not we were bluffing. He quickly demanded our passports and visas, and said that that was enough. It was a quick and painless interaction, though it peaked our interests in the subject. So far on our trip, the only country a permit was required in order to take photos in public had been Sudan, and that had been a hectic and frustrating ordeal to ascertain. Since we didn’t really know what the laws were in the country, we wanted to be careful. Rule number one: always keep memory cards hidden on your body and not in the camera in case someone decides harshly to delete them as a precaution. Number two: find out what your rights are in order to properly argue with an official a little less easy going than this one. But who to ask, as not to bring attention to oneself and bring new questions to the table?

A few days later we arrived in Bujumbura, and headed to the official Office of the Ministry of Tourism in the town. The minister’s futile an unknowledgeable authority on the matter, or perhaps his disinterest for the function and affairs of the state with regards to those under the heading of tourists (his sector of specialty - even more shocking) was less than well hidden during the conversation, though he did vehemently guarantee us that “photography is always welcome in Burundi, because we want the world to know about Burundi. You have every right to photograph wherever you please, with the exception of military, government, and strategic locations (such as bridges).” He was not able to suggest anywhere nice to visit in Burundi, or anything to do as a tourist, but was very kind indeed.

The same day, while Eugénie was photographing the large Independence Memorial (an ugly roundabout in center Bujumbura) a car swerved in front of her carrying two plain-clothed police officers (more secret police than regular police in town) DEMANDING to see her written authorization to take photographs in Burundi. When she argued that she had checked with the office of tourism and they insisted that no such permit existed, their questions changed to, “why are you taking a photograph of THAT?” To simplify the debate with the two ignoramuses, she offered a “pre-recorded” response devised after the exuberant speech of the minister of tourism, “why because it’s such a beautiful roundabout don’t you think? I think my family and friends in France will be so excited to see how wonderful Burundi is! (Insert seductive pouty smile)” Both suddenly made clear that they too were unaware whether any such permit existed or not. They parted with a few words re-emphasizing the opinions of the minister of tourism that Burundi loves for the world to see its beauty. Neither brought the law back into the debate. The problem was becoming two fold. If no one knows the law, it doesn’t matter if we don’t need a permit, because they could easily create a problem for us anyhow. Also, if there is need for a permit and everyone is incorrect, then one of these days we will have a real problem even though we have no idea where to find such a permit.

It was a few weeks before the problem reared its head again. In the central market of Bujumbura, where she had been snapping bundles of photos daily for weeks) we were strolling along to purchase some delicious bread from our favorite vendor (a fine gentlemen indeed), when the torrential downpour of seasonal rain began. An obvious photo came into view, almost too self evident: a tomato vendor alone (as all the others had run from the rain with their product sacks in hand) with her naked baby under an umbrella. Soon after, a dense young officer arrived in his rain cape demanding Eugénie’s permit to photograph. She explained that the permit doesn’t exist, and he told us we must come down to the station with him. We refused, demanding he telephone his superior to speak with us since we were sure no permit existed and that he simply didn’t know the law. Soon six officers with guns arrived and dramatically escorted us (to the great laughter of the vendors) from the market. No one listened to our explanations, and neither could they speak intelligible French enough for us to communicate with any ease. We arrived at the police station and waited to speak to the chief officer, Felix, who was responsible for all police matters within range of the central market. The prisoners to our side banged violently to their bars as we walked by. Felix, a kind, intelligent and reasonable man explained for the first time that a “special permit” existed just for the zone of the central market of Bujumbura.

“You know those people in Somalia, those Al Qaeda, you know them and what they do, right?”

I assumed he was speaking of the El-Shebab (not Al Qaeda), and probably alluding to a fear of retro-active terrorism for Burundi’s role along with Uganda in the American financed East African military action against the group in Somalia. We asked him if we looked Somalia, and he at least laughed a bit. To convince us of the legitimacy of the new law, he added:

“And also it is for your security, so that no one can aggress you or steal your camera.”

