Influential African photographer Malick Sidibé died in 2016. The following interview is a translated transcription from a video interview produced by Jerome Sother for www.gwinzegal.com. It was recorded in Rouen, 2008.
Malick Sidibé, can you tell us about your childhood?
I was born 300 km from the capital. I was a peasant child who raised animals. Because where I come from, they say that if you raise animals you are a good peasant, because animals provide good organic fertilizer.
So from about 1940, 1942, I started herding. From the age of 5 or 6 you can herd animals. I was a shepherd first of all. My father had a lot of sheep, or rather, my family had a lot of sheep. Once you’re 8, you can also herd cattle. I also herded cattle.
After herding animals, you next have to work the land. I spent 2 years working the land with traditional tools with the ‘daba’.
After that, it wasn’t exactly a choice, although it was up to one’s father, children had to go to school. This was 1944, 1945. It was obligatory. My father told me before school recruitment took place, because I was of that age, he told me; “One day I’m going to send you to the white school.”
We Africans were to go to the white school! He had made the decision but put it off for 2 or 3 years. The year the recruitment was taking place, the village chief, who happened to be a relative of my father, gathered everyone from the village to decide which families had to provide pupils. My father was told: “You have lots of children. You must send one of your boys to school this year.” My father immediately called me over and said: “The time has come. You are going to school. To the white school.” And that’s how it happened… I was happy about it.
What contact did you have with the outside world at that time?
There was none at all. We knew nothing of the outside world. We were enclosed in a capsule. It was as if the world stopped there. We never heard the news or anything like that. Maybe given the peanut trade in Senegal, we would hear more about Senegal and The Gambia, but that’s all. We really knew nothing.
Did you draw as a child?
My mother was a decorator of African huts, but it was straight lines and small circles, things like that. When I went to school, I started to draw. There is a certain pride in imitating nature. I drew trees, and even animals. I began with animals and trees. Those are the first things I saw. I think that drawing is somewhat innate in a being, in man. Other than that, I knew nothing of drawing. But I learned to draw not with chalk but with coal. Later I had to find surfaces that could be marked with coal.
Did you have access to books?
Towards 1952 I wanted to find art books on the great painters, and in my first year at school, I won a prize of two art books on great painters. I don’t remember the names. There was a certain Delacroix, Eugène Delacroix. I was given this prize because I was top of my school. So those were the kind of books they gave me.
Before I even started high school I was doing drawings for official events: New Year and also French Independence Day. I would draw flowers on pieces of fabric that the young girls would then embroider and put in envelopes and give them to the officials and top colonial civil servants.
Maybe that’s how the Major knew me. And yet I never wrote down my name… In ‘51, ‘52, he sent a guardsman to find me. The guardsman found me one evening and said: “The Major needs you.”
I said, “What do you mean? The Major needs a little African boy, who wears no shoes and is poorly dressed? What does he want with me?”
To begin with I was a little nervous. After all, I said, I hadn’t done anything wrong, I hadn’t stolen anything.
So I took my courage in my hands and went along to see the Major. To my great surprise he told the guardsman to tell me that he wanted to send me to the School of Sudanese Craftsmen in the capital Bamako.
How did you come across Gérard Guillat and his studio?
The photographer came to see the school principal. Was there a pupil who could decorate his studio? Again, as I was still top of the class, the principal sent me to do the decorating.
So when I had done the decorating, it was he who asked me… He had seen me with a paintbrush, so when he asked me if I wanted to become a photographer, I didn’t hesitate. I leapt on it straightaway, on photography. I was used to working with pictures. I found that the camera was a lot faster than a paintbrush. So I threw myself into photography and that’s how I became a photographer.
What was your role in Gérard Guillat’s studio?
I manned the cash register, delivered the photos, handled the cash, sold equipment. I did all that to begin with. And then in 1956 I bought my first amateur camera. He didn’t teach me how to take photographs. But I watched him and I understood how to take photographs.
I did the African events, the photos of Africans, and he did the European events - the major balls, official events. He did that. And I did the events for Africans. I knew of other European photographers who would not allow their employees to buy a camera. I was lucky, and from 1957 onwards I started to take photographs in town for the Africans.
How did you choose what to cover?
You don’t choose. You are called. You are recommended in advance, so you go to someone’s wedding, someone’s christening… We were recommended, and I was lucky enough at that time to be the intellectual young photographer with a small camera who could move around.
The early photographers like Seydou Keita worked with plate cameras and were not able to get out and use a flash. So I was much in demand by the local youth. Everywhere… in town, everywhere! Whenever there was a dance, I was invited.
How important was music?
I have to tell you, music liberated African youth from the taboo of being with a woman. They were able to get close to each other, which is why I was always invited to these parties. I had to go in order to record these moments, when a young man could dance with a young woman close up. We were not used to it.
