Interviews on France Inter radio station on 23rd, 27th and 28th October 2008


AFRICA-AMERICA by Christian Caujolle
Christian Caujolle, founder and director of the Vu photographic agency (1986) and the Vu gallery (1998), is a major figure in French and international photography. A former pupil and collaborator of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Pierre Bourdieu, he created the visual identity of the daily newspaper Libération in his capacity as Senior Picture Editor from 1981 to 1986. He has also worked as artistic director and critic, and produced monographs on Wiliam Klein, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Sebastiao Salgado, Anders Petersen, Bernard Faucon, Cristina Garcia Rodero, Isabel Muñoz, Peter Beard, Christer Strömholm, Peter Beard and Raymond Depardon. He has taught at the l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure Louis Lumière since 2007 and has also directed several international exhibitions (PhotoEspaña 2001, Foto Biennale Rotterdam 2000, Rencontres d'Arles 1997, Traverses, the photographic collection of Marin Karmitz at Rencontres d'Arles 2010 and the annual festival in Cambodia).

With clearly framed shots in black and white and precisely defined themes, Philippe Guionie’s style is unashamedly classic. Perfectly, it has to be said. It is however more troubling that, while the aesthetic references indicate that the work belongs to the established tradition – which we see practised with subtlety – of documentary photography – the images are practically impossible to date even though they evoke History with a capital H, and that they focus on significant, contemporary and individual destinies that are part of a more global history which itself also consists of an accu- mulation of individual destinies. It’s in the tension between these areas, between his interest in individuals and everything which contributes to the intersection of their past and present, that the issues of this lengthy visual study are concentrated, a study conducted with patience and precision and a dose of the self- effacement essential for completing such a long-term task. To summarise. Having completed the first stage of his exploration of Africa by producing, in the most dignified way possible, portraits of old and forgotten soldiers, – looked down on through ignorance and thoughtlessness – from the former colonies of French West Africa and French East Africa, the history professor that the photographer still is crossed the Atlantic. He was going to investigate another population of African origin, which no one talks about, and whose very existence is often unsuspected : the black popu- lations of South America. The blacks of North America, a commu- nity that is known and acknowledged following the Human Rights struggles of the 60s, have frequently been the subject of photo- graphic studies. Those from Brazil and the Caribbean, who suffer from a racism which is never sufficiently highlighted – Cuba is included in this – are well identified and have been widely photographed, even glorified, for their physique, their involvement in dance and sport and their sense of rhythm. But I was unaware, or thought that it was merely anecdotal, of the existence of black communities of African origin in Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Chile and the Ecuador. It is truthfully difficult to imagine blacks living on the Altiplano and once again the old chestnuts, according to which these Spanish-colonised countries are exclusively populated by descendants of the Conquistadores and the Indians who survived the fierce massacres, die hard.

