Fatoumata Diabaté

photographer

lives and works in Saly,
Senegal

*1980

biography

The Street Studio

Interview with Fatoumata Diabaté in Dakar, 2014

SETTING UP A STREET STUDIO

FD I have a new project that I’ve called The Street Studio. The basic concept is that I set up my studio in the street and explain to people that it follows the style of studio photography from the 1950s and 1960s. People usually say straight away, "That’s a great idea!" They find it interesting, because people are keen to preserve traditions. When I set up my Street Studio in Mali, people found it very amusing.
Q How did this project come about?
FD The idea for my Street Studio just came to me when I got up one morning. I said to my husband, "You know what? Today, I’m going to set up a street studio." He said, "Off you go!" So I went down to the street and said to my neighbours, "This evening, there’ll be a street studio between 5 and 7 p.m." Everyone said, "All right, we’ll come along." I wanted to set it up at my neighbour’s place, but he said, "Wait, let me think about this." After that, he wasn’t home, so I had to do the rounds of the neighbourhood before I found him. I said to him, "I’d really like to set up my studio this evening in front of your house." He asked me how long it would last, and I said, "Just today." "I see”, he said. "What time would that be?" I told him it would be from 5 to 7 p.m., and he said, "Okay, it’s on!" I brought objects down from my home, starting with simple things. I want to keep it as a simple studio using African fabrics as a backdrop, which I can pack up and transport to any location.

Interview conducted in Dakar, Casa Mara Guest House, 17.06.14
by Bärbel Küster, Marion Jäger, Alicia Hernandez-Westpfahl, Marie-Louise Mayer

Images and Folk Tales in Collective Memory

Interview with Fatoumata Diabaté in Bamako, 2011

 

OBJECTS FROM DREAMS, RETRIEVED TO TELL STORIES

Q How did you come up with the idea for your Man as an Object series?
FD The idea for this series came from the folk stories I was told as a child, which are still a part of me today. These are stories that are "directed towards black children", as Senghor once said. For these photographs, I took inspiration from the folk tales that I remember and I created objects to give form to the stories. Sometimes ideas come to me at night while I’m lying in bed. Sometimes before I fall asleep, I dream with my eyes open. I explore the ideas that come up, it’s always a process of trial and error. These photos are simple portraits that symbolize a particular aspect of a story. My use of objects as props or costumes also has a connection with African masks, which are so beautifully- made and are preserved in museums nowadays. But I go beyond the traditional context of the African mask, which is tied to specific beliefs and customs, to explore themes relating to rubbish and waste. I often ask my subjects to make this mask-object themselves. It’s very important that it’s hand-made. As a photographer, I set up a process in which I can position the folk stories people have told me behind these masks, which have been fabricated by the children I photograph using recycled materials.
Q Does your Man as an Object series also symbolize the connection between the past and the future?
FD These stories are about things I’ve never experienced, they’re stories people have told me, and they’re rather like dreams to me. When we dream, we believe that we’re actually experiencing things, but when we wake up, we realize that it wasn’t reality and we’re not sure what has a deeper meaning and what is just on the surface. My Man as an Object series touches on that: these stories resemble dreams, but they provide lessons on morality, about how we should conduct ourselves in our daily lives. They help us to understand what we can expect in life, what might happen to us. They also show us the connection between humans and animals, and between people and objects. These stories give us an opportunity to feel affection for objects, animals, trees, nature, and many other things.

THE STORY OF THE SHE-DEVIL

Q Can you give us an example of a story that has particular meaning for you?
FD There’s one story, for example, about a she-devil. It’s about a young orphan girl who had been adopted by a cruel stepmother, who treated her badly. One day, there was a traditional festival in the village, and all the children were allowed to wear new clothes and have their hair braided. Everyone was getting dressed up to look their best, except for this little girl, who had been punished by her stepmother and sent out to run errands far from home. As she left her house, the little girl cried, overcome with sorrow. But then, from far away, a she-devil noticed her. The she-devil changed herself into human form so as not to frighten the little girl, and asked her why she was so sad. The girl explained about her stepmother, that it was a festival day and all the children were happy and enjoying themselves, with their fine clothes and new hairdos, except for her. So the she-devil took the little girl to the place where she lived and braided her hair for her. To give the story a physical presence, I decided to use a long braid to attach objects around people’s heads. Once the little girl’s hair had been braided, she was no longer the same, because the she-devil also gave her traditional clothes to wear. The orphan girl was thrilled. But once she got back home, she was afraid of her stepmother’s reaction. So she decided to use her braids as a mask, to hide and protect herself from her stepmother.