We certainly felt much safer in hands of these officers, I can assure you. Then he demanded we show him all of our video footage. We spent many long minutes working hard to convince him and the gang of officers now behind us in the room that it is a photo camera and has no videos on it. He proceeded to look through every photo and finally demanded, “wait, and WHY did you take this photo?”

“Because it was beautiful”

“What’s beautiful about it?”

“The vendors, the rain, the chicken…all of it is beautiful.”

“But it’s poor looking. Look at the tomatoes on the ground and the poverty. That’s not beautiful.”

“That’s not poverty, that’s a market, and it’s the same everywhere in Burundi, and Africa, and even in the markets of France.”

But look here, there’s the police line. This is a strategic photo and you have to delete it.”

“But if I get the permit with you, then I’ll just come tomorrow and take the same photo, so lets just see if they give me a permit first and then I’ll delete it.”

The next day we went with Felix to another office in a building just around the corner to obtain the necessary permit. No one was working that day, so they said to come back the next day. We came back the following day, but still the officer in charge of giving the permits was not there. Come back in three days (Monday). We came back Monday, after a weekend of taking many photos in the market and visiting our friend Felix, and finally we were directed to an office of the man responsible of the market.

He demanded Eugénie’s nationality but did not ask for proof. He made us wait a few moments as he made a telephone call. He then told us, “you may go, there’s an officer waiting for you downstairs”.

“For what?”

“To escort you through the market”

“We don’t need an escort, we need a permit authorizing her to take photos in the market”

He looked confused for a moment before saying:

“There is no permit to take photos in the market. Sometimes we offer police to keep people from being harassed but you are free to take photos wherever you want in the market!”

“Please sir, can you just write something on a piece of paper saying that so that when we get harassed next time we can show that we have a permit?”

Annoyed, he quickly scribbled on a torn piece of desk paper:

Authorization: The two people carry this piece of paper which authorizes them to take photographs and certain images of the central market in Bujumbura

Signed: The chief of exploitation services

He never even asked or wrote our names. Sadly no one ever again asked to see our authorization, and this piece of paper remained but a sweet souvenir of our wasted time, tucked away in Eugénie’s camera bag.


Above: the roundabout in question / Le rond-point en question

« Et vous là bas, votre permis il est où, hein ? », l’histoire de la photographe à la recherche d’un permis de photographier.

Le Burundi a connu une histoire tourmentée parsemée de colonialisme, de guerres et de génocides. La population en souffre encore aujourd’hui et les traumatismes sont plus que jamais présents. Un photographe n’est alors jamais vraiment le bienvenu. Tout cela se comprend et surtout cela se respecte. Sortir un appareil photo est alors toujours un geste complexe qu’il faut réfléchir et régulièrement justifier. Très souvent en Afrique, la psychose du «blanc venu photographier des pauvres noirs pour vendre leurs malheurs et gagner beaucoup beaucoup d’argent» est coriace. Au Burundi c’est un petit peu le cas, mais au Burundi on se méfie aussi des espions.

Mon aventure photographique burundaise commence à Makamba, une ville au sud du pays. Un petit fonctionnaire en manque d’autorité m’interpelle devant ce bâtiment grandiose qui fait office « d’église de JC conduite par le Saint Esprit » mais aussi de garage, d’atelier de couture, de studio et de centre de formation mécanique.

- « Euh, vous avez une autorisation pour les photos ? » demande t- il.

- « Pas vraiment, surtout qu’il s’agit d’un espace public qui n’est ni un lieu ni stratégique, ni officiel »

Très rapidement il se révèle que le cher monsieur ne sait pas vraiment de quoi il parle, à ses yeux un visa d’entrée et permis photo c’est un peu pareil. Cet épisode sans grand intérêt à au moins l’avantage de me servir d’avertissement. Etre photographe en « zone mouvementée » demande quelques précautions de base à savoir ne jamais garder trop de clichés ni de cartes mémoires sur soi. Règle numéro deux : se renseigner sur ce qui se fait et surtout ne se fait pas. Auprès de qui ? Cela reste la question.

