Despite the distance the pandemic imposed on us, Marouissa Mbaye and I chatted about her artistic practice and the various intentions of her work. She acknowledged that photography, like any art form, comes with the condition that every set of eyes that lay upon it gives rise to their own interpretation of the subject. We discussed the beauty and the ugliness in this as a part of ‘the poetry of life’, and her never-ending search for truth.
My last year has been about adaptation and living in the new realities imposed on us. For work, I managed to travel to West Africa, Senegal (my home country) and from there to Guinea-Bissau. I’m working on a series of projects, some of which are really dire in terms of time; notably my work with Senegalese World War 2 Fighters, the youngest being 101 years old. Covid has forced me to redirect my work in different forms, and find new ways of producing output. It has brought about the opportunity for a lot of collaboration in my photography work, with other photographers, but also numerous visual artists such as documentary filmmakers and painters; but, also new endeavours such as the opening of a Museum of Contemporary Art, and an artist residency program in the South of France. I’m doing a lot of the things I never would have thought or even considered doing because I was so anchored and settled in my vision of what I thought it was I wanted to do; thus, the pandemic has provided me with the challenge and opportunity to rethink my practice.
Is there anything you have seen or learnt over the past year that you believe to be particularly poignant?
This year has reasserted something I learnt through the serenity prayer, which says: “Have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” We are all in this world together, we are all having to deal with it no matter your views, or your personal beliefs on how the virus came about. More importantly what I would say is that it has made me realise how unequal the world is, and not only unequal but Western centric. Take social distancing for example – fine in the West but absolutely not workable in most parts of the world. You go to India, you go to Africa, Latin America: these are places where people live in multitudes of households. This whole convention only reflects one reality. We tend to forget to relate to one another or see things through other people’s eyes.
Have you been documenting this in your photography?
Well I’m coming up with a project with CNN, it’s been approved but I still need to do the call out for submissions, to show another side of Covid. Everything we have seen in the West, especially in photography of the pandemic, has been images of isolation; looking out of our windows, images of death or hospitals. But in my personal experience, even though a lot of people have lived through hard times, it has allowed us to reconnect to simple things such as family. So, I’m always looking for something humanity has in common, and games are one of them. The idea being that whatever your religion, gender, culture, social background, your ethnicity, your beliefs, we all play games. In an age where we are more individualistic because of technology, Covid has allowed people to share beautiful moments, and that’s something I wanted to celebrate.
During my research, I found your previous career in finance mentioned a lot. Do you find that to be annoying?
I don’t find it annoying at all, it’s part of my life, and it’s something that has led me to where I am today. It shouldn’t be overstated, but it allowed me to see many things like how development works, or fails to work. I also learnt many things about the actual impact on the ground and the realities of the continent. It was useful because it made me realise that if I wanted to change things, I would not be able to do so in that institution. It pushed me towards this career as a Documentary Photographer.
How would you describe the purpose/mission of your work?
I am a true and profound believer that through triggering emotions, memories or simply relating to one another human beings can connect with anyone. As human beings we tend to forget that however personal and individual our emotions are, they are actually universal. Everyone feels love, pain, sorrow, jealousy and anger. However unique and personal they feel to us, everyone feels those things and it’s about reconnecting with that. Portraits are omnipresent in my photography because to me the human expression can resonate and connect each and every single one of us. Between one another you recognise sadness, happiness, cheekiness; you recognise all of these things that are essential to us as human beings. Human expressions, to me, are the most important non-verbal ways of communicating and these have no language barrier. I think it is essential to remind ourselves that when we are touched by one another, touched by ourselves or when we fight for another’s cause whether we realise it or not we are fighting for our own cause and our own rights. It’s the idea that universality and universalism are made up of particularisms, it’s the idea that “I am through you”.
Among the perceptions of Africa is the idea that it is a bright and vibrant place, why is it you choose to shoot largely in black and white? What is it about this format that you connect with?
I shoot in black and white out of reminiscence. I learnt photography on film in the lab before the digital age. But it’s more than aesthetics, colours are bright and they’re beautiful but they make it easy to mask things. If an image isn’t so good, you can manipulate it, the focus can be directed towards the colours rather than the subject. My photography is about the rawness of life and I want it to go to the core. For me it’s not black and white it is different blacks, different whites and all the shades of grey. I think the work of shadows in all of this light is an easier language to reflect physically and visually what I am trying to bring out in terms of my feelings or the emotions I would like to share on a particular subject. I think light, shadows and darkness can express so much intensity, so much drama but also bring a lot of softness so I think it’s kind of a no bullshit medium. Black and white is also the refusal to use Photoshop, I refuse to learn anything that I did not do in the darkroom.
In your piece The End Of The World there is a man walking through the piece. What does he symbolise to you?
The End Of The World is a piece that is really close to my heart, I think it symbolises so many things at the same time. He symbolises the nonchalant passing through life. The acceptance of it. I am using the parallel of walking through the environmental crisis that we are going through. He is an old man and has been through so much and yet he’s still carrying this yellow bag, which is a reflection of all of these other plastic containers. It’s saying, however small I am, I have also contributed to that. The fact that he is so small in comparison to that mountain of waste symbolises the challenge that we as a human race are facing and making the planet face. This man is a victim of the choices that everyone has made or is making whether that’s on an individual basis or not. We created this but we have now become victims and at threat because of this pollution, because of this consumption. The walking through is the continuity, just the fact that you are also carrying that bag makes you an active participant even though you are also a passive victim, and I always love beauty in dramatic scenes. I find it aesthetically beautiful, but equally tragic: for me it symbolises orderly destruction, the piling up of soon irreversible issues and the wall of division. A challenge faced by all today.
