Kicking it with the cool kids of 1950s KinshasaS

This must be the saddest photo of happy people in the world. Taken in the narrow slit of optimism between Congo’s passing from the most terrible colony in Africa to the most terrible failed state in Africa, Jean Depara’s photos of life in Kinshasa in the early 1950s show the rambunctious Congo that could have been.

It’s such an impossible photo. Take the time, if you will, to take in the details. The nonchalant way the woman dangles her cigarette out of the car. How black and white people share the same convertible. How everyone’s dressed up real nice, happy and beautiful, cruising the warm, equatorial night of Kinshasa, ready for anything.

Angolan photographer Jean Depara moved to Kinshasa in 1951, armed with a medium-format camera he’d purchased the year before to photograph his wedding in the city. He ended up staying for 46 years, until his death in 1997, and became Congo’s most acclaimed photographer. During those decades, Congo shook off Belgian rule, became an independent state in 1960 with music, bars and cars, then it all went to hell in the deranged kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko, whose completely over-the-top looting of state money is perhaps best illustrated by Gbadolite Airport, located deep in the Congolese jungle, that came with a 10,500-ft runway to accommodate Mobutu’s leased Concorde. Mobutu’s death was followed by, among other things, the Second Congo War, the deadliest war in the world since World War II.

A selection of Depara’s photos, titled Night and Day in Kinshasa 1951-1975, is on display at Maison Revue Noire in Paris until December 17. If you can’t make it to France until then, perhaps because you don’t own a Concorde-compatible airport in your ancestral village, you can see some of the photos in high resolutaion at La Lettre de la Photographie.

Photo by Jean Depara