They liked seeing themselves dancing with a woman, even if she wasn’t their girlfriend. They could tell their friends that they had got her, that she was theirs now… It was a very powerful moment for young Malian men to see themselves dancing with a girl. That didn’t exist before.
At night, from midnight to 4 am or 6 am, I went from one party to another. I could go to four different parties. If there were only two, it was like having a rest. But if there were four, you couldn’t miss any. If you were given four invitations, you had to go. You couldn’t miss them.
I’d leave one place, I’d take 36 shots here, 36 shots there, and then 36 somewhere else, until the morning. Sometimes I would come back to parties where there had been a lot of people.
Afterwards I had to develop the photos and print them out. Sometimes, right up to 6 in the morning, I would be at the enlarger. For the 6 x 6 films there was a contact printer, but the 24 x 36 had to be enlarged.
So you had about 300 or 400 photos to print out. You could work in the morning, but, by Tuesday, the photos had to be ready for display. The proofs were pinned up outside my studio. Lots of people would come and point themselves out. “Look at me there! I danced with so-and-so! Can you see me there?”
Even if they didn’t buy the photo, they would show it to their friends. That was enough for them. They had danced with a certain girl, and that was enough. I wasn’t happy, though. I wanted them to buy these photos!
Your studio portraits…
As a rule, when I was working in the studio, I did a lot of the positioning. As I have a background in drawing, I was able to set up certain positions in my portraits. I didn’t want my subjects to look like mummies. I would give them positions that brought something alive in them.
When you look at my photos, you are seeing a photo that seems to move before your eyes. Those are the sort of poses I gave them. Not poses that were inert or lifeless. No. People who have life need to be positioned that way.
In ‘57, there was a young lady who wanted to be photographed. One day she came in and I placed her in front of the camera. I had a Semflex. I positioned her and said, “Right, let’s take your photo.”
I looked through the lens, the camera’s viewfinder. But she was used to it because there were photographers in Segou who were still using plate cameras. They had explained that when you stood in front of a plate camera, you appeared upside down. So your head is at the bottom and your feet are at the top with a single-lens 13 x 18 camera.
At one point, as she was ashamed, she became somewhat modest in front of me. So when I looked through the camera, she started shouting, “People of Segou! Come and help me! I’m facing a rapist!”
So I shouted back, “Why are you shouting like that? People will think I’ve raped you!”
She said, “No! There are photographers who told me that when you are in front of a camera, your head is at the bottom and your feet are at the top!” She thought her dress would fall down and she would be naked… So I was seeing her naked. That’s what she thought!
I said, “No, that’s not true. Not with this camera. There are two lenses. I don’t see you like that. I see you normally through this camera.” To reassure her, I made her stand behind the Semflex. I took her place and told her to take a look. I looked normal to her. Only then was I able to take her photograph!
To what do you attribute the success of your studio in the 1960s?
It was quite different at my studio. It was like a place of make-believe. People would pretend to be riding motorbikes, racing against each other. It was not like that at the other studios. That’s why my studio was so popular, already by 1964, 1965. The studio was a lot more laid back.
People came by motorbike or Vespa. I was also lucky at that time because when I opened the studio, electricity was becoming available. And to be photographed where there was electricity, people enjoyed that. Electricity was something of a luxury. So people would come to my studio because it had electricity. You know?
Were you familiar with the work of Seydou Keita?
People showed me his photos, but I didn’t go to his studio. Many things prevented me from going to Seydou’s. With my notoriety from reporting, going to Seydou’s studio… They all had it in their minds that I might put a spell on them, or something like that, to make them lose customers, so I never went to the studio.
It was Seydou who came to me to bring cameras to be repaired. Back then, Seydou had almost finished at his studio. He was now working for the government, taking ID photos of prisoners, and so on. So I did not go to Seydou’s studio. No.
Malick, one of the exceptional aspects of your work is that everything is archived or filed. Where did this method of working come from?
Well, first of all, I must tell you, even before I went to school, I was something of a collector without realizing it. I enjoyed picking up old hunting bullets from the plain. Even before I attended school, I loved old things. I would dress myself in old rags, crumpled things, when I was a young boy. My mother would actually get angry with me, complaining, Those old things are going to make ill!
There was also a time before I attended school when I wanted to sleep with the animals, which was rather funny. I wanted to sleep with the sheep, for example. I wasn’t interested in children’s things. As a child, I wanted things that were more… How can put it? “earthy ?”
To be amongst the animals what does that mean? I don’t know. I could smell the hay… I had also started to raise small vultures. One of my brothers caught small vultures up in the mountains and gave them to me to raise. I started doing that before I attended school. The very day I was signed up for school, I gave the task to other children.
Much later, when I was at GG’s, I was the first to do the filing. As I said, I was the young intellectual who could file the negatives. I filed the negatives at GG’s. When I left GG’s, I did the same at my place. And I kept everything. I never wanted to throw things away. Even my first photos. I still have them because I could never throw anything away. I think it was something that came naturally to me, saving things.