SUTIGI (THE NIGHT IS OURS), OR HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH YOUNG PEOPLE

FD My series entitled Sutigi, which means "The Night is Ours", is a reference to the beautiful time of youth, with its carefree attitude and desire for freedom. The starting point for this project was an exploration of my own dress style, particularly the clothes I used to wear when I was younger. I began by observing the modern outfits that everyone likes to wear to go out at night or hang around the neighbourhood with friends, increasingly focusing on things that were familiar to me. I then became more interested in young people of different nationalities whom I met by chance in my travels. In Africa, young women love to play around with elegance and fashion. Following fashion requires a lot of accessories to complete the look, such as eyewear, belts, shoes, and so forth. I’m currently also interested in masculine elegance, in the small details and men’s sense of discretion. Young people’s interest in fashion is also a way to get out and be attractive to others, to show you exist, which goes together with a very particular lifestyle and pace of living.
Q How did the idea for the Sutigi series come about?
FD I first started this series in Bamako in 2004, and then continued it in cities in other countries, such as South Africa, the Congo and Senegal, and I’d really like to develop it further in other places. We see the same young people everywhere, they have the same attitude. Of course, there are certain differences. For example, in South Africa, young people have a lot of freedom both in the daytime and at night. For that reason, I took a lot of photos during the day there. But in Mali or Brazzaville, on the other hand, people have more freedom at night, so that’s when I shot my photos. In the end, I decided not to include my photos of South Africa in this series because they were day shots, and I wanted to concentrate exclusively on the night-time mood and the sense of freedom it evokes.
Q Has your conception of your series changed since you first started it in 2004?
FD Working on this project has become second nature to me now, an ongoing quest that’s tied to a yearning to reach out and make a connection with these young people, in my own way. You can see their confidence in front of the camera, it’s almost a sense of pride. I also tune into the uniqueness and complexity of each individual, and both of these aspects are things I observe when I first meet people. Through my interest in these young people, I share my personal experience of my era, of us – the younger generation who, due to the traditions in our society, feel more at ease at night than in the daytime.

A SIMPLICITY OF APPROACH

Q How would you describe the thread that ties all your work together?
FD All my photographs have a similar visual approach. My way of looking at things is always the same, with a focus on simplicity and a wide frame. I like to express myself in a straightforward way, and that’s what I want to communicate in my photos. I like to capture moments; I’m not so interested in staging scenes. I wait for the moment to present itself, a natural, uncontrived moment. At other times, such as when I work with masks, there’s inevitably an element of staging involved, but I think these photos show the same simplicity of approach. Even in a staged situation, it’s the moment itself that triggers and determines the resulting image. Even when I work in a studio, I prefer people to react in a spontaneous way. I like people to feel free, to be relaxed and to let down their guard. It’s not that I want to criticize staged photographs, that’s something I like to do as well and it can be very effective, but I think you need to choose between concentrating on staging or on the instant to be captured. I sometimes take my photos in just a few clicks. I have my camera ready and I’m attentive to what might happen, but when the moment is right, I must react very quickly because it never lasts, it can change in a flash. The trigger can be a change in the look on someone’s face; it can be many different things.

Interview conducted in Stuttgart, 04.02.2014
by Bärbel Küster

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SPOKEN WORD IN PHOTOJOURNALISM