Is ecological disaster a story you find compelling to tell?
The environmental cause is essential to the survival of the planet and humanity. For the continent it’s not just a noir jours; it’s a catalyst for destruction, wars, conflict, further inequality because of natural resources which are, as we say, a curse. Natural resources permit development, but they also permit exploitation and they bring out the worst in terms of what humans are capable of. There is the inevitable violence that it is always the same people facing injustice. Why is it that nature and the rest of the world are having to bear the consequences of a few nations’ economic development? Why are we still pursuing something that we know will destroy us? One dark, consoling thought is that nature will always survive, and natural disasters and unnatural disasters, be we won’t. It is so counterintuitive to human evolution. To address it you need to address things much deeper like our relationship to each other.
How important are truth and authenticity to you and your work? How do you uncover it?
Authenticity is the core of my work. There are many truths and that is what’s beautiful about the world. The same subject can have a completely different resonance to different people based on their beliefs, experiences and ability to relate to it or not. I think what’s most important is for me to keep close to what I feel is essential. My authenticity comes from acknowledging that everything I do is biased. Whatever you look at you have to translate, therefore it’s obviously going to be biased because it’s a reflection of your own internal dialogues and experiences. It’s essential to have those internal dialogues; what are you trying to achieve? In my day-to-day practices instead of just snapping away, I do the research beforehand and just sit down and take time to understand as much as I can, and from as many perspectives as I can. I am currently working on a lifelong project on dying traditions, myths, and rites on the continent. My process is to contact the key people, go and visit them and take time to talk to them before actually taking pictures., I was recently caught in a moment where I just felt like a complete tourist. I couldn’t take pictures and the few that I took will never be used because I didn’t understand what I am taking pictures of. It would be completely unfair of me to show that because I didn’t understand the importance of the rites, and I didn’t understand all the different elements and subtleties. You need to refrain from projecting what you want to say and listen to what the subject wants to say.
Do you ever wonder about the cultural significance of your work when you go to other countries, or worry about how it may be perceived?
It’s an interesting question and I actually wrote a whole essay on this at university. I absolutely do care about the cultural significance of my work and its perception by other cultures and other people, even my own. A lot of African photographers have come out in recent years to have their own discourse and dialogues with the outside world about their experiences. One photographer in particular is a good example of this. He’s making waves in photography because he’s talking about freedoms, liberty and questioning our role in history and the role that has been erased. That’s tremendous but the drawback is he does so by using photography references of Renaissance times and very Western depictions. That’s a conversation that he is having with the West, but for me the dialogue that I want to have is with my own continent. I want us to write our own histories for ourselves not for, or in opposition to someone else. I have to think, what is my aim? Is my aim to be published in important magazines and newspapers? No. That would flatter my ego but what would it actually achieve? Nothing. That would do nothing for conversations here. If I actually want my work to have a resonance and an impact, I need to be aware of not becoming condescending. I need to adopt a visual language that speaks to the continent and how things work. For example, my recent work on alarming and growing rate of infanticide in Senegal isn’t a project to be seen in a gallery. People are not going to go to a gallery and have a look and start discussing the issues of society’s role in diminishing women’s rights. The way to do that is by observing life here locally. It could be through music, theatre or sitting with community leaders and have a discussion on these topics. I see myself more as an activist using history and sociology as underpinnings of my work, and photography as the medium of expression. Unfortunately, a lot of photographers (knowingly or unknowingly) now care as much about the subject as they do their ego; and unfortunately, most of the time the subject is dictated by that, and they think it is going to make them famous. I remember discussing the Gaze and the Colonial Gaze in Documentary Photography class and they showed pictures of tribes – which is another word I can’t stand – who were enjoying scarifications. One of the students’ remarks was ‘oh my god this is so violent it’s unacceptable’ and I was shocked. It’s not violent, that’s just your cultural perception. It’s no different to tattoos in Japan, it is actually a sign of beauty – who are you to judge them? That still resonates with me in a lot of peoples work because a lot of it is ‘I think’ and ‘I will tell you’, a trap I desperately try to avoid.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
Sebastiao Salgado of course, I fell in love with photography discovering his works. I think the first exhibition I saw by him was when I was 16 and it was the Migration or The Children and I was absolutely stewed by such beauty but also the profound poetic intensity of his work. Many people have criticized him for making hardship beautiful, but there is beauty in everything. I don’t feel that I have ever seen a painting that evokes so much, or shakes me, or brings me to tears, or profoundly touches me in the same way. While I’m talking to you I’m having visions of his Worker series and wow, what a wonderful, marvelous man. When you see his photography you just feel humanity and that is deeply inspiring, he does it with so much grace and so much humility.
Sebastiao Salgado-North of the Ob River, about 100 kilometers inside the Yamal peninsula, Siberia
Words by Trinity Awadzi