Photography is my means of expression, it's also my job. I look more than I speak and my pictures talk for me. Since I was young I have been attracted by Africa. I don't know why, there is no explanation, it's a mystery. Maybe a Juju priest put a spell on me and called me in secret to Africa, who knows?
I am French, but I studied in Brussels where I spent a lot of time walking the streets, taking pictures. From time to time I’d stop in front of one of the many tribal art galleries in town to see new forms and 'strange objects'—that’s probably when my fascination with African art was born.
I was around thirty when I first visited Africa, Benin being my first destination. I shot a story about an afro-Christian church, it was a photo-journalistic report not a personal artistic work. At the same time I began to photograph voodoo ceremonies for my own pleasure. In Benin, voodoo temples are everywhere—it's not a hidden world.
I never stopped visiting West Africa since that first trip. I made many more trips to Benin, capturing witchcraft stories such as tales of humans changing into animals and lightning punishing robbers. I have learnt to see the ocean as the home of maritime deities, and forests as shelter for peculiar creatures. I discovered the huge variety of African traditional societies and the richness of their artistic expression.
‘Magic on Earth’ is a long-term project, still ongoing, exploring the masquerades of West Africa, an endless and fascinating subject. My goal is to not only gather beautiful pictures of masks and disguised people, but I also try to go further, to reveal the invisible world surrounding them, to capture the supernatural mood.
Even if my material is ethnographic, my main goal is to create a personal and artistic body of work. African daily life is surrounded by a rich pantheon—all these gods are similar to super heroes. It brings me back to childhood, but at the same time there is something deeper.
Masquerades are linked to time, space and spirituality, the essential things of life. These images allow me to express my own questions and doubts about our stay on earth and the continuity of life, to re-think our relation with nature, to question the reality we see.
The French writer Paul Valery wrote "what would we be without the help of that which does not exist". This sentence resonates with my own state of mind and maybe explains the strength of the West African imaginary world. We need magic, the masquerades are a kind of magic.
Books, museums and the internet allow us to discover so many things. It is often through this that everything begins.
The aesthetic is important in my choice, but I need to consider the location, the possible connections with the leaders and the expenses. Masquerades which remains sacred are the most interesting. It's the case of the Egungun society which honours spirits of the ancestors and perpetuate their memories. This masquerade remains very active and closed to outsiders. Wooden masks in Burkina Faso are easier to reach but fully alive and very beautiful. In my mind however, once the masquerade becomes only entertainment, it's a little bit sad and less interesting.
Devils in Sierra Leone are very impressive, especially in hunting societies. But it's hopeless to meet them without strong help from the inside. I would love to go back to Freetown to take new pictures, but I need to be in touch with the right people before, without this help it's a very complicated task.
Today some masks are very difficult to find, in Guinea for example we had to sail for days in the marshy area near Guinea-Bissau before finding a Banda mask, and of course this one was not beautiful as the ones we can see in museums. It was disappointing after such a trip in the mud under a hard sun. Books don't teach us everything.
Masks are supernatural beings travelling from the land of spirits to earth of humans. For my work, characters themselves are more interesting than ceremonies and dances. There is more power in photographing them without movement. It is motion of these beings that brings us back to the human condition. That's why I don’t take pictures during public performances.
On location, most of the time I am not allowed to move the character out of the convent or out of the compound. So I have to choose, in a restricted area, the most suitable place for the photo session. I often use triptychs and diptychs which allow me to deconstruct the space and rebuild it again in a new way, more poetic and odd. That’s my way of creating a fourth dimension, a mysterious view which suggests a parallel world.
In Yoruba culture, Egunguns come back to earth through a transition point named ‘Igbalé’. The Igbalé is a sacred no-man’s-land, usually located in the forest or in the convent. For this reason, forests and landscapes are recurring elements within my visual arrangements. The ancestors stand motionless in this space opening up a bridge from one world to another.
The image compilation is a long process. I work with argentic analog cameras. I take my time before processing films because I want to look at the photographs with a new eye. I work slowly.
There is a kind of magic when at last I find the right arrangement, sometimes pictures taken far away from each others come together and seem to be made for each other, with similar lines, perspectives or ambiance.