A face, half-covered by verdant leaves and intersecting branches, confronts the camera. Two brown eyes, belonging to Kalidou, a 23-year-old Gambian man, pierce through the bushes. His gaze is unflinching. In this single shot, documentary photographer Aria Shahrokhshahi captures both the curiosity and determination that permeates his series, Kalidou.
Photographed in February 2018, over a one-month period, the series explores Kalidou’s gradual loss of sight. Shahrokhshahi’s photographs aim to raise awareness of Kalidou’s condition and accompany a Gofundme campaign that is raising funds that will pay for Kalidou to receive a corneal transplant in each eye. “Kalidou is 23-years-old and is going blind,” says Shahrokhshahi. He has got something called Keratoconus which is a thickening and misshaping of the cornea. I could really see his pain and frustration. Some days, if the sun was too bright, he would not even be able to go outside.” Photographs of Kalidou’s eyes peering through holes and silhouetted bodies subtly draw attention to his degenerative eye disease without explicitly pointing to the condition.
The finished project goes much deeper than the health problem, coming together as a depiction of the machinations of domestic life in The Gambia. From documenting unique customs – including Kankorang, a traditional west African performance dance – to everyday activities, Shahrokhshahi’s images tell a coming of age story that is at once personal and relatable. The juxtaposition of light and shadow, sobriety and play illustrates Shahrokhshahi’s preoccupation with the liminal space between childhood and adulthood. Our glimpse into Kalidou’s life is, in part, a reflection on youth and friendship anywhere in the world.
Shahrokhshahi never set out to photograph Kalidou. On a spontaneous trip to the west coast of Africa, the filmmaker and photographer met him by chance and the two immediately became friends. “He [Kalidou] has got a fantastic sense of humour,” says Shahrokhshahi. “He’s incredibly intelligent – he speaks six languages. And we both share a passion for very, very tasty Gambian food.”
Following this initial introduction, Shahrokhshahi was invited to spend some time living with Kalidou. “We slept on the same bed together, we had breakfast together, we spent all day together. In the evenings we would sit with Kalidou’s family and share stories about each other’s experiences lives,” he says. “I’ve rarely felt so welcomed into a household or community.” This experience proved fertile ground for making the series: familiarity with his subjects earned Shahrokhshahi the trust he needed to create the portraits. “When I first arrived, Kalidou and his family hadn’t seen a camera without a screen on the back before; a lot of the expectations that they had around taking photographs were not there,” he recalls. “Ultimately, I had to rely on them trusting that what I was doing would be truthful, dignified and respectful because I just had this arbitrary box that didn’t really show anything.”
This allowed a collaborative photographic approach whereby Shahrokhshahi and his subjects became “intertwined in the picture making together.” Because they couldn’t see these “latent images”, the family and the photographer were “both working to make the images together,” Shahrokhshahi explains. “Kalidou and his family were really interested in how the process worked. They asked me lots of questions.” The resulting images are suffused with a warmth that could only be made possible by a genuine friendship.
Find out more about Kalidou’s story and pledge towards his Gofundme here.