Fatoumata Diabaté is a nostalgic soul. Born and raised in Bamako, Mali, this young visual artist might be the next Seydou Keïta or Malick Sidibé, both known as the fathers of African photography. Considered one of the most brilliant photographers of her generation, Diabaté started her career 15 years ago, with a desire for self-growth and excitement. The year 2013 was a major turning point for her as she decided to set up a small street studio, with the intent to recreate vintage photos her parents showed her as a child. Today, her works are exhibited in multiple countries, putting a sparkle back into cherished memories.
How did you fall in love with photography?
It all started back in 2001. At the time, there were many strikes in my high school and I was very frustrated about it because I wanted to get a job and become independent as soon as possible. So, I told my mother I wanted to quit school and find a job. When she asked me what I wanted to do exactly, I simply told her: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be anything but a prostitute’. And thus, I started sending my CV to multiple companies. A week later, one of my aunts informed me that Promo Femme, the Center of Audiovisual Education for Young Women in Mali, called for applications for a photography training program. Despite my lack of knowledge and experience, I was instantly hooked! My aunt was actually first contacted for the training program, as one of her friend’s husband worked at the Center, but she considered photography as a men-only profession and said she would never join the program. Therefore, when I told her I’d do it, she couldn’t believe me and thought I was crazy. She kept asking: ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Really?’ and I would answer ‘Yes’ every time. I then went on to apply for the training. The Director didn’t ask me a single question; she was very pleased that young women like me were excited about the program. Her mission was to train 100 young women in Mali, as part of a partnership with the Canadian cooperation. But long before joining Promo Femme, I had had multiple side jobs, including hand-dying Bazin cloth with my aunt. We would work together in her courtyard and send fabrics to our clients in Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria and other African countries.
What was it like growing up in Mali, a country known as the birthplace of the fathers of African photography?
My parents had many album photos. All those pictures were taken by photographers from the time of Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta. Some apprentices of Keïta even took pictures of me when I was a baby girl. Plus, Seydou Keïta used to live in my mother’s neighbourhood, so photography had a considerable influence on my life. My parents would always show their photos to their friends and relatives during parties and family gatherings. Sometimes, I’d make fun of their outfits and poses, but deep down, I was truly mesmerized by the beauty of those black and white pictures.
That era had such an irresistible charm, indeed. Can you please describe the lifestyle from back then and what made it so unique?
The advent of photography in Mali was a magical moment. We used it as a creative way to discover and represent ourselves. Thus, we would navigate through different dress styles, with pride and elegance. What was so unique about that era is certainly that we had just gained independence. We were enjoying our newfound freedom after colonialism. Frequently, in ceremonies and photo shoots, we would even dress up as superstars. No matter the situation, we made it a point to stand straight and be proud of our identity.
Is it the reason you decided to follow the steps of these iconic photographers and launch the Studio Photo de la Rue project?
I’ve always had great esteem for them and even had the chance to spend time with Malick Sidibé. Unfortunately, Seydou Keïta passed away in 2001, when I was only getting started. As for the project, I remember I had a sudden insight, back in 2013. I woke up my husband in the middle of the night and told him I wanted to set up a street studio and take vintage pictures of passersby, just as it was done decades ago. To me, that was a golden age and I had to pay homage to it. Plus, musicians frequently revisit old songs in their own way, so I thought: ‘Why not us photographers’? Luckily enough, the idea was quickly embraced by neighbours, so much that there was already a long queue of participants few days after the studio was set! Since then, I’ve exposed my work in schools, museums, foundations and at festivals.
How do you think you’ve managed to add your own personal touch to a concept so widely known?
Well, Studio Photo de la Rue is now a registered trademark with its own domain name. Also, in my daily work, I use my own backdrops, accessories and photo credit. It’s all in the details. Besides, the digital age made it very effortless for photographers to print their work. Back in the day, they had to wait about two days to get properly printed photos. However, my idea was really to replicate the works of Sidibé and Keïta. I’m sure sometimes people find it difficult to spot the differences between our styles. That’s the whole purpose!
