How photographs of Senegal translate into NY´s Brooklyn, explains Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

You were born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. What are your is your family lineage? Do you have Senegalese roots?

Yes, I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I have strong, social and cultural ties to the American South. Both my mother and father’s family are from the lowcountry of South Carolina. I am five generations removed from the African continent. My family is from the region that is now known as Ivory Coast and Ghana.

You have been documenting life in Senegal for quite some time, nearly two decades, what is your connection to this particular country? 

My initial connection to Senegal is that I traveled there first with a study abroad program. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised at how Sufism was so prominent in the Islamic practice in Senegal. At the time of my first visit, I was learning a lot about tassawuf, but my focus was on tariqas in Turkey and Morocco. It was wonderful to learn about the brotherhoods in Senegal which included the Tijania, Mourides and the Layene, among others. I would say that spirituality is my main connection to Senegal.

The images in Jamm Rek are a combination of portraits, street photography and reportage. There is a theme of of gentleness in your composition. Can you talk more about that? 

I’m delighted that you have picked up a sense of gentleness in my photographs. I think that Senegal and the Senegalese people are gentle, they are welcoming. There is this concept in Senegal called terenga, were the idea is to place hospitality at the forefront of an experience. You can really feel it when you enter the homes, restaurants and business in Senegal. They are very mindful of their guest, new and familiar.

What are some of your thoughts when looking back at images that were created on your first few journey’s to Senegal? 

Looking back at the works I created 20 years ago, I can see the moments when I was too shy to truly compose the photo that I wanted. I can see some of the lighting or exposure mishaps. I think about how hungry I was for storytelling through photography and how much I wanted to learn and master the craft. I also think about how much Dakar has changed in the last 20 years. Lots of new development and not to mention the new airport outside the city that replaced the one in Yoff.

Have you found any connections to the cities in Senegal that you’ve visited to your hometown of New York City? 

I think there is certainly a connection between Harlem’s 116, which is informally names ‘Little Senegal’ and the bustling capital city of Dakar.

What would you consider your biggest success in terms of your work’s commercial or editorial impact? 

I think independently publishing the book, MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora was a milestone an took many of my interactions and conversations to an international level. I think all the so-called small milestones are success because if you add them all up, they show a picture od determination and will.


interview held exclusively for Makgallery by Michal Begiert