Human is what interests me
The interview with Fabrice Monteiro was conducted during his stay at the Villa Romana in the course of the project SEEDS FOR FUTURE MEMORIES. Thirteen artists from Europe and Africa deal with the entanglements of both continents, and Senegal /Italy in particular, from different perspectives. The research project, which was conceived for a period of one year, will be accompanied on a blog. Results will be shown in exhibitions in Florence and Berlin in 2019.
audiofile of the interview
Fabrice Monteiro, could you introduce yourself and your background? You mentioned in your website that you worked first as an engineer, then as a model, then there was this crucial moment in 2007, in New York, meeting the photographer Alfonso Pagano... What happened there? What was the initiation of your turning to photography?
I think it as the image of life: It is a lot of crossroads and slowly it gets you somewhere. I believe that I have been through many crossroads and at a certain point I felt like I was ready and I could hold a camera and have my own lecture (reading) of things...
I spent twelve years modeling and observing fashion photographers working, so I think I assimilated a lot of things about light, posture, how to create a fashion image, so when I moved to the other side, naturally I started doing fashion images, but quickly it was very boring to me. I knew that I had many questions that I was asking myself for a long time since I was a kid and as someone that has been living between Africa and Europe with European and African parents, I had this question about the human condition and it was a way for me to express it and bring my concerns to the table and try to have a conversation with the viewer. The medium became a way to express myself, I could say photography became a therapy to me, because I really had this possibility to create images about specific subjects and initiate a conversation; that was my main goal when I started to do my own work in photography.
…But these images – at least what is presented now in exhibitions, what you present yourself on your own webpage – are not African images, but African realities in front of your camera... So was it your focus to express different views on African people?
Yeah, I think it is... I would call it a third perspective, not a perspective as an Afro-African, not a perspective as a European coming to do a subject (project) in Africa, but someone that is in between two worlds.
I give you an example: for example in my A gorean summer series I had this question: Since I was young I wanted to see affection between Africans. Is this kind of thing that you never see when it comes to photographs about Africa; to me it would never come down to the basic human sentiments, which would be love, friendship, fun, having a good time in family, things like that...
I wanted to show pictures of happiness, of simple pleasures, of friendship and all this kind of things that are not much shown when it comes to Africa. And everything is important to me in the way of bringing back African people to the level of others because I really feel that in history, it has been created a sort of image of people – ...you could say the same about asian people in a western perspective... – but really, to bring back this equality-thing between people of different colours. So I would use pictures of people being just humans, or it would be questions I would have about religion, it would be global issues like the environmental issues that we are going through in a very global approach and all this really is a way to bring people together.
Listening to what you just said one could imagine that you are a documentary photographer going into families, churches and showing everyday life and human conditions. Instead your photography is very much about staging, it is very much about the body, the pride of the body, this feeling of resistance, of strength, of fashion... you have a very special view, and a very special staging of the figures, you are not a documentary photographer...
I do not see myself a s a documentary photographer, I see myself as someone who would use any tool that is in his disposal for the purpose of the subject. So if it goes through documentary photography I would use documentary photography, if it goes through staging things in a natural environment I would do it, if it goes through full conceptual work or full conceptual image, I would do it and that is why I think when I take a distance from my work there is not a specific style, a specific in the technical approach, I could use black and white and colour, I could use film or digital, is up to what the result that I want to give, so I do not have the specific thing where as an artist I identify as a specific style and I keep on doing that specific style, no the style needs to serve the purpose, so to me the purpose comes first and then I choose the tool that is gonna get me the result that I want.
But is not the body central?
I would not say the body is central, I would say the human is central.
In all my photography the human is central and many times the borders are quite blurry it would be... a bridge somewhere between a photo-reportage and maybe fashion photography or it would be somewhere between building an image and using the surrounding, i will give you an example: in my project The Prophecy, which is about the environment, I had many interviews and I felt like the media wanted to classify it as afro-futuristic work and I was doing an interview, I think it was with CNN or Al Jazeera, I do not remember... and they were asking me about this afro-futurism, i said I do not think my work is afro-futuristic, I do not have this, I do not feel the need to project myself in the future because I believe that we still have so much to deal with the present and we still have so much to deal with what is now that I do not know why now the work of African contemporary artists has to be labeled as afro-futuristic, to me is another way of getting away from the main purpose of the work.