This population, made up of the descendants of slaves brought there in the holds of invader ships, really does exist and is devel- oping an increasing awareness of its own identity. So you may read “Negro”, daubed like an enormous affirmation on a brick wall while in a childlike painting on another wall with a flaking surface the locations “Gambia, Liberia, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo and Angola” record their origins on the sides of a face whose eye is likely soon to be struck by the lance of a warrior, half Greek, half African, who is aiming it from the other side of the ocean, his feet solidly planted on the soil into which they are sinking. These “Afro-descendants” may make mention of a hypothetical capital city, a town that really exists, Africa, in the north of Ecuador. The journey, for it is as much a journey as a search or a study, unfolds through its presentation, with a combination of square and horizontal images in medium-size format – creating a dialogue between portraits and landscapes. It is of course a little more complicated than that as the landscapes are sometimes a backdrop for people posing or crossing the space, and because the shots employ backgrounds of varying sizes to surround or close in on larger and smaller areas of landscape or face. This is where the heart of the matter is found, in the choice of distance from the subject – either space or person – which has to achieve a mysterious accuracy that retains a non-mannered, natural approach, a mutual respect and a necessary rigour which never becomes inflexible. You get the feeling that Philippe Guionie has allowed himself more freedom than in his previous works, with some fuzziness and blurring which evoke the shifting and movement of bodies. This adds to the emotion and increases our pleasure, although the precision is still there, unworried but indisputable.
Many documentary works which are committed to being illustrative limit themselves to formal repetitions, generally formidably efficient, but which can quickly make the subject appear dry. Here, in a completely honest way, and at the risk of depriving himself of the most comforting of safety nets, the photographer allows himself to share his sentiments with us ; whether perceiving a black dog lost in the landscape or capturing the sudden move- ment of a bullock in passing, while he, the collector of images is heading elsewhere, or meeting – and you feel that these are real meetings – an old woman, her wrinkled face suffused with laughter and arms spread wide or a young girl posing, solemn faced, hands on hips, refusing to be taken in. The freedom with which this work identifies itself with the issues of documentary photography reveals the most profound concerns of the subjects. It is at one and the same time about discovering, witnessing, making known and creating awareness. A struggle against ignorance and neglect, in short, something in which photography excels as it maintains this complex relationship with time which here is perfectly displayed.
Even if they continue to exist in reality, the people and the places which Philippe Guionie captured at a given moment will no longer be or remain what they were or as they were at the moment when he took the shot. From this minute snippet of borrowed time, an image remains, less easily changeable than others, and which only exists because the physical encounter between the operator and that which he frames in his shot has taken place. This image persists, giving us the illusion that it is eternal and able to hold back the sand running through the hourglass, marking the erosion of time. And here, it’s better : thanks solely to the photographer’s decision to choose a unique land and people, which gives an overall meaning to his collection, the history recorded by the travel diary is age-old, a secret history which exists, no doubt, in the oral tradi- tions which grew up in response to the Africa they lost and memo- ries of slavery. And he gives it a new existence, through faces and locations, rebuilding it and taking us with him into this land which does not really exist but to which he has given a credible shape.
As this belongs to the history of documentary photography where it intersects with the travel experience, we can only think of one illustrious predecessor, Pierre Verger. This Frenchman, who travelled throughout the world and was incomparably curious about the cultures of others, also explored these regions of Latin America where he wrote and took photographs. He produced many images of cultural indigenous traditions but we also find amongst his work some portraits of black people from this part of the world. It has to be said that his passion for everything to do with Africa and the black physique was unlimited and it was no coincidence that he chose to end his days in Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. More narrative and sometimes more anecdotal than Philippe Guionie, he however left portraits, square and in black and white, whose details, more than half a century later, we enjoy comparing with those taken at the beginning of the 21 st century. Here you can find similar angles, an identical way of letting the light play on skin and materials, of preserving the blurred settings in the back- ground, and more than ever, this tenderness for the subject of the photograph which shines through everything. Because, even though they are both curious about culture and differences, neither Philippe Guionie nor Pierre Verger consider themselves as ethnol- ogists, because they do not wish to practise photography in a “scientific” way, and because above all photography is there to accompany them in their discovery of the world and in its proper place to allow them to express simply their point of view. That of Philippe Guionie, although it has an obvious empathy with this black population of Latin America, consists more in questioning the existence today of a genuine Afro-descendant culture than in affirming the group. The absence of group portraits, the place allocated to an individual approach and to each person’s identity states clearly that the photographer’s work is based on observation and discovery. It is for these people – and it is partly what they are presently occupied in doing, – to decide if their identity is as strong as they would like and if they can set in motion the process for its recognition.
Although an image of Che Guevara, looking lost on a window fitted with bars behind which pass two schoolgirls in uniform, is there to symbolise an alliance between social demands and aspi- rations of identity, it’s on a blurred image, already almost nostalgic, that the tour ends. The seafront, grey weather, a wooden jetty with lampposts set at regular intervals and waves gently beating, assuaged. Is it a landing stage or a wharf? A direct view or a reflec- tion in a blurred mirror? An image of time, undoubtedly, eternally repeated, fixed and endless.
by Gaston Kelman
Gaston Kelman is a French Cameroonian writer who was born in Douala in 1953. Director of the Urban Observatory in the town of Evry for ten years, he authored the best-selling work ‘‘I am black and I don’t like cassava’’ (Max Milo Publications) in 2003; he published ‘‘Beyond Black and White’’ in 2005.

