The Forbidden Picture

In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 23, Guillaume D. Johnson reflects on a conversation between him, his father, and a Nigerian trader on the complex afterlives of colonialism.

Guillaume D. Johnson

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Université Paris Dauphine

Main image: Picture by the author.

In May 2016, I was in Lomé for a field and family trip. My goal was to investigate the second-hand markets that are scattered everywhere in the Togolese capital city, which is one of the most important entrance ports to Western Africa. At the time, my research project examined how the African diaspora in France transferred objects to their country of origin.[1] I had run a few interviews in France, and I wanted to see how these objects were received, perceived, and used in the country of destination. The idea for this project stemmed from an encounter with a colleague who worked on objects’ circulation in France, but also from the practice of my own father who since I was a child was sending all sorts of objects to Togo. He had moved back to Togo the year before for retirement (after more than 40 years in France) and this trip was a great opportunity for me to see how he had settled “back” and to explore these second-hand markets.

So, for about ten days, I visited all sorts of astonishing open-air markets with him as my fixer, translator, and co-investigator. Under the harsh Lomé sun, we thoroughly explored the infamous TP3, which is a generalist second-hand market located in the duty-free zone of the port where everything can be found: trucks, fridges, cell phones, bicycles, etc. Next to it, we delved into the market for second-hand cars. Nicknamed “Venues de France,”[2] these cars originate from all over Europe and even North America. In between TP3 and the “auto parks” runs an avenue on which second-hand tyres are sold. We also visited the more traditional Grand Marché of Lomé (Assigame), the Akodessewa market which focuses on spare parts for cars, and the market in Hédzranawoé, which specialises in Abloni. 

Abloni is the name for used clothing that generally comes from Europe. It is believed that the term “Abloni” is a distortion of the word “Obroni,” which in the Twi language of Ghana means “White person” (or more broadly, foreigner). In fact, used-clothes markets in Ghana are called “Obroni Wawu,” which translate as “dead White man’s clothes.” Thus, while this project was meant to offer me a small break from the study of “race and markets,” those terms brought me back to it. A short encounter with an Igbo merchant[3] in the Hédzranawoé market further reinforced this, questioning my positionality as researcher and individual. It happened as my father and I were finishing our visit of the market and stopped at one last stand which sold ties, among other things. Here is an approximate transcription of the conversation (recalled in my field notes): 

Me: Ah oui il y a des cravates aussi. Tu veux acheter des cravates, papa? [Oh yes there are ties too. (Teasing) Do you want to buy some ties, dad?].

My father (DJ): Combien? [How much?]

Merchant #1: Papa, 500 francs.

[I take a picture of my father with the ties.]

Merchant #2 (M2 – in English): Hey my friend, I don’t like that.

GJ: I didn’t take a picture of you, just him.

M2: No I don’t like that, I don’t like that.

GJ: Ok, Ok.

M2 talks to other clients, I could only hear: Africa suffering… 

DJ (in French): Pourquoi il ne veut pas qu’on prenne de photos? [Why doesn’t he want us to take pictures?]

M2: Je n’aime pas ça. [I don’t like this.]

DJ: Ah bon? [Really?]

M2: Vous venez d’Europe, vous allez leur montrer ça. Ils vont dire que les gens ici souffrent et tout ça. Non non non. Moi je n’aime pas ça. 

[You come from Europe; you are going to show them this. They are going to say that the people here are suffering and all that. No no no. I don’t like it.]

DJ: Parce que vous n’aimez pas souffrir, c’est ça? [Because you do not like to suffer, is that it?]

M2: Oui c’est pas bon. Si on arrive en Europe, le blanc va nous arrêter et nous renvoyer ici. Si ces photos sont mises sur internet les gens vont dire que nous souffrons. Les blancs vont dire: « Tu souffres là-bas et tu viens ici, et tu es bien ici. Ici c’est la liberté ». Si on va là-bas ils nous mettent dans l’avion pour nous renvoyer ici. 

[Yes, it is not good. If we arrive in Europe, the White man will stop us and send us back here. If these photos are put on the internet people will say that we are suffering. White people will say, “You are suffering over there, and you come here, and you are fine here. Here there is freedom”. If we go to Europe, they will put us in the plane to come back here.]

GJ: Ce n’est pas clair. Parlons, parlons. [It’s not clear. Let’s talk, let’s talk.]

M2 gets closer (in English): Now, let me tell you one thing. When the White man comes from Europe, they take picture of all these things. They put it on the internet.

GJ: No I won’t put it on the Internet.

M2: My problem is this. When they take the picture, they put it on the Internet and then they say this is how Africans are suffering. 

GJ: You think this is suffering then.

M2: They say this is suffering.

GJ: You think this is suffering.

M2: No no they put it on the Internet, and they say this is suffering.

GJ: Why would I say this is suffering? 

M2: They put it on the internet…

GJ: No no no. My question is about me. Why would I say this is suffering?

M2: THEY say that. I don’t know about YOU. 

GJ: This is not suffering. Are you suffering?

M2: They say this is how we are suffering in Africa. They are making fun of us. Are you getting me?

GJ: Do you think I would say you are suffering?

M2: I don’t know you. You can do this to make money. To write about it. To sell your paper. 

