Shooting with Malick Sidibé

Bamako, 2011

View of the exhibition "Bamako-Dakar"

Stadthaus Ulm, 2014

Group portrait in Malick Sidibé's studio

Team of the interviewers, 2011

Malick Sidibé commenting his photo albums

Interview shooting, Bamako, 2011

Malick Sidibé


lived and worked in Bamako,



"A Camera is a Very Social Thing"

Interview with Malick Sidibé in Bamako, 2011


MS I bought my first camera in the Sudan, for around 6,000 Malian francs. Back then, it wasn’t expensive. I started taking photos straight away. I went to my village and took pictures of my mother, of animals and animal skins. The camera is the most effective tool for portraying scenery. Everything looked great, I was very happy with it. Then I was chosen to go to school. I had many brothers, but my father decided that I would be the one to attend school. That was in 1944, and my father said, "He’s the one I want to send to school. I want him to study." The school accepted me, so off I went.


MS I was lucky enough to be good at drawing from the beginning of primary school. In my second year, the teachers fought over me as they all wanted me in their class. I did nearly all the drawings on the blackboard for them: world maps, biology and physics diagrams, whatever they needed! The other students copied what I drew on the board. I spent a lot of time drawing and quickly improved my skills. One year, the Commanding Lieutenant Colonel, whose name was Maurice Miquel, discovered that I had a talent for drawing. I can’t recall how he found out, he must have noticed at the annual celebrations that I had done small drawings on the handkerchiefs that young girls used to burn and present to state officials. Colonel Miquel organized for me to be granted a scholarship to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. That was in 1951. It’s strange how our destinies are decided, because a good photographer must have good eyes. And at that time, I already had problems with one of my eyes, and when I had to sit the medical examination in order to receive the scholarship for Paris, the doctor declared me unfit to take part in it. So, I didn’t go. I sat the examination a second time, but again I was declared unfit. That meant that I couldn’t sit the exam for the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. I was so upset, I cried for weeks. I eventually gave up on the idea and looked for work at the Compagnie Transafricaine, a transportation company. In the end, thanks to help from the Colonel, I was able to enrol at the Maison des Artistes Soudanais, where I trained as a jeweller, because people from the Fulani community cannot be carpenters, blacksmiths or cabinetmakers. But I kept up with my drawing, and it wasn’t until later, when I started working in photography, that I stopped drawing.


MS I finally ended up choosing photographic film over the paintbrush. Painting is a slow and solitary art, whereas photography is a very social activity. People come over, you spend time chatting with them before taking their pictures. I’m a portrait photographer, and that’s a very challenging job. You can’t fool around with portraits. When people arrive at the studio, you must prepare them and get them in the right mood. That requires a psychological approach. You need to be very friendly and put your clients at ease, familiarize them with the process. That was my strategy: I started by chatting with people and making them feel comfortable.
Q Do you choose your backgrounds yourself? What makes you choose a particular fabric over another?
MS I’ve always chosen the backgrounds for my portraits. I choose them according to what people are wearing, by deciding which background might go with a particular outfit or clothing style. I’ve recently been opting for a striped backdrop because it goes with everything, whether it’s black, white or blue.
Q Have your clients ever made specific requests?
MS It’s always a special event for people to be photographed. They come to the studio with their hair newly styled. Some people even bring their perfume along! They stand in front of the mirror and put their perfume on. I say to them, "You can’t be serious! You won’t be able to smell your perfume in the photo!"


MS I’d like to tell you a little story. I once knew a girl who often chatted with me on her way to the markets. One day, I asked her if she would allow me to photograph her, but she refused. She was afraid of the camera chamber, because she said, "cameras show us upside down." She was ashamed because she thought the inverted image meant that her dress would fall over her head. So, when she saw me with my camera, she started screaming out to passers-by, "People of Ségou, please help me!" I was taken aback. I said, "Why are you asking people for help? I have no intention of harming you, all I want to do is take your photograph!" She explained that she thought she’d be naked when I saw her through the viewfinder, as she would be upside down and her dress would be over her head! To reassure her, I got her to stand in front of the camera and look in the viewfinder, while I took her place in front of the camera. I said, "Look at me. Do you see me upside down? How about my trousers? Am I still wearing my underwear, or has it fallen off?" She said everything was fine, and that’s how I ended up getting her to agree to be photographed.


