Islam in Africa Project featured in Harvard Divinity Bulletin


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Article Published in CC: Magazine – July 2013

A Sacred Journey
Photographer David Katzenstein captures a Muslim pilgrimage in Senegal

It started with a leap of faith.

Photographer David Katzenstein met Cheikh Fara Gaye, a Sufi Muslim, at a New York City prayer-for-peace event in 2003. Sufism is the mystical tradition of Islam, and Gaye is a disciple of Mouridism, a Sufi sect centered in his native Senegal.

Katzenstein, who wanted to explore positive aspects of Islam in the post 9/11 environment, asked Gaye to accompany him on the Magal, the sect’s annual pilgrimage to the city of Touba.

“He said, ‘I’ll meet you in the airport in Dakar next year,’” Katzenstein told a Connecticut College audience in February.

A year later, Katzenstein was on a flight to the capital of Senegal, wondering if this man he hardly knew would remember his promise. “Then someone tapped me on the shoulder,” Katzenstein said. “He was on the plane with me.”

An exhibition of Katzenstein’s photos from their trip entitled “Islam in Africa: A Pilgrimage to Touba,” was mounted in Cummings Arts Center this spring alongside another Katzenstein exhibition called “World Views: Ritual and Celebration in Global Culture.”

For decades, as both a commercial and fine art photographer, Katzenstein has been drawn to capture daily life and communal rituals around the globe. He has documented Hindu ceremonies in rural India, Santeria rituals in Cuba, Zulu dancers in South Africa, Easter processions in Guatemala, Buddhist festivals in Bhutan, Islamic ceremonies in Egypt and Jewish worship in Israel.

With Gaye’s help, Katzenstein also has been documenting the large community of Senegalese immigrants who live in New York City, in a section of Harlem known as le Petit Sénégal.

Mouridism is a sect that emphasizes religious ritual, study of the Koran and the value of hard work. It was founded in Touba by Cheikh Amadou Bamba. The Magal commemorates Bamba’s exile by the French colonial government in 1895 and culminates at his burial site under Touba’s great mosque.

Katzenstein and Gaye, now close friends, gave a joint lecture at the College on Feb. 13.

“These people in Africa are looking at you, and you are looking at them,” Gaye said of Katzenstein’s photos. “This is the magic of art. It’s between the hearts of people, bringing them into one humanity.”

Katzenstein works in a “reportage” style of photography inspired by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Using a wide-angle lens, he stays close to his subjects to avoid objectifying them. He does not crop or otherwise manipulate his images after he takes them.

“The challenge for me is to capture something in the world as a moment, and also to have it be artistically complete,” he says.

See more of David Katzenstein’s work at

Connecticut College Magazine

Islam in Africa: A Pilgrimage to Touba, Senegal