GJ: But do you think this is suffering?  

M2: Of course this is suffering my friend. I am happy to sell those things. But in Europe there, they only see poverty. Are you getting me? They say we are suffering. The White man cannot wear this, and now I am here selling this all day. Are you getting me? They take a picture, they write about it, they put it on the Internet. Now, if we want to marry a White lady, you see, she will say: “Toi, tu souffrais en Afrique, mais maintenant tu as la liberté ici. Tu as l’argent. Tu es libre. Tout ça. N’oublie pas qu’avant tout ça, c’est moi qui t’ai…” 

[“You used to suffer in Africa, but now you have freedom here. You have money. You are free. All that. Do not forget that before all this, it is me who made you…”]

DJ: Civilisé. [Civilised.] 

M2: Fait devenir blanc. Ce n’est pas bon. Si le blanc vient ici… [turn White. It is not good. If the White man comes here…]

DJ: Mais nous, on n’est pas blancs. [But we are not White.]

M2: Are you getting me? It is not against you! It is against making fun of Africans in Europe. In these countries they are saying we are suffering too much. You get my point, papa?

GJ: Yes, I understand your point.

M2: If you don’t understand, I will talk again. Je peux parler en Français? Là-bas on se moque des Africains. “Ils souffrent beaucoup. On jette ici, ils vendent là-bas.” Ce n’est pas bon. Le blanc veut parler “Liberté” “Liberté” et en Europe, ils renvoient les Africains ici. 

[Africans are laughed at over there. “They are suffering a lot. We throw it out here, they sell it over there.” It’s not good. The White person wants to talk about “Liberty” “Liberty” and in Europe, they send the Africans back here.]

GJ: Je comprends. [I understand.]

In Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothing,[4] geographer Andrew Brooks argues that the flow of used clothing illuminates how the Global South has been locked into yet another relationship of dependency with the Global North. Although this trade reverses the traditional flow of commodities (where clothes are mainly manufactured from the poor to the rich), it still relies on the same unequal socio-spatial division of labour. Yet labelling “poverty” his business is precisely what the Igbo merchant did not want me to do. An economic approach, even though essential, is not enough to fully grasp the phenomenon. Like any commodities, Abloni are not just “things,” they hold a symbolic value which determines a set of social relations and dynamics.

Beyond the altercation, our discussion highlights the ambivalence towards Abloni I encountered throughout my fieldwork. On the one hand, the Abloni are appreciated as they give access to consumer markets and global brands while developing local economy and jobs. On the other hand, Abloni are hated as they are perceived as further evidence of Africa’s social, environmental, and political inferiority. As one interviewee bluntly put it, “There are wastes. And who like to consume the waste of someone else?” 

Nevertheless, here the merchant seemed less concerned with the practice itself than with the gaze of a possible European audience. The picture and its diffusion represent a threat for the image of “Africa” and Africans. Interestingly, the threat does not seem to be against him directly, but rather upon Africans who are emigrating to Europe (his own experience?), where they could be denigrated and rejected based on the stereotypical image of a poverty-stricken Africa. 

Ironically, while he correctly identifies us as from Europe, he does not see myself or my father as potential direct victims of the phenomenon he describes. Why? Did we embody a certain Europeanness and Whiteness which were not at risk of being stereotyped and rejected? How did he know that I wanted to write a paper?

While walking to pick up my daughter at school one day, I ponder my own embodiment of the flâneur[5] during my visit of the Abloni market, trying to find a way to conclude this piece on a reflexive and critical note. I need to stop by a donation box on the way to drop off two bags of old clothes which my partner has prepared. As I open the donation box, a voice calls out. A Black lady, about 100m away, asks me whether I am planning to “throw away” those bags. When I confirm that I am planning to put them in the donation box, she offers to take them so that she could “send them to Africa.” “Here, people throw too many things away, while people in Africa have nothing. They are very poor.” The coincidence leaves me speechless. Can this lady be the person the Igbo merchant had warned me about? Yet, she had not seen my picture… 


[1] V. Guillard & G.D. Johnson, “‘There Will Always Be Someone Who Will Need it’: African Diasporic Households and the Circulation of Second-Hand Objects”, paper presented at 2017 Marketing & Public Policy Conference, Washington D.C., USA.

[2] As in fact any objects coming from overseas. 

[3] The business of Abloni in Lomé is mostly run by Igbo traders originally from Nigeria. 

[4] Andrew Brooks, Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes (London 2019: Zed Books).

[5] See the piece by Sobande et al. in this issue of the ISRF Bulletin. 

Guillaume D. Johnson

Guillaume D. Johnson is a tenured research scholar in management and marketing at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) based at the Université Paris-Dauphine. His research focuses on the sociopolitical dynamics of multicultural marketing with a special emphasis on race. He has explored these issues in France, South Africa, and the United States, and his work has been published in Consumption Markets & Culture, Journal of Public Policy & MarketingJournal of Advertising and Journal of Business Research among others. He serves on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Advertising. He is co-founder and co-organizer of the Race in the Marketplace (RIM) Research Network and co-edited Race in the Marketplace: Crossing Critical Boundaries (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Prior to joining the CNRS, he held academic positions in South Africa and China.