The endogenous gaze

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« Here distance has nothing more to add »
Tanella Boni, Chaque jour l’espérance
Forthcoming publication, Editions l’Harmattan

Back in 1993, an exhibition at the Rencontres photographiques d’Arles, organized in conjunction with the British agency Autograph, offered an overview of African photography. The following year, the first Rencontres de Bamako converted the try and opened the path to recognition in Europe: Seydou Keïta at the French Photographic Month in 94, Malick Sidibé at the Fondation Cartier in 95, a retrospective since 1940 at the Guggenheim in New York in 96, Keïta and Depardon’s Regards croisés (Crossed Gazes), also at the Fondation Cartier in 98, and, the same year, the seminal L’Afrique par elle-même (Africa by Itself) organized by the Revue Noire at the Maison européénne de photographie before travelling to South Africa, San Paulo, London and Washington, plus the 400 pages of the Revue Noire’s Anthologie de la photographie africaine et de l’océan indien… Africa’s photograph(er)s had gained international recognition.
However, these exhibitions, whose photographs were widely reproduced in magazines, often helped to forge the image of portraitists and studio photographers. Exoticism was never far from hand: we take easily to this strange self-presentation so unlike our European portraits, which are meant to capture the natural and a certain elevation of the self. But there is nothing surprising about it: if the studio stages the person using smart clothes and objects that are all but insignificant, it is because the clients want to give a positive image of themselves, in accordance with what they imagine to be their modernity. The photographer’s art is to respect this choice and to show it in the best possible light. That is what distinguishes the artist from the artisan.
This is quite different from the external gaze of photographers who try to capture the instantaneity of daily life. One feels the tension between this easily anecdotal documentary gaze on the lookout for discoveries, and an endogenous gaze, which finds the appearance it gives itself beautiful.
One finds the same tension between photo reports and art photography. The easily voyeuristic eye of the external gaze is replaced here by an involvement: it is no longer a (typical) globalized Africa, but rather its individual experiences. Africa is thus no longer a circus or a shop window: the photographers attempt to highlight what they share with it. They rediscover, recognize what they already knew by heart: the flaws, the failings, or the values of an Africa that they know only too well, and which impose themselves before the photographer’s own intentions are clear. And it is thus that their own images take on their universal value: they do not lyrically describe a specific place, they highlight a sensation, so much so that their photographs become a resume of memory, of a series of places, a series of people, whilst remaining deeply rooted in reality.
Far from all nationalist reflexes, this difference is important: even if the other’s gaze has its value, nothing replaces this endogenous gaze, especially as it was denied to Africa for so long and thus contributes to its renaissance. That was the great merit of the Villes d’Afrique (Africa’s Towns) exhibition in Lille (cf. Africultures 32): the affirmation of a simple idea that there are excellent photographers in Africa who are gifted with this gaze, and that there is no need to bring photographers to Africa at great expense to photograph Africa in their place.
But for this to be possible, tools are needed so that the photographers can be identified and sell, tools that they can appropriate to make a living from their work. That is the spirit of the on-line photo library that Africultures is currently setting up and which will be launched in October 2001.

///Article N° : 5531


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