It was back in my childhood …

I remember my uncle — my aunt’s husband. (Now for a person of African origin, this carries a certain meaning.) He was a former soldier of some unspecified French campaign; it must have been the 1939-1945 war. He was an ex-soldier but I don’t quite recall if he looked back on that time with any sense of glory. He hardly ever spoke about it. Was it because — as my other uncle says — that his conditions of service had been so lowly or because the events he had witnessed simply did not deserve to rank amongst the sort of memories that one would normally consider unforgettable? My other uncle (who wasn’t actually my real uncle but who came from the same village as my mother — which qualified him to be my uncle) used to gently tease my first uncle. This ‘second’ uncle was so proud of having served his country that every 14th July he would take part in the parade at the French embassy in Cameroon. He paraded in a type of military uniform with a peaked cap. Although it is a somewhat distant memory I am pretty sure that his uniform wasn’t in the Banania style — I am sure he didn’t wear a red fez — but rather something along the lines of The Old Man and The Medal.

(…) My two dear uncles, (…) who loved the Tommies and battled the Krauts — got a fair few medals in their time, although I can’t be sure if they were the real McCoy or fake ones. I was appalled to discover that my first uncle — the husband of my mother’s sister (same father, same mother) did not even attend the ambassador’s drinks party, as my ‘almost uncle’ (from the same village as my mother) would always return with his pockets brimming with sweets. But as we weren’t really his sons and not technically his nephews, we were not invited to the celebrations. Today I would like to know just how — during all those 14th July parades — these black ex-soldiers were actually treated by the people (or even their children) that they had gone off to liberate — these men who had stood up for their country and even spilled their blood for it: was it like a brother, like a friend, like a hero or merely like a beggar! This was no more than a simple point of detail as it was not difficult to read the reply writ large in disdain and condescension in the form of their ridiculous gifts — sweets, bits of bread, tins of sardines, the occasional huge bottle of red, staining liquid which they brought back from their expeditions. In spite of their difference in temperament and behaviour vis-à-vis this part of their youth, both my uncles maintained a certain sense of militaristic inflexibility and authoritarianism. They would sometimes treat us like stupid niggers or silly nigger bastards, whenever they were unhappy about us making fun when we said they had the faces not of soldiers but of beaten bastards. Sometimes my half-uncle would tell an exuberant tale of his war-time exploits, so imbued with courage and a love for France.

In quite a well-to-do district, over towards the residential area where only the Whites lived in those days — things moved on and one now saw Black people — there used to be a medium-sized building, one or two storeys high, located in quite a well-maintained compound. ‘House of the Soldier’ one could see written on the front. But none of my uncles — neither the authentic, reserved uncle, nor the less authentic, enthusiastic participant of the 14th July celebrations of old — ever ventured there. When I was older, I was to find out this big old building was actually a knocking shop. Such are the images from my childhood that I keep of those ex-soldiers from the French wars.

It was in France — as is the case for many problematic issues surrounding Africa — that I came across the debate about the ex-soldiers. It is worth pointing out from the outset, however, that Cameroon has been somewhat less advanced when it comes to the plight of these soldiers than Senegal. It is therefore possible that in other African countries the debate about their fate has enjoyed more coverage. Often the same old story. Writing this should be like an exorcism. But all exorcisms imply that one is prepared to bathe in the quagmire of the past. I think ‘exorcism’ is fitting as it tallies perfectly with the exercise that Philippe Guionie presents to us: to give these men back their humanity, far away from the far-flung trumpets of the victory parades they were never invited to. Far away from the cesspits of contempt in which they were often held. And it is with sadness that I think back to how they were never paid their pensions because their blood had less value than that of their white comrades. And I think back to their enlistment, which sometimes took on the appearance of a press gang for forced labour sanctioned by the Code of Indigenous Status. I think about their glaring absence from the Liberation Marches on the Champs-Élysées in the times when, indeed, the Black Man was not yet a man, and how the founding fathers of Black Identity would think that he would eventually aspire to be one — rightly so because of the blood they had shed for the Liberation of the mother country (or in other less illustrious conquests). I think how, incredibly, they were left out of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Liberation, in spite of Félix Éboué’s induction into the Pantheon and in spite of their now undisputed humanity. We will never forget you, weeping Thiaroye.

