« You have to be inside something to change it »

Interview with Simon Njami, by Héric Libong

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Editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Revue Noire, Simon Njami is a writer, philosopher and the artistic director of the next Rencontres photographiques de Bamako, which will be held in October 2001.

How do you explain the fact that African photography still has so little impact on the local populations since 1994, since people started speaking about it?
I think that is wrong. It’s not since 1994. Photography has always had an impact on the population. There wouldn’t be so many photos if it didn’t. When we worked on our Anthology of African Photography, we rediscovered photos of people taken very early on in the century. You only have to go to people’s houses to see how important photography is. As for art photography, I would refer back to fine arts and creation full stop. I don’t think that fine art has the place it deserves in Africa. Firstly, how many museums are there to show it or exhibitions so that people can see it? This requires a whole undertaking. It is not surprising, therefore, that photography doesn’t have the place it deserves in Africa. But if you look closely, photography doesn’t have the place it deserves in Europe either. There are institutions that support and exhibit it, but in terms of its impact on the public, there is little difference with the situation in Africa. That is why I think that in Africa a process of education is needed. It is a process of memory, so as to be able to enjoy spaces where people can see photography. If people don’t know where to go, they won’t go anywhere.
It is thus a double process: to show that this photography exists and that it is important. And, on a State level, to build structures to safeguard and conserve it. There are loads of negatives of works from the beginning of the century that have disappeared. It requires a whole policy. The whole nation needs to decide that photography is important.
Isn’t the economy a determining factor?
Absolutely. The more magazines there are, the more photos are needed. But there are very few in Africa. The only papers that exist are the dailies, which are not interested in photography. Or only in an illustrative capacity. Don’t forget that photography is a profession. You don’t just start producing art photography from one day to the next. Most of those involved in it in the West have another source of income. You can’t live from art photography today, unless you have an institution’s backing. There are no institutions in Africa, no magazines, no medium for images. And in this context, I find it amazing that some people still manage to get by and produce photographs. But as long as photographers are unable to make a living from their photographs in their own country, the problem will always remain. All our statues are already abroad. Our best artists furnish Western collections too. The same thing risks happening with photography because we do nothing to give photographers the means to work at home. I myself, an organizer who holds exhibitions all around the world, couldn’t hold them in Africa.
How has photography evolved and how do people see it in Africa?
I don’t know how it has evolved. But the more we discuss it, the more things are seen and written about, the more they evolve. People have started formulating discourses and photographers have started thinking in an articulate and theoretical manner about their own work. For a time, there was a kind of exogenous viewpoint that needed to be challenged, as our photography was « discovered » by outsiders – just as Africa was for that matter. That is why outsiders initially imposed their vision of what African photography should be. There were people who said that it was essentially studio photography. Then they recognized that this wasn’t the case, as the studios did not exist before photography itself. But, in the absence of knowledge and tangible material, the outside began to construct its own theory. What is interesting now is that an endogenous discourse is developing and that it is going to help to evolve. Because if you take an old man – whose talent I don’t deny – who has taken photos in his little corner of the world all his life and who doesn’t photograph anymore and you take him to a contemporary setting he isn’t familiar with, there will be no discourse. He will say yes to all you say to him. And he will say that he’s happy to be there. Yet today we have young people who tour and who can say: « wait a minute, what you’re saying is not quite right! » That opens up horizons and gives people who want to be photographers other options. This is good, therefore, even if, once again, I fear market laws and the fact that the home demand is too insignificant to let things evolve.
Haven’t the Rencontres de Bamako helped turn this photography into a kind of monolithic block that is easily confined to a ghetto?
The first three editions did what they could. You have to function in stages. And one of its objectives was to give this photography visibility. People have created a monolithic block due to the lack of a discourse. But if we carried on like that, this block would become boring. And today, after three editions, I think that we have to break things down and show how varied this photography is so that a new eternal gaze does not go away saying that photography in Africa boils down to the studio. We have to vary the subjects, places, disciplines, and people as much as possible, therefore, and to show that things are on the move. We need to make Bamako a motor, a laboratory that will direct this photography towards something other than a kind of academy that crystallizes things.
In order to construct what one might call counter-imagery?
I prefer to speak about forging an endogenous gaze. It is not so much a question of counter-imagery, because I do not deny anyone the right to have his or her opinion. What I find problematic is when the people the most directly concerned don’t have their own opinion about what they produce. What I would like is to develop this opinion within Africa so that Africans know what they have at hand and make their own choices.
Do you think that African photography is capable of proposing a gaze, a style of its own, and that one day we will see tendencies emerge on the continent?
I think that we have to wait and let time take care of things. The image is the very site of subjectivity. And I am convinced that someone who has lived in Africa, raised by African parents, will not have the same view of the world as someone who has been brought up elsewhere. The real task is to know which gaze we are talking about, what constitutes it and to show it. And that is an evolution; it’s a whole reflection about what photography should be. I would also like to see more and more African photographers make photo reports outside Africa to demonstrate their different way of approaching things. Send an African to a mass grave and I am pretty much certain that he will not take the same photo as a Salgado or someone else. He will have an intimate relation to what he sees that you cannot ask of anyone else. He will treat the people and bodies with a different emotion.
You only have to look at History to see that Africa has embarked on a direction that does not belong to it. Its image pays the price for this too. The more we advance, the more we convince ourselves that it is irreversible…
That is the reason why all my work, from literature to the fine arts, has involved saying and repeating that we must build an endogenous discourse, what you referred to as counter-imagery. If we let people define us, we mustn’t be surprised that we find ourselves restricted by these definitions. One of the things Africa has a problem with and is behind in is this discourse about itself. Africa has to rewrite its history. And everything is related. If Africa does this, people will no longer say that it was discovered by X or by Y. There will be another discourse and way of seeing that will also help the young generations know where they come from. You have to be inside something to change it. And in order to challenge the discourse that the other has about you with your own, you have to have that discourse about yourself. We urgently need to develop this in Africa. For example, the « Africa by Itself » exhibition sought to explain that the market dominates. If you try to enter it, you are trapped. But if you want to survive, you have to enter it. But I think that there is a way of subverting this by entering the market in a different way: not along the paths codified by the decision-makers, but on one’s own terms. But these have to exist. That is the reason why photography and the fine arts in general do not function alone. There have to be critics and people who are capable of presenting the photographers, because you cannot expect them to reflect on the creation of the world, or this or that. If they have no one to write about them, and if they turn to people outside Africa, it is obvious that they will produce a discourse that may not be the right one. So, there is a collective responsibility that isn’t incumbent on just the photographers. They are just cogs in this rewriting process. All the players are involved because if you look at the way the art system or market works in the West, everything depends on writing, everything depends on criticism and a stance vis-à-vis something that enables you to enter the arena. None of that exists in Africa.

///Article N° : 5538


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