Malick has had three books of his photos published, exhibitions across Europe and the States and is regularly cited as one of Africa’s most important photographers. I dropped in on his Bamako studio to find a gentle man fighting the good fight against the airborne red earth of Africa and dodgy chemicals
In Bamako, Mali’s shambolic capital, taxi drivers eschew street addresses and instead drive into a neighbourhood asking around until they find the place. These days many use a mobile to call the number and get directions. This latter approach might have been useful if Malick’s studio phone actually worked.
On the table in front of an old man is an only slightly less old camera splayed out in bits. Delicate parts surrender to the red dust and pollution of Bamako.
Despite his international profile, remarkably few Malian’s seem to have heard of this giant of photography. Perhaps it is his simple and humble demeanour or maybe it’s just his heyday was so long ago. Or maybe it is just hard to believe that such an unremarkable studio as the one several blocks behind the Grand Mosque should have been the scene of photos that defined the funky, freewheeling period in which West African states grabbed their independence and held the hope of better days for all.
On the table in front of an old man is an only slightly less old camera splayed out in bits. Delicate parts surrender to the red dust and pollution of Bamako. It seems hard to believe that the magic of photography will ever happen in that particular box of tricks. The old man proffers his hand and a greeting in French, it is the maestro himself.
He is keen to know which of his books I have and what brought me here. I am lucky enough to have two of them and the conversation soon turns to his latest projects involving predominantly photos of people’s backs. I have been puzzled by this turn in an artist who always seemed to capture the very soul and life of his subjects.
A couple of weeks later, I return but the negatives have been ruined in the processing by a bad batch of chemicals. None are salvageable.
He offers little in the way of explanation though and excuses himself for a prayer. Perhaps his religion with its problematic relationship to representational art has influenced him? Who knows?
I arrange to have a portrait done. I come back the next day and watch the twinkle-eyed master at work. He has a warmth and easy way with people that makes it pretty clear why he could get such candid and revealing shots from his subjects. He sees the Tamashek (Touareg) scarf wrapped round my neck and decides I should wear it as a full Tamashek turban. With great reluctance I do as told, fully aware of how ridiculous I will look. Never mind, I say to myself, these are not the only shots.
A couple of weeks later, I return but the negatives have been ruined in the processing by a bad batch of chemicals. None are salvageable. Another shoot is hastily arranged. This time he runs out of film after three shots. All of them with me dressed as a Tamashek. I console myself that the session was a ruse to see a master at work and not really about a picture of myself.
This time one of the negatives makes it and hopefully it is being printed and sent as I write this. One of his assistants is taken with the idea of having more international visitors and encourages me to give the address. My advice would be get one of his books, meet this lovely man and if a photo comes out of the process, consider it a bonus.
–Photo of Malick Sidibé by Damian Rafferty–
Bagadaji Rue 508 Porte 632
BP: 455 Bamako, Mali
Tel — (223) 221 3948
Mob — (223) 671 8360
Email — email@example.com
Malick Sidibe — The photographer photographed on Flykr
Both the Andre Magnin edited book and the Hasselblad Foundation Award book are reviewed in Fly