In Malabo, I did notice a few photography studios as I wondered about. There must be some legality if business existed to develop prints. I’m told the price was for one print is 500 XAF, or just over $1. I looked surprised and repeated it. The shop owner confirmed I wasn’t mistaken. How is this so? I was shocked at how expensive it was. (I had also encountered the same type of situation at the post office when I asked how much it was to mail a letter internationally. To Europe, the cost is 325, to countries in Africa, 275 and to the rest of the world, 375. However, Equatorial Guinea does not have any coins. The lowest paper denomination of the Central African Franc is 500, therefore everything is priced starting at 500 and goes up from there. Even stamps. Just because the official price is lower, there’s no way to make change, so you must pay 500.)
I was told that the difference lies with foreigners taking pictures, versus locals. Locals are permitted to take pictures, so long as it’s not of the Presidential Palace, Parliament, Radio or TV broadcast centers or any of the government ministries. Foreigners are, however, strongly encouraged (and some in government say it’s mandatory) to get a special authorization from the Ministry of Tourism. Without this, government police are almost certain to harass foreigners taking pictures and may even confiscate the camera. What the hell, I thought, I’d just go to the ministry and see what the story was.
My first visit to the office was uneventful. The Ministry of Tourism is not a new, shiny building. It’s tucked away in a slum part of town called Africa 2000. I get the feeling not many tourists actually make the visit. I ascend the stairs to the third floor and find one man sitting at an old metal desk that looks like it belongs in a middle school. The man is friendly, but tells me that the person I need to see, and everyone other than him for that matter, has gone home for the day, and doesn’t think they’re coming back. It’s 2pm. I leave and return on my last day in town carrying my passport just in case. There’s heated debate as one man states that there’s no way I can get permission on the same day, but that it may be possible to get permission for next week. As he’s done saying that, I’m led into the Director of Cultural Affairs’ office and situated next to a man getting a permit for a photography shop. The Director is staring perplexed at the MS Word template that already is written, and is obviously contemplating how to reword the document. He asks me what my intention is. I tell him I’d like to take a picture of the central Cathedral, nothing more (by this point, I’ve scared myself so badly that it’s impossible to take pictures that I’ve reduced expectations of anything beyond this). He looked surprised as he says, “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” I confirm.
He counter offers with an invitation for authorization to take any picture I want. All I have to do is bring back a photocopy of my passport, two pictures, and 80,000 XAF (or about $175). I almost laugh and gag at the same time. He tries to justify his payoff as a government tax. I tell him I’m leaving in the evening and there’s no way I will pay that. He reconsiders and says, “Oh, well then for the day, you can take any picture you want for 50,000 instead.” $115, what a deal. Considering the payoff for a few minutes afterward, I come to my senses and realize how absurd the situation is. I return to my hotel room, grab my camera, and snap away. No questions asked by the military police sitting a few yards away.