Like, recently there has been this movie, Black Panther, where everybody goes, "oh this is a new vision of Africa... and is a new thing...", but I really feel that we do not really need that projection now, we have enough d deal with the present and what has been the projection of the progression of that continent since the independence, I think that part is very important because that is what makes us reconsider things and and where did we get and where do we get from there.
Since seven years you have been living in Dakar. How was your work received there? I can imagine that a lot of young artists there would love to learn from you or would love to cooperate with you, because you have this very special approach to the image...
It has been a blessing for me to go back to the continent. It gave me the possibility to treat long term subject, which I think is very important when it comes to working in Africa, just not going there and do like the quick exotic series of specific subject but really take it in the long term and see where it takes you...
I cannot answer whether my work is an influence on young photographers, but for sure the response to some of my work is very interesting. If I come back to the series A gorean summer I would show it to senegalese people and they would say, "Oh, this is not Senegal", which means that even them who live there, is their own country but they still do not have that perspective on their own country.
For example, also when I was doing The Prophecy it all started with a conversation I had with a young man I saw coming out of a car, a nice car, and he was throwing a bottle under another car and I automatically had this reaction where I said, "even if the people that are educated act like that, we will never get out of this situation", and he heard it. This guy came to me and he said "What did you say?", and we had this conversation... He then went back to take his the bottle and said "thank you" and from there I had this idea... I mean, having an environmental consciousness is not something that is automatic, if you are not educated that way it does not come naturally, mostly the new generation in Senegal for example, but also in other places, they were born and they grew up with thrash around them, plastic trash, so to them is a natural environment, me i can tell the difference because I grew up in Africa in the 1980s and there were no plastics around and there we no all of this new way of life things...
So I said ok, I want to do something that the people could refer to and the way to do it for me is to connect with animism, because animism has always been of much importance to the continent and it was there before Catholicism or Islam, and everybody always refer to the fact there is still a huge belief in the spirits.
The idea was to create a series that would involve spirits and create some sort of environmental awareness in the new generation. I came up with the idea of creating a tale like African kind of storytelling, and build images that would go with it that might have enough impact on the people so that it could attract their interest.
When I started this project, I had a partner which was Ecofond, which was an organization in Senegal trying to promote environmental projects, so we made this outdoor exhibition on the road in which the people could see the images from afar and they would get attracted to it, because it appeals to them this huge spirits coming out of the garbage, and when they would get close to it there would be another panel with all the facts about the specific issue and form there a conversation would start and you would realize that people are much more aware of thing than they think they are, and this fact of seeing that they are not alone, it creates that movement where people start to get together to make something change in the everyday life.
And how are you as a human being /person /photographer, living with this two realities: exposing your work as a professional artist, photographer worldwide and at the same time having this confrontation you just told us now? How to present your work in Senegal and here?
The recognition is good, but to me the most important thing is project like that where you can really have an exchange with people. And of course I am super happy to have this international recognition and be able to travel and show my work here and there but the thing that is always important to me is: "What is the message?", and "is it easily readable?" I really need to speak to the most people, whenever I do in my process of working it has to speak to the most and not be something that needs many explanation to be understood.
Could you tell us a bit more about your idea of representation and self-representation in relation to your work and Africa?
Many times I am asked: "Oh, so is this about the Africans?", but I think my main concern is the human.
If I take the history of Africa, there is something I am very interested into: I feel that there has been a huge gap into the natural evolution of the continent and that is why I was telling you about afro-futurism; we need to feel in that gap first, before looking into the future.
This continent had a natural evolution and then at a certain point there has been slavery, which took the forces of that continent away to build the wealth of another continent and then came colonialism, and now we live in an era of post colonialism. So, with all these elements, how do we reconnect to the moment where the natural evolution stopped brutally and we are now confronted to this violent capitalist consumerist system? Because Africa is part of that system too. I mean, the thing that I regret is that instead of inventing something that could be alternative, we look to the western world to create something and I really believe that when you look back into culture and tradition, that is when you find your roots, that is when you find your forces and with that you can mix it with something that is more modern and create something new and some alternative to this system-unique.
If many times, when people say, "we have look at the roots, at the tradition," there is always this lingering idea of nostalgia and imagination of a supposed past, that does not happen in your work.
Even if it can be perceived as very estetized, it is very connected to the real...
