Aged just 22 and entirely self-taught, Patrick Wokmeini started taking photographs a little over two years ago.
Carrying his pocket-sized digital camera with him at all times, he captures the pulsating life of Douala, Cameroon’s largest city. An inhabitant of New Bell, one of its liveliest neighbourhoods where the bars take over the streets until the early hours of every morning and the delights of the night are on sale to those who can afford them, Wokmeini has created a series of photographs documenting the lives of local prostitutes, many of whom he has known since childhood.
With an unflinching directness that recalls early work by Nan Goldin, he portrays these young women in the bars where they work. He depicts not only the hedonistic atmosphere, but also quieter portraits that reveal the trust that exists between him and his subjects. In the glare of his flash, patterned dresses and braided hair become abstract textures with an almost iridescent quality.
Certain pictures reveal a keen sense of irony: two women stand side by side, their heads out of frame. One wears a typical local dress featuring a wax print celebrating National Women’s Day (“Woman Mother of Humanity”), whilst her companion lifts her dress to reveal her naked body underneath. Other photographs highlight the artist’s concerns over the life that these women are obliged to lead. One features the text “Arrêter de souffrir” found above a church door, and another shows a prostitute asleep on the dusty street in the morning light. However, Wokmeini’s attitude – and his own ambiguous position as voyeur and social documentalist – seems best encapsulated by the slogan stretched across the chest of one of his subjects: Don’t judge a girl by her t-shirt.
Patrick Wokmeini has exhibited at Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie, Arles; and Images du Pole, Orléans (both France, 2006).