Memories of Saint Louis: A Conversation with Greta Rybus
Meet Greta, a Portland based photojournalist known for her stunning editorial portraits, food, travel and documentary photography all captured beautifully on her website and instagram feed @gretarybus. Her amazing decision a few years ago to spend a month away in a new place found her in Saint Louis, a French colonial settlement just North of Senegal. In this Interview, she talks about the wonderful Senegalese hospitality, their vibrant mix of cultural influences, staying up late to go dancing and most importantly how a visit to the fishing community of Guet Ndar birthed a personal commitment to document the effects climate change around the world.
1.) Tell us about yourself?
I’m a photojournalist based in Portland, Maine, but originally from Idaho. I grew up in the American West, but my family traveled a lot growing up. Both my parents were teachers, and they taught in the Netherlands and Japan. So, I grew up traveling. I have degrees in Cultural Anthropology and Photojournalism, and I like to think I combine the two when I’m working on projects.
A few years ago, I decided to spend a month of every year in a new place. I like to stay in one place, to get to know the area as well as I can, and to document a project there. Since I’m usually working on shorter assignments for magazines and newspapers, I savor the opportunity spend the month documenting and learning as much as I can about one project. Two years ago, I spent my month away in Senegal.
2.) How did you prepare/plan for your trip to Senegal ?
I tried to learn a little French, (but did horribly) and learn what I could about the culture. I got all my vaccinations and brought some extra probiotics to keep myself healthy. Truthfully, I think the most helpful thing was just being open to what Senegal would be like, and taking it one step at a time. I didn’t want to come with too many assumptions, just the goal to experience it fully and create a project that mattered to me. I did research, but didn’t pre-decide the subject of my project. I spent my first week in Saint Louis talking to as many people as I could, asking them what was most important to them and what was impacting their life. Within a few days I realized I wanted to do a project about climate change.
3.) What drew you to Saint Louis?
I had always wanted to go to Africa, especially West Africa. The places that interest me the most are places with a variety of cultural influences. Saint Louis is a confluence of cultures: with the Bedouin culture to the North, French colonial culture, and traditional African culture. It sounded fascinating, and it was truly more captivating and intriguing than I had ever imagined.
I also came to the city to be a part of an arts residency program called Waaw Senegal. The residency gave me some additional support like translators and interpreters and additional connections to the community.
4.) What was the experience like?
It was incredible. I still have dreams that I am in Senegal. I dream about the dry air and the pastel, patinaed walls of the city. I loved that there was great music- people playing music by the riverside or members of the Baye Fall movement chanting prayers. I loved the call to prayer and the big dishes of mafé stew.
5.) What did you like the most about Saint Louis?
Senegalese hospitality was wonderful. Whenever I visited anyone’s home, they’d serve a delicious, sugary tea made of fresh mint leaves, poured into tiny glasses. One night, I stayed up late to go dancing- most dancing didn’t start until 3:30am. Groups of young men and women did intricate and choreographed dances to live music, enjoying each others’ company. It felt a bit like going to a club in any other city, but because of the Muslim culture, no one was drinking alcohol. Everyone just drank 7-up and danced until the sun rose.
6.) What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced whilst travelling?
Photographing in Senegal was very different than photographing any where else I had been. In Guet Ndar, for example, there was a legend within the community of a photographer that once photographed the children in the community, and then they saw the images being sold on postcards. They were wary of people with cameras, and rightfully so. I spent a lot of time making sure people knew what I was working on and why, and negotiating ways for each person to feel comfortable being a part of the project.
7.) What was your most memorable moment photographing Saint Louis?
One morning, I woke up early to catch the high tide. I walked to the fishing community, Geuet Ndar, where I had spent a lot of time. That morning, the tides were particularly high, the sea levels the highest they’d been. Several homes fell into the ocean that morning, and I photographed people moving all of their belongings from the front of their home while the back of their home crumbled into the sea.
At that moment, I realized that people around the world are already deeply feeling the impacts of climate change. It has forever altered lives. But these stories aren’t making the news. It was the beginning of a personal commitment to document climate change not as an environmental issue, but as a human experience.
8.) What’s one life lesson you learnt whilst travelling around Africa?
One thing that I learned is how flawed Western narratives about Africa are. Senegal, and most “developing” countries are places that have a wide spectrum of experiences. It’s both challenging and delightfully pleasant, and has both opportunity and dysfunction. It’s a place with dazzling things to offer: people with brilliant ways of thinking, long traditions of art and academia, people with close relationships to the land and to other people.
Too often, American or European people see other countries and cultures through archaic colonial perspectives. So, I think the lesson is to try my best to dismantle the complex legacy of Westernize colonial thinking in my own mind and to replace it with curiosity. And back home, I try to let people know how wonderful Africa is and how the all the news stories about disease or poverty don’t do justice to the great beauty and kindness of a place like Senegal.
9.) What tips can you share for future travelers interested in visiting Saint Louis, Senegal or even Africa as a whole?
Take part in the local economy. Try to buy something from different people in the community: buy vegetables, bread, and fish from the markets.
Talk to the people you meet. If you invest in businesses, you are showing an interest in their wellbeing, taking part in exchanges beyond the typical tourist exchange. Try cooking something local to the area or with an ingredient you wouldn’t find back home. I found that the simple process of buying groceries connected me to the community in more meaningful ways.
I established routine and got to know people that became friends. In some areas of town, it was common for people that looked like me to be hassled a bit (I look like a tourist almost everywhere: I am tall with pale skin and blonde hair). But because I had bought bread and vegetables from the women who were vendors in the area, they would stand up for me, protecting me.
10.) What’s next for you?
After Senegal, I went to the Guna Yala Islands in April 2016 to continue my climate change project. The series now has six total “chapters”. Next, I’ll be heading to Lapland, Norway to learn about the changes in an arctic community. I’m so excited!climate climate change saint louis senegal