What do you feel when taking pictures?
I feel very comfortable. I very much enjoy the social side of it: having a fruitful conversation with the people involved, guiding them and making sure they feel comfortable throughout the whole process. Moreover, it fills me with joy when I notice them enjoying themselves. In the past, the complicity between the photographer and his subject was very important; I wanted to recreate that. I like being playful at work and make others feel as if they were transported back to a different time.
Does it feel like working?
Oh yes, of course. It takes real effort to achieve such results. I take care of everything from start to finish: confidence building, costumes, accessories, posing techniques… It’s real work.
You’ve been taking pictures of people for more than 15 years. What do you think this has taught you about yourself?
A lot. I think I’ve learned as much from my subjects as they have from me. I’m a social and portrait photographer, so I have the opportunity to learn a lot from all kinds of human beings. I learned that I could express myself and improve my skills.
If they were still alive, what do you think the ‘Fathers of African photography’ would say about your work?
Malick Sidibé and I did an exposition together, outside of Mali, and he said he absolutely loved my work, especially pictures of women. He was very interested in social subjects. As for the other ones, I sincerely have no idea about what they would have thought.
A few months ago, the French government announced that it would make plans for the repatriation of African artefacts held in French museums. What do you think about this initiative?
I think it’s awesome. Now, as Africans, we must take our responsibilities. We should take care of those artefacts and make sure they are showcased in museums, expositions, etc. It will definitely develop the tourism sector. You know, if Malick Sidibé was European, I’m pretty sure he would have had a museum or a foundation named after him. Why can’t we have that type of recognition on our own continent? We shouldn’t wait for the French or other European people to enhance Africa’s culture and heritage.
Lately, lots of young Africans have pursued photography careers. What are your thoughts on this trend?
I’m so glad about that. I think there’s a strong generation that is now awakening. These youths are increasingly getting involved in visual arts. Women, in particular, are much more proactive. I’ve been managing the Association of Women Photographers in Mali since December, and I can see them taking over several fields, namely food photography or fine-art photography. I believe that we complete and help each other rise up, and it’s about time! Several collectives and associations were created these last years and an emphasis was placed on training young professionals. I think it’s a very good thing to allow them to express themselves more freely, while still improving their skills as much as possible.
Taking into account that there is an International Women’s Rights Day celebrated yearly and there are now several other movements on women’s rights, how do you think photography can represent women best?
Most of my projects were focused on women. For example, in 2003, I worked on a series of photographs portraying the strong and confident women of my municipality. We call them the Lionesses. On different occasions, I took pictures of young women enjoying the nightlife of Mali, with a focus on their creative sense of style. I try to represent all women in my work, particularly the place they hold in our societies. The pressure, the need to be loved… Matter of fact, I’m currently working on a series called Chameleon that intends to shed light upon skin bleaching habits. They are self-portraits.
Do you use skin bleaching products?
No, I don’t. But it’s a sensitive issue I want to address. For my sisters, my aunts… every woman who’s using it on a daily basis. Because it’s harmful to their health and painful for their loved ones to watch. I feel duty bound to share my opinion as a young photographer. For Chameleon, I use clay and other organic materials. For me, skin bleaching is like female genital mutilation; everybody knows it’s happening but we still allow it within our societies, instead of accepting each of us for what we are. You can see it yourself, in African countries, light-skinned women are always seated at the front in major events.
Your work focuses a lot on the past but where do you see yourself in 15 more years?
I’d just like to be notable all over the world for my work and hold major exhibitions in museums, festivals, galleries… My deepest ambition is to exhibit my work all around the world.
Khadidiatou Cissé is a Senegalese journalist based in Dakar, Senegal. She is currently working for Happy In Africa.
This conversation has been translated from French into English, edited and condensed for conciseness.