Djibril Sy


lives and works in Dakar,




Q How would you define your work in a few words?
DS I work as a press photographer to earn a living and I’m an artist-photographer in my free time, which is what I prefer to do. To pay the bills, I have to work as a photojournalist, but I try to develop an artistic approach in this work, too, and not to simply provide documentary evidence of events. There’s a hidden mystery in photography that is not restricted to its function of recording reality. I’m interested in exploring this mystery. I remember a photographer who used to come to my neighbourhood every Saturday to photograph events like parties, weddings and christenings. At that time – I must have been around twenty-three – everyone waited excitedly to see the pictures of themselves when the photographer returned to deliver his work a couple of weeks later. Everyone waited anxiously for his arrival. When he got there, he took out his package of prints, which were black and white at the time, and people were very curious to see what they would look like in the photos. On these occasions, which I witnessed so many times, I was always intrigued by people’s relationship with their own image. I wanted to understand more about this relationship, and that’s what motivated me to become a photographer. I felt sure that I could discover something interesting using photography, particularly in relation to our emotions, feelings, the way we look at things – in terms of the relationship between man, his image and himself.

A Historical Perspective on Studio Photography

Interview with Djibril Sy in Dakar 2014



DS To me, being able to interpret an image means that you can understand it. A photograph captures a moment in life, it’s the image of a person who experiences particular emotions at a given time. It’s also important to take into consideration the feelings of the person who took the photograph. What we see in the image is a dialogue between the photographer and his subject, and when we look at a photograph, we want to understand all these factors that are at play: Why did the photographer take this particular image? Why did he choose that exact moment? What did he see in this person’s eyes, or in this particular situation or place? When I look at photographs by Seydou Keïta, for example, I find them very beautiful. In a graphic sense, they’re magnificent, and the people he depicts have a great beauty about them, but I’m interested in knowing what’s actually going on in the photo. Why, for example, did the young girl choose to be photographed with her telephone, or her radio? That’s where the real beauty in the image lies. Purely aesthetic beauty in a photo doesn’t interest me; it’s the meaning behind it that matters to me. We can find beauty anywhere. There can be a certain beauty even in things we don’t consider beautiful. The very first photographs taken in Germany, the United States and France highlight this – the relationship between man and himself. Photography is like a mirror. We can make use of photography for scientific purposes, but the crucial point for me is that we humans all have a need to dream, and photography gives us an opportunity to dream sometimes, because it’s poetry, and also because it allows us to understand our own history. In the West, photography has been utilized for a very long time as a form of documentation, as a way of recording history. For us, in Africa, the main role of photography has been to capture a given moment. The photographs of Seydou Keïta and Mama Casset are examples of this. But nowadays, this view of photography as a means of capturing an instant in time belongs to our history. It’s a recording of time that remains with us, so we must do more than simply look at it – we must read into it, interpret it, if we wish to understand it.
Q Can we speak of a shared, or global, history of images, one of man’s relationship with himself?
DS Our perspective on the way man relates to himself is easily skewed by other issues. To give you an example, people here who travelled to Europe always came back with photographs of themselves. Particularly in France, because we were a French colony. People were photographed in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or Sacré-Cœur. My father did that. Almost every Senegalese person’s father or grandfather who had been a soldier in France did that. It was a way of showing people that you’d succeeded in life, that you’d seen the famous landmarks in France. It was a kind of propaganda that was not openly admitted. In any case, this interaction between African people and Europe existed, and photography served as the medium. Through these images that African people brought back from Europe to show their family and friends, we helped to idealize France.

Being a Press Photographer and an Artist

Interview with Djibril Sy in Dakar 2011



Q How would you describe your journalistic work, the reportage photography you do for the media?
DS For the media world, and particularly for the local press, photography is used to illustrate stories. You often wonder why a particular image was chosen to accompany a story. The first reason is that the editors take into consideration people who don’t speak French. These people look at the photo rather than reading the title. Those who can read the text don’t need to look at the photo, since it doesn’t add anything. These photographs are uninteresting; they’re only there to occupy space, and don’t communicate very much. But nowadays, thanks to the new generation of photographers that is emerging, photographers are using their work to tell stories. This is only a recent development and it hasn’t really taken on because media outlets don’t have the resources to pay photographers a decent wage. I do my best to work on journalistic projects that have some depth to them and which also respect the autonomy of the photographer in relation to the vision and expectations of the editing staff and the writer. A photograph complements a text and should not simply duplicate what is said in the article.


Q Do you ever reutilize photographs taken for your journalistic work in your artistic projects?
DS Yes, I do that occasionally. It’s possible if I’ve had a certain amount of freedom when taking the original photograph. When I’m able to choose the angle of the shot, the composition and the exposure time. But this only happens very rarely, perhaps one in every two or three hundred photos. These are photographs in which I’m able to let go and express myself. It’s always a great pleasure for me to find an image like this among my photographs. These are images that resonate not only with me, but also with others. Photographs like these that stand out are sometimes taken in highly difficult situations; they often portray shocking events. For example, in the series of photos I showed you earlier on the Liberian War, there’s an image of a woman who had come to see us [the United Nations envoys] because her child had been buried in a mass grave against her will. She had come back to retrieve the body of her daughter and bury her in her own grave. But the Health Unit and the doctor said, "No, we can’t give your child back to you!" So the woman wept and screamed that she would not leave without her baby. That’s when I took my camera and photographed her. She was overcome by her pain and sorrow. In that moment, what interested me was her personal story, to capture what was happening. I did so at my own risk, because I almost acted without "thinking". I thought about what I was doing, but I was so absorbed in what this woman was going through, and she was gesticulating so frantically and shouting so loudly, lying down on the ground. At one point, her husband arrived and he almost struck me to stop me from photographing her. But it was so important to me, I kept going. In one of the photos, you can see this woman crying out, but you can also clearly see the words printed on her T-shirt, "Paris, Eiffel Tower" and "Paris is here". She was lying on the bitumen, a woman who had lost her child in Liberia, an African woman in all her anguish, and right beside her was the Western world. The symbols of the West were right there in front of us, and this omnipresence of the Western world is inseparable from that woman’s pain.

Interview conducted in Dakar, Hotel Miramar, 23.02.2011
by Bärbel Küster, Marleine Chedraoui, Judith Rottenburg, Janine Schöne, Tanja Schüz

For us, in Africa, the main role of photography has been to capture a given moment. The photographs of Seydou Keïta and Mama Casset are examples of this. But nowadays, this view of photography as a means of capturing an instant in time belongs to our history.

I was always intrigued by people’s relationship with their own image. I wanted to understand more about this relationship, and that’s what motivated me to become a photographer.


There’s a hidden mystery in photography that’s not restricted to its function of recording reality.

The Liberian War

Interview with Djibril Sy in Dakar 2014