Totally. There is no projection there. That is why I was saying, "no, that work is not afro-futuristic," because every picture that I take is been taken in an environment that is real, that is actual, is happening now. My work is not a projection of anythng, is just using what is here and what is now. It is this third-positioning that is not part of any pre-defined group...
This brings us to the SEEDS project because it is related to racist photography in the Nineteenth Century, the era of colonialism and to the people that are now the migrants in Florence...
Yes. I have been working now for a while on a project that is structured in many different chapters. And in one of these chapters I was interested in the concept of race and how this word was used to create division between people and when it comes to photography I got into the archives of ethnographic photography and I found this technique invented at the end the Nineteenth Century by Sir Galton, originally it was used to identify the typical murderer, they wanted to make the portrait of criminals and then later it was thought to be used to identify the different etnies and races...
So I adopted that technique and I want to use it to point out the way the migrants are represented. So I wanted to point out that in a certain way the migrants have been dis-humanized and I believe that the media have a lot to do with it in the way they are represented and in the fact that the human being does not exist anymore. To find answers to that I had to go all the way back to the images that have been created of Africans since the old days of slavery and how all of us have been manipulated by certain stereotypes and a certain imagery of the other. To me, using that imagery and taking to a certain extreme, in a kind way to ironize on it, is pushing the viewer to think again on what luggage he is carrying with him and think about his perspective on the situation, not taking it for granted as something that you just absorb, what the media is giving you without really thinking about it, but really to re-considerate, taking the time to think again and consider these people as humans again.
Was the project thought for a white audience? Because the position of watching is now a white responsibility about colonialism, racism, slavery and everything...
Well, in this case is a project about people who receive them... To me the history of humans, the history of humanity has been an history of exchange, exchange and migrations. None of us is probably from where he thinks he is, and humans have always mixed between them and coming to a situation now where there has been masses of people coming to Europe, but to me is the consequence of something and that something is that you cannot manipulate things and see things from an etno-centric position for centuries and build the whole world your way without considering that at a certain point you are going to have the consequences of it, so on one side you have these people that are either economical migrants, war refugees or environmental refugees, because precisely of this world that has been created. Because of this globalism that takes always more from the more and gives always more to the richest and not paying the bill, like: "This is the situation, these are the consequences of what has been done for centuries." So the thing that I am facing now is that instead of saying, "ok, now we really have to take the things seriously and take responsibility," there is this kind of retraction, and I see it in the populism that is all over Europe now.
Instead of saying, "ok, let us see what we can do now that the situation is there," there is this kind of, "oh, no no no we want to close all the borders and we do not want anybody to come here," but it will never be a solution, as long as you do not confront the problem it will never be a solution, to build more walls, history ha proved it. So to me it is really a message not to the one who goes, but to the one who receives, to the one who is here and has to has to deal with the situation but has to know the whole story, not just a little part of it and making conclusions out of small parts of the story. They need to know the whole story in order to act the right way.
Do you not think that there is also a way of separating ideas form the actual people?
Meaning: "The migrant, the refugee is a concept, not a person, as if in the narrative there were a constant dehumanization, so if you do not know the people, you do not even look at the stories...
Exactly. I give you an example: Some years ago, when it came out the picture of the little turkish baby whose body was on the shore, it became a world wide thing but during that time there were thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean Sea and on one side I have this image of the little boy that everyone has on his mind, he made the people aware, the media take it and make it into something very big, and on the other side you have this images of these floating boats in the Mediterranean Sea with this shadows on it wearing orange life-vests... and it is something that has become part of this dehumanization, they are blurry, unclear, something that we do not know, all we know is that the media is giving us is that these people have come to invade us, so we have to protect ourselves. And we are not seeing the big picture of the thing, so in this project is really important to me to re-humanize all these people by taking their portrait. And using that specific technique is a way of confronting the western world with the monster that they built.
To conclude, could you describe the technical process?
Well, the process is that you take... For example I would consider a family and I would take a portrait of each member of the family with very specific technical tools and by putting the portraits all in top of each other, only the main feature would come out.
That is the technique that they used to identify the different etnies and different races, but of course you do not hear much about it because it never worked, it is a technique that does not work because by essence photography tells the truth and the truth is that there is only one race, which is the human race. And there are so many elements that come up in all of us, genetically that you cannot create groups, human groups, it is just impossible.
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