The fantasy photo booth: in South Sudan, using pictures as 'vacation' from war

Of the hundreds of locations that customers can choose to pose in front of, all share one common quality: They are not South Sudan.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Dream Photo Studio in downtown Juba, South Sudan.

A general in camo posing sternly in front of a pink and blue beach sunset. A small boy holding a mariachi guitar in the yard of an angular McMansion. Two teenage girls giggling as they stand back-to-back in front of a Chinese pagoda.

In a bright and boxy photo studio in South Sudan’s capital, an industrial printer is spitting out a glossy stack of exotic vacation snapshots.

Well, sort of.

“Couches, grand pianos, far away houses – these are the things people most like to have the backgrounds in their pictures,” says Tsedeke Abebaw, the owner of On Time Photo Studios in downtown Juba, barely glancing up from the computer screen in front of him.

A family of four stares back from his open Photoshop window, their faces pursed and serious. Mr. Abebaw double-clicks and suddenly the green wall behind them turns to an image of the Eiffel Tower. He clicks again and it becomes the Copenhagen harbor.

“Perfect,” he murmurs, and hits print.

Across Juba, photo studios like this one appear on the horizon with a frequency akin to Starbucks in Manhattan, wedged among the grocery stores, shisha bars, and tiny cell phone repair shops in nearly every neighborhood here.  

And almost all of them do a brisk business in the same kind of fantasy that Abebaw is creating in his shop. For 100 South Sudanese pounds (about 60 cents), studio proprietors can transport their customers from war-scarred Juba to the Kremlin or a quaint English country house, to the Burj Khalifa or striped red and white lighthouses on a rocky peninsula.

But of the hundreds of locations that customers can choose to pose in front of, all share one common quality: They are not South Sudan.

“Isn’t it obvious why?” says Marko John, owner of Dream, another photo studio in Juba. “Maybe if you look outside your window, you see bad memories. You remember ugly things. People want photos in a place where they don’t have those memories.”

Devastated landscapes

It isn’t that there is nothing beautiful to pose with in South Sudan. Within the vast borders of the world’s newest country are lush tropical forests, dramatic stone mountains, and a vast, sweeping wetland that is home to an annual migration of some 1.2 million gazelle and antelope. Even the capital, Juba, a squat expanse of low-slung concrete buildings, is flanked by the dramatically green savannah that backs up to the edges of the Sahara.  

But if the country isn’t ugly, what’s happened here since its independence in 2011 certainly is. Since the end of 2013, South Sudan has been at war with itself, a bloody conflict that has displaced nearly 4 million people and killed tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands (humanitarian agencies have mostly given up on guessing).

In that time, countless towns and villages have been abandoned and entire pockets of the country have emptied out, their postcard landscapes scarred by burnt-out huts and grenade craters. Even in Juba, the walls outside many government buildings are chipped by gunfire. An abandoned luxury hotel on the capital’s outskirts where a group of guests, including foreign aid workers and journalists, were brutally assaulted last year by government soldiers is now disappearing beneath thick green weeds.

“In South Sudan there are no good places anymore to have photos,” says Cyier Mayar, who has arrived at On Time on a recent Saturday to collect pictures he had taken for his college graduation. “So when you come into the studio you ask for something beautiful.”

'See the world without leaving Juba'

In the shots, Mr. Mayar, who is tall and lanky, with a wide toothy smile, stands in black cap and gown in front of a mass of snow-capped mountain peaks. He flips through his smartphone to show another photo he had taken a few years ago, with Big Ben’s signature clock tower in the background.

“These places are known, they are important places,” he says. “It’s nice to be seen in an important place.”

Like many South Sudanese, Mayar’s family and friends are spread across the world. It’s a kind of cosmopolitanism of necessity that is a legacy of not just the current civil war, but also the five decades of conflict with Sudan that preceded it.

And for many of those years, people here had few ways to imagine what life actually looked like to a migrant living in Detroit, Copenhagen, or Nairobi. But today, that information is available to anyone with a smartphone and a Facebook log-in.

But if technology has brought the world in close, it hasn’t necessarily made it any more accessible. Though many South Sudanese long to move to Europe, Australia, or North America, most who leave the country never make it further than a refugee camp in a neighboring country. And millions more don’t even get that far.

“Photos are a way you can see the world without leaving Juba,” says Seare Abraham, the Eritrean proprietor of Siem Digital Photo Studio. Before he came to South Sudan, he says, he worked in photo studios in Asmara, Eritrea, and Khartoum, Sudan, where most people posed in front of plain backgrounds or simple images of local nature.

“It’s unusual, what people here ask for,” he says.

Memories of family photos

But if the kinds of photos South Sudanese customers want are out of the ordinary, their interest in photo studios is anything but. Indeed, portrait photography has a long and illustrious history in Africa. From Alex Agbaglo Acolatse’s regal shots of the penguin-tailed Togolese elite, in their turn of the 20th-century suits, to Seydou Keita’s famous odes to African patterns on the streets of Bamako, Mali, five decades later, the continent’s portrait photographers have spent more than a century amassing a vast archive of African life that, crucially, isn’t filtered through the gaze of white people.

Still, South Sudan’s civil war has warped the boundaries of that tradition. Mr. John, who owns Dream photo studio, remembers visiting photo studios with his family when he was a child in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, in the 1990s. In those days, he says, “you just took photos of whatever you were standing in front of.”

He lost most of those family photos in a house fire four years ago, he says, but there is one shot that’s lodged tightly in his memory. He is eight or nine years old, clutching the arm of his grandmother in one hand and a glass bottle of Pepsi in the other, his face a blur of laughter. “There was Pepsi coming out my nose,” he remembers.

Now – at least when the power is on or there’s enough gas available to run his generator, which is less and less often these days – he mostly prints photos of people pretending they are in far-off places. But John himself still prefers realistic shots.

“For me, I need to live with the moment,” he says, watching rain hammer down on the tin roofs outside. “Even if they are bad, I need photos that represent my real memories.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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