Q You explained that the idea of photographing people from the back stemmed from the erotic significance of the back-view of women and the way men look at women. Yet you have also done portraits of men viewed from the back.
MS Yes, in fact I first started taking photographs of men wearing hats viewed from the back, but it didn’t work very well. My first subject was my son, then I photographed myself in my work clothes.
Q Can we identify an artistic theme that originated in Europe in these series?
MS No, this idea really came to me in Mali, since I first started working on it in my own home. Take a look at this photo of my daughter: she’s sitting next to our dog, her back facing us. In my opinion, if you want to take a portrait of someone, there are three possibilities: a frontal pose, a back view or a profile. Profiles are interesting, too. Some people look very good in profile, while others look better in a frontal pose. I began by doing a kind of "back-view profile" shot, which was a mixture of both views. However, since these first photographs were for an exhibition, I preferred to take the precaution of not showing people’s faces. So, I decided to push it further, and only show their backs. After that, I kept going with that idea.


Q How did you choose the size and format of your prints?
MS I used to develop my own photographs. I did it all myself at the beginning, but from 1994, or perhaps 1991, I’m quite not sure, most of the galleries and museums chose their own formats. I never used the square format myself. I cropped the images a little, and got rid of all the distracting elements on the edges, but I always used a rectangular format.
Q Do you prefer this format?
MS I have a liking for rectangles. It’s a question of individual choice, and I didn’t mind, as long as I earned money from it. I found the rectangular format very convenient, because I could remove details that that detracted from the image and that might not appeal to the customer. I cropped the shots so that you wouldn’t see old cameras, candle holders or other objects in the background. When I take portraits of people, they come to the studio all dressed up, they wear their best shoes, and so on, so I like to crop the image to make sure that the overall effect is attractive and neat.


In around 1962 and 1963, we had what we call "bals poussière" [Dances in the Dust] that were held in an area where the mosque is now. Back then, it was a vacant lot and we organized impromptu parties there, outside in the dust. You should bear in mind that it wasn’t the political system that gave young people their freedom here, it came from European music. Young women went wild, and the men did, too. At first, people tried to stop young women from going to the dances, or insisted that they were accompanied by a "gentleman" to make sure they were safe. I remember that when a father refused to allow young women in his family to go a dance, he had to be very careful about the water he drank, because the young women often spiked his water with sleeping pills. They stayed out until four or five in the morning and the old man didn’t notice a thing!
Q What was your favourite music?
MS Tino Rossi. It was slow, it was nice music. But when Latin American music arrived on the scene, it was absolute chaos! Everyone shouted "Yeah, yeah, yeah", and jumped up and down! Especially when Ray Charles songs arrived – everyone would shake their arms in the air. We had so much fun twirling the girls around!
Q That was rock ‘n’ roll.
MS Yes, rock ‘n’ roll arrived here in 1957. I took many photos of the big dances we had, but rock music didn’t last very long here. It was a gymnastic dance style and the men felt that there wasn’t enough contact with women, because it’s a solitary dance. Rock ‘n’ roll dancing is done on your own. People preferred music that men and women could dance to as a couple, such as Blues. We turned the lights off so that the cheekier ones could have the chance to kiss. This shocked the girls, however, because they weren’t used to kissing boys, and the boys often forced them into it. I just sat on the sidelines and watched. I belonged to the "zazou" jazz generation, and it wasn’t the same – we were more reserved. In any case, I didn’t really enjoy dancing, I was too shy. I preferred to watch people dancing and photograph them.

Interview conducted in Bamako, Bagadaji, Malick Sidibé’s studio, 16.02.2011
by Bärbel Küster, Marleine Chedraoui, Judith Rottenburg, Janine Schöne, Tanja Schüz


I started out photographing back views of people, and people liked it. When I talked to French photographers about it, they said, "Oh, we tried that too, but no one understood."

Photography was a foreign thing to us. Back in 1945-1946, it was unusual for people to own photographs of themselves. First, we had mirrors. If you wanted to look at yourself, you had to buy a mirror, and some people were lucky enough to own one. Nowadays, the camera is our mirror.