The word “Hââbré” means both writing and scarification in the Kô language of Burkina Faso.

Scarification is the practice of performing a superficial incision in a person’s skin. An age-old tradition, it is quickly disappearing due to many causes: from the introduction of clothing in tribes, to pressure from both religious and state authorities, not to mention the relentless push towards an increasingly urban lifestyle. Nowadays, only older people have scarifications. Indeed, I had trouble finding subjects to photograph because of the practice’s increasing rarity. Even during my research for this project, I discovered that a large majority of the pictures on the subject were from the beginning of the century—only a small handful of contemporary images could be found.

For the project, I created studio portraits, using the same background and same lighting for each subject. My wish was to portray them in a neutral way, with no judgment. All of my subjects hail from the city of Abidjan.

As I worked through the series, I began to think about the tensions between the past and present in Africa. From the widely varied opinions generated by my photographs, I found just one illustration of the complexity of contemporary African identity, torn between the past and the future.

This is the “last generation” of people bearing an imprint of the past on their faces. Their scars, a highly visible social badge, went from being the norm—even a sign of distinction—to a sign of exclusion within the span of a single lifetime. Thus, my subjects are the last generation of scarified African people, the last witnesses of a bygone Africa.

—Joana Choumali

Editors’ note: We discovered this powerful series in the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2014. See the work from all 50 of the winners here in LensCulture.