Q Can you tell us about your work in photojournalism? Is this your main area of work or is it a secondary interest for you?
FD I took part in a training course on photojournalism in Dakar in 2010. My first project in this area was a series – which I showed you – shot at a chicken farm. Nowadays, I see myself as a photojournalist in some ways, but I didn’t start my career doing this kind of photography. I did, however, do a series in 2009 commissioned by the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, entitled Mali au Féminin, a study on women that was exhibited in Rennes in 2010 at the Musée de Bretagne, along with photographs by Malick Sidibé. The series on chicken farming was commissioned by World Press Photo, who had organized a photographic report on the subject of food safety concerns. Various photographers were commissioned to do reportages for this project, focusing on themes such as rice, palm oil, and so on, and our photographs were exhibited in Amsterdam.
Q Your reportage seems to view the subject with a critical eye. Was it your intention to expose certain aspects of the conditions of chicken farming?
FD I had a slight problem at first, which was that when I arrived at the farm and explained that I had come to do a photo reportage on chickens, everyone burst out laughing! They soon accepted my presence there, but when they saw me taking more than just one or two photos of everything, they began to get suspicious. They asked me what I intended to do with all these pictures of chickens. People who work at farms aren’t used to being the subjects of this kind of reportage. It was actually quite funny, because most of them knew about photojournalism, and kept asking me to interview them. To them, photos were always accompanied by an interview. Some of them talked to me and told me their stories, without me even asking them. I found that very interesting, because it allowed me to gather a lot of background information on the subject that informed my approach to photographing them.
Q The farm manager appears to be very happy about it all.
FD Yes, he was very happy and proud to be photographed. He enjoys his work and saw this reportage as offering a genuine possibility of promoting his chick-breeding business. As for the more critical viewpoint that this series might express, I can’t really say that it was my original intention. My aim was simply to show reality as it is, without any judgement. To show that this is how people work with chickens. I tackled the subject of their working environment in a very straightforward way.
Q Why did you choose to work in colour, when you usually work in black and white? Your photographs in this reportage are stunning. They’re beautifully-composed and have an aesthetic dimension that contrasts with the subject of chicken farming and brings an artistic sensibility to journalistic work. As a photographer, what is your view on the relationship between photojournalism and artistic work?
FD I generally work in black and white, firstly because I really enjoy it, and also because that’s the technique I was initially trained in. That’s what I know how to do. But when I started working on the project for World Press Photo, I quickly realized that the series should be shot in colour, because that environment needed to be documented in a highly realistic and accurate way. But the general aspects of composition, working with light and giving importance to aesthetic beauty within the images come from my initial training. That’s how I learned to take photographs. Whether or not I’m doing a photo reportage has no impact on the way I create my images. It’s a question of style that is unrelated to photojournalism.

TUAREGS AND CAMELS

Q What is the background to this series? Was it related to a trip you made?
FD Yes, I took these photographs while travelling, but also because I have a particular fondness for camels. I went to northern Mali to attend a festival, and I was very impressed by the camels. It was the first time I’d seen camels, so I wanted to photograph them, as well as the world of the Tuareg people in which the camels live. I showed this series at the Bamako Biennale in 2005, whose theme that year was "Another World".
Q How did the Tuareg people react to you taking photographs?
FD They agreed wholeheartedly. Because of the festival, they’re used to seeing photographers and cameramen. They were actually very relaxed about being photographed.
Q Did you find the light in the desert particularly inspiring?
FD Very much so. The light in the desert is magnificent. It was very cold, but the intensity of the light was really impressive. The white sand amplified the effect of the light, which reflected off the Tuaregs’ clothing and the camels. For this project, I chose to work in black and white.

Interview conducted in Bamako, Torokorobougou, Point Sud 11.02.2011
by Bärbel Küster, Marleine Chedraoui, Judith Rottenburg, Janine Schöne, Tanja Schüz

The Sieve

Man as an Object series
Fatoumata Diabaté, 2013

Baladjolo

Man as an Object series
Fatoumata Diabaté, 2013

Man as an Animal

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2011

Man as an Animal

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2011

Man as an Animal

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2011

The Street Studio

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2014

The Street Studio

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2014

Le studio de la rue

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2014

The Street Studio

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2014

The Street Studio

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2014

The Street Studio

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2014

The Street Studio

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2014

The Street Studio

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2014

Sutigi – The Night is Ours

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2004

Sutigi – The Night is Ours

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2012

Sutigi – The Night is Ours

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2012

Sutigi – The Night is Ours

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2013

Sutigi – The Night is Ours

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2013

Tuaregs, Through Gestures and Movement

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2005

Tuaregs, Through Gestures and Movement

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2005

MUSICIANS DIG INTO THEIR REPERTOIRES, SO WHY CAN’T WE, AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, DO THE SAME?

I LIKE TO CAPTURE MOMENTS, I’M NOT SO INTERESTED IN STAGING SCENES.

Folk stories give us an opportunity to feel affection for objects, animals, trees, nature, and many other things.

Whether or not I’m doing a photo reportage has no impact on the way I create my images. It’s a question of style.

Women of Mali

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2009

Women of Mali

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2009

Women of Mali

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2009

Women of Mali

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2009

Women of Mali

Fatoumata Diabaté, 2009