Though your name is a gentle one, it is now a discordant reminder of the supreme ignominy you bore witness to. Poor black soldiers who once defended the French flag had suddenly become unworthy of France and were left to die on the African river-banks; then deemed guilty of asking for their meagre due, they were massacred without warning while they slept for having sullied the honour of the white general; finally imprisoned for having survived the carnage. Thiaroye : a term, of course, which we don’t come across either in any standard French dictionary, or in any French school text books. The history of Thiaroye — which I never learnt about in any of my African school books, no doubt because the history books of African schoolchildren are financed by French interests… Thiaroye, a land forever poisoned by the blood of the just. Thiaroye, a land of fratricide where the perpetrators were brothers in arms. Just how many were cut down on that night on 1st December 1944? 40, 60, 100? Never mind the number killed, so long as they granted their white brothers in arms — so deserving to be born on the right side of the colour spectrum — their ecstasy of blood-letting. Thiaroye. Thiaroye. Today, France is revisiting its colonial past with a view to extracting the more positive aspects. Among these so-called positive aspects do we not find the bridges, schools, churches, roads, perhaps even civilization brought to the barbarians? Nay and thrice nay! These aspects would never be able to cover up the fact that the principle behind colonialism had its origins in the most abject brutishness of ancient times — by which the law of the strongest dictated the subjugation of others. The Senegalese rifleman shows the positive side of colonialism.

‘Conquered Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought her arts to rustic Latium’ once said a Latin quotation from my school days. The conquered Black infantryman took captive his savage conqueror and brought humanity and fraternity to the barbarian wars. Some soldiers were enlisted by force. But many simply answered the call of a people in distress, casting aside their own wounds inflicted by those same people who ruled them yesterday but who today were ruled; answering the call of a people whose land was now occupied, forgetting the fact that their own country was occupied by the very people who now asked them for help; answering the call of a humiliated people, forgetting the humiliation that had been their daily bread; answering the call of brothers and yet forgetting that these people did not even look on them as proper men. The positive sides to colonial rule are the white men, who, having mixed their blood with that of the Black man on the battle field, will understand the futility and inhumanity of colonialism and racism and will go on to fight for the liberation of oppressed peoples, like those women and men of old who battled for the abolition of the slave trade; as always the human flame will burn bright amidst the darkness of barbarism.

Now has come ‘the moment when we see the need to establish immigration in the collective memory and to give it its rightful place in a common and shared historical perspective.’ This is precisely what Philippe Guionie is asking us to do. Today, young French people expect us to be worthy of our Black ex-soldiers; worthy of our motto; for that Liberty they defended and gave their blood for; for that Equality which they were hoping to aspire to; in order that Fraternity would no longer be a hollow word and so that on seeing their blood flowing red, like ours, the Congolese, Cameroonians, Nigeriens, Guineans, Malians and Senegalese might stop being anonymous, ordinary Senegalese riflemen and become ex-soldiers with a shared and common history.

‘I am certain — as much as anyone can be certain — that a reappraisal of the African ex-soldiers, correctly explained and broadcast in the media, would do more to stop the flashes of unrest in the suburbs than ten mobile police battalions.’ And this descendant of the Senegalese rifleman knows exactly what he means, the injustice visited on his ancestors, compounded with his eternal condition of being a product of immigration, second generation, although he was born in Sarcelles, when he is only asking to be French, it is still like a continuation of the black shame which prompted de Gaulle to rid the army of these barely presentable men, on the eve of victory, so that they could not join the march on the Champs-Élysées — only the sons worthy of France. Didn’t a philosopher recently say that the French football team used to be ‘tricolore’ but today is monochrome black-black-black, and that France was a laughing stock in the whole of Europe? Philippe Guionie invites us to look at the faces he has humanised, as well as the hands which for us, for humanity, together with other hands, were life-saving. To read such names — Chéché, Kouakou, Kaddour, Gilbert, Boubakar Joseph — to inscribe all of them in our memories and to mix them with other white soldiers who are more or less well-known. Because all of them belong to our memory. These were men, nothing more, nothing less, eternally and undoubtedly men dedicated to fraternity and liberty. They were not heroes and not one of our — or their — demands has ever pushed in that direction. In a time when they are slowly disappearing one after the other and in spite of lifelong injustices, let us think of them tenderly by saying that this face is perhaps that very man our father or grandfather praised for his bravery when he saved him from certain death during one night of intense fighting; or for whom our father or grandfather risked their own life.

