Looking at the Lens photography blog at the New York Times site today and ran across an article about the rescue of the life work of African photographer Samuel Fosso. I admit with embarrassment that I did not know his work, in fact I knew nothing about him. I started reading about him and looking at his photos and rapidly became engrossed in the story. The story of the rescue is briefly told in the blog. The images are both interesting and provocative. In an interview with Jon Henley published in the Guardian Samuel said, “I’ve been taking pictures in my studio since 14 September 1975, when I was 13 years old. I was bored. I asked a photographer in the studio next to where we lived in Bangui, in the Central African Republic, if he would take me on, and he said yes. I worked with him for five months, then opened my own place, for passport and portrait and wedding photographs. It was called Studio Photo Nationale, and the motto was: “You will be beautiful, elegant, delicate, and easy to recognise.” I started taking self-portraits simply to use up spare film; people wanted their photographs the next day, even if the roll wasn’t finished, and I didn’t like waste. The idea was to send some pictures to my mother in Nigeria, to show her I was all right.”
I thought this might have been the birth of the “selfie” but then I thought that many of the selfies I had seen would not likely be sent to someone’s mother. I do think that sending these self portraits home or putting them on social media is a good way to let others know where you are and what you are doing. Just remember most of the world is not interested in how drunk or naked you are. In the group of photographs below he is posing as different well known people.
“Then I saw the possibilities. I started trying different costumes, poses, backdrops. It began as a way of seeing myself grow up, and slowly it became a personal history – as well as art, I suppose. In 1994, there was an exhibition of African photography in Mali. I looked out some of my self-portraits, and won first prize. Now my work has been exhibited in Paris, New York, London.”
He said that Cindy Sherman had been his inspiration. This makes much sense since most of her work and recognition comes from her photographs of herself costumed or playing the roll of some character in a “movie still.” She makes costumes, props and sets for her photos and then shoots multiple takes of herself posing.
Samuel does the same thing. He also makes himself into a composite as in the one of the African General at the top. About this he says, “This is the best. I am an African chief, in a western chair with a leopard-skin cover, and a bouquet of sunflowers. I am all the African chiefs who have sold their continent to the white men. I am saying: we had our own systems, our own rulers, before you came. It’s about the history of the white man and the black man in Africa. Because they may try to cover it up these days, you know, but underneath it’s still the same.”