Meeting ‘Les Sapeurs’ and Central Africa Photos

I went to Kinshasa in 2016 after having seen a photo by Johnny Haglund (from Norway) of ‘Les Sapeurs’ in the 2015 ‘Travel Photographer of The Year’ competition. A ‘Sapeur’ is a person who typically lives in the slum but likes to dress up in fancy second hand western designer clothes – and show this of in public. I wanted to photograph them but had no idea how to find them. Les Sapeurs have been very rarely documented by western media so not much info was available.

I spent 4 days zig-zagging through Kinshasas (very dense) traffic looking for them and asking people for advice. I finally managed to arrange a private 50 USD photo-shoot with 3 ‘hired’ Sapeurs. I arranged a private taxi for us to go to 3 selected Kinshasa locations and we ended up in the cemetery in the Gombé district. Here lies the grave of the founder of the Sapeur movement and his followers are known to dance on his grave each year on the day of his death. Unfortunately the cemetery was fenced of though and the gate was locked…

Luckily we chose to wait around a little and by chance we met a television lady with heavy pink lipstick who suddenly turned up and told us she was about to film a group of Sapeurs inside the graveyard. She kindly invited us in. After the Sapeur interview quite a few Sapeurs joined the three I had hired – they all went to the founder’s grave – and they all started dancing. I started snapping away – and I could not believe my luck..

After this I went home to my hotel and left my big Nikon there and headed to the outskirts of town to pick up my visa for the Central African Republic. On my way back I was sitting on the back of a Moto (motorcycle taxi) driven by a very young guy named Patrick (who had no idea how to find his way to central Kinshasa since he did not normally go there). When we were lost in traffic somewhere suddenly a long row of dozens of Sapeurs materialized in the middle of the road (…). Since I had left my Nikon at my hotel, I had to photograph them using only my iPhone.
A few months later when I was writing the now finally published article, I saw a caption under one of the few photographs ever taken of the Sapeurs (taken by a local photographer and sold to AFP). It said that the day the Sapeurs dance on the grave – and the day the founder died – is February 10th.
With trembling hands I reached for my travel diary and realized that I – by PURE CHANCE – had gone to Kinshasa and had arranged my model Sapeur photoshoot on THAT VERY SAME DATE…ie on the anniversary of the founders death…which would explain the television interview, the opening of the gate, the dancing on the grave and the processions in the streets on the outskirts of Kinshasa…
Between the many times I have been extremely lucky on my many travels – this may be the luckiest…
Danish version can be read – including front page and editorial mention of me visiting every country – here

Selected photos from my February 2016 trip to 9 countires in Central Africa:

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