Première étape, direction d’Office du Tourisme officiel tenu par des agents du gouvernement. La méconnaissance démentielle et le désintérêt tout aussi hallucinant du fonctionnaire pour le pays ne l’empêche pas de me garantir que les photographes sont les bienvenus

- « bien au contraire faites des photos ! il faut que l’on parle du Burundi à l’étranger ! », s’exclame t-il.

- « Vous avez tous les droits sauf celui de photographier les installations militaires et gouvernementales » fini t-il par ajouter. Très bien, ce brave homme n’aura pas été capable de me donner l’envie de visiter le pays mais au moins il m’a renseigné.

Très rapidement à la vue de mon appareil photo tous les policiers en uniforme ou en civil viennent me poser la question suivante : « vous avez un permis ? ». La version « pourquoi prenez vous cette photo ? » est aussi récurrente. Pour simplifier les débats ma réponse est elle aussi prémâchée « et bien c’est un très joli rond point vous ne trouvez pas ? Je pense que mes amis en France vont adorer vous savez ! ». Car le policier burundais est vaillant, même s’il ne connait pas la loi, il se lance. C’est donc moi, qui répétant gentiment les mots de notre officier du tourisme leur mentionne la règle.

- « Ah très bien, vous avez raison, c’est vrai il faut montrer le Burundi » me répond-t on. Le problème du permis photo semble donc régler puisqu’il n’existe tout simplement pas.

Quelques semaines plus tard, la tourmente reprend. Sur le marché central et sous une pluie torrentielle la photo est évidente, une petite vendeuse de tomates est seule avec son bébé sans culotte sous un parapluie. Un petit officier teigneux à décidé qu’il me fallait à nouveau un permis. D’agents en agents de police tous aussi incompétents et désagréables, nous arrivons dans le bureau du major Félix, responsable du poste de police du marché. Les prisonniers tapent fort sur les barreaux. Félix est un homme très aimable, accueillant il m’explique enfin pourquoi il existe un « permis spécial » pour la zone du marché central :

- « Vous savez avec ces gens en Somalie, ces terroristes d’Al-Qaeda, vous connaissez Al-Qaeda oui ? Et bien les règles de sécurité ont changé, nous devons être vigilants ».

- « Et puis c’est pour votre sécurité, il ne faut pas que quelqu’un vous attaque ou vous vole votre appareil photo ». Je le remercie grandement de l’intérêt qu’il porte à mon intégrité physique.

Pour sa défense il est vrai qu’une milice somalienne à récemment et directement menacé le gouvernement de Bujumbura pour avoir envoyé des forces militaires en Somalie.

- « Montrez-moi vos vidéos » me demande t-il alors. Lui et ses collègues persuadés que je possède une caméra n’ont donc pas vraiment compris l’objet du délit. Devant ma photo il me questionne sérieusement :

Vous voyez pourquoi on ne peut tolérer cette photo ? »

Non pas vraiment, je vois des vendeuses de tomates, de la pluie et un poulet »

Oui, mais il y a aussi le fil »

Ah, le fil ! Le fameux fil, cette barrière infranchissable qui « bloque » l’entrée du marché gardée par au moins deux policiers. Je l’avoue et je m’en excuse pleinement, en quatrième plan, le fil est sur ma photo.

Félix m’explique alors que ce permis est très facile à obtenir, il suffit d’ne faire la demande auprès de la direction du marché, ce dernier nous conduit même dans le bureau du responsable malheureusement absent à ce jour.

Suite à trois vaines tentatives, nous rencontrons enfin cette fameuse personne. Très étonné par ma requête l’homme réfléchi et passe quelques coups de téléphone,

- « Un policier vous attend en bas » m’annonce t-il solennellement

- « Cher monsieur j’ai été arrêtée par la police au sujet d’un permis que vous vous devez de me délivrer, je ne veux pas de policier mais je ne quitterai pas ce bureau sans ce permis ».

Blasé, indifférent, et sans poser plus de questions, l’homme découpe alors une feuille et griffonne sur un quart du tiers du papier ces mots suivants :

Autorisation : Ces deux personnes porteuses de ce papier sont autorisées à photographier certaines images du marché central de Bujumbura.

Le chef du service d’exploitation.


Above: the rainy market in question / Le marché pluvieux en question