They were Senegalese riflemen and — like the French soldiers of the First World War — had a fixed term contract of work. May they now become men for eternity.

AFRICA-AMERICA by Jean-Christophe Rufin
Jean-Christophe Rufin is a doctor, writer and diplomat, who was elected to the Académie Française in 2008.

Don’t be deceived: this book is not about glamour; it depicts a struggle. At least, that is how the author views his art. Philippe Guionie does not photograph outward appearances. His subjects are as far removed from celebrity culture as it is possible to be. His lens is like a scientific instrument, capturing the surface but peeling it away to show what lies behind. I met him in Dakar on a wonderful assignment photographing Senegalese Tirailleurs. I was able to gain an insight into his approach – composed, unhur- ried, tense. This is the price of admission into this unique circle of former colonial soldiers of the French Army. Trying to rush them simply makes them close rank. In order to gain some small idea of their reality and to understand their suffering and misgiv- ings, you have to keep quiet, live with them and wait. Now, Philippe Guionie is back with an even more surprising work that probably only he was capable of imagining and pulling off. In it, he reveals a new side of a continent, a world that is a stranger to itself and which has only recently begun to discover its own identity: the world of the Black peoples of South America.

If you were thinking of the Brazilians, you’d be mistaken. For all their sufferings, the Afro-Brazilians are light years ahead of their Black Andean counterparts covered in this book. The Brazilians have their literature, music, statues, and now their government ministers. The Black Andeans have none of this. They are the prime example of abandonment and alienation. Globalization made them its first victims and the last to connect to the global consciousness. The Black populations in the Andes have been scattered across the cordillera since the XVIIth century, as slaves of course. Cut off from their old continent, they have remained isolated in this new world, kept apart by mountains, forests and deserts. Over the passing years, dispersed far and wide, clustered in poverty-stricken villages, they were excluded by their white masters as well as by the Indians whose harsh existence they shared. These three hundred years of solitude had one positive side: they preserved the original traits of these uprooted peoples. Through such a long exile, they could have become diluted in the vastness of South America, and deprived of all that makes them unique. Yet what is striking in these photos from Philippe Guionie is that they are so resolutely African... Their skin colour remains unchanged, but so do their masks, their beliefs and some of their rituals. This population was invisible until recent times. In truth, it did not exist as a population, being too scattered, too disunited, too isolated, and above all too poor. It would occasionally emerge into the light when destiny raised an individual to prominence. Some, very few, have tried to eliminate their otherness by entering public service, only to succeed in bringing their unique differences into sharper focus. One need only look at the face of this Black, ex-officer as he watches a wisp of curtain flap in the wind: pitiful, despondent and as transparent and fragile as his lost African soul. But the days of exile are coming to an end. Black Andeans are slowly becoming self-aware and claiming their rights. As is often the case, aesthetics provides the breakthrough. For a people to realise it is beautiful after having borne the stigmata of damnation and having been the primal abomination for so long, is a pivotal moment. This is why the photographic work in this book is, in a real sense, revolutionary: it contributes to this shift in perception that is finally emancipating these former slaves. A number of these images will move you on an aesthetic level. The young woman standing in the water amid a tropical mountain landscape expresses a mystery and solemn beauty that are captivating. This means that the gamble has paid off.

These Blacks from the far-flung reaches of the world did not take part in the great resurgence of negritude in the 1960s. None were at the Sorbonne when Alioune Diop united the Blacks of Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. Another half century was to pass before they took their first steps towards self-awareness and made their active presence felt in the world. This book is one step on that path. But certainly not the last.