The Photographic Confrontations of Fabrice Monteiro: An Interview
Fabrice Monteiro is a photographer and former-model based in Dakar, Senegal. His latest series, The Prophecy, focuses on environmental devastation in Senegal, with 10 images featuring models dressed in costumes crafted by Senalgese fashion designer Doulsy [Jah Gal]. The ghostly figures are imbued with the theme of animism, accentuating each photo’s surreal composition of a jinn (an ancient supernatural genie) experiencing the ravages of modern man’s pollution. The project was paid for through a cooperative agreement with Ecofund, which hosted a crowdfunding site that raised 12,557 Euros (or 125% of the original goal of 10,000 Euros), toward a shared goal of creating awareness about the risks of (and solutions to) environmental degradation in places like Senegal, Australia, and beyond. A 20-minute short documentary directed by Marcia Juzga, and chronicling the project’s various location shoots, screened at the 2015 New York African Film Festival. It showed as part of a double feature with Sandra Krampelhuber’s 62-minute documentary 100% Dakar, about the youth arts scene in Dakar, and featuring fashion designers (including Doulsy), rappers, and graffiti artists whose works have had a larger cultural impact on Senegal’s culture and politics.
I interviewed Monteiro at the Film Society of Lincoln Center about The Prophecy – including the inspiration behind individual photos highlighting the negative impact of plastic bags, oil spills, slaughterhouse runoff, and other blights on Dakar’s local ecosystem; and the on-location challenges of getting those evocative shots.
What follows are his words, adapted from our conversation.
On the Intent Behind The Prophecy
I grew up in Benin. When I got back to Senegal four years ago, I couldn’t believe how dirty it was. I realized that Africa had a serious, serious issue with environmental problems. So I thought I could do something, being a photographer, and I came up with the idea of mixing art and culture. Because to me, the mistake of a lot of NGOs that try to make Africans aware, they don’t consider the culture. They come with ideas that are already all made, and the people there don’t get it, because it doesn’t talk to them. But using animism, the whole of West Africa believes in the spirits, and the idea was to use those spirits to deliver a message, instead of just saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t do this” or “You shouldn’t do that.” So my idea was to write beside the pictures – write a little tale for kids. The original idea was to have a little book published and distributed in schools in Senegal, because I believe the young generation is the one that we need to make aware of what is going on. They could bring it back home and say, “Oh Daddy, you shouldn’t throw the plastics there. We have to be careful about that, because the spirit of the plastic said now we have to be careful about that.” That was the whole idea of the concept.
On Local Interference With Shoots
In Africa it is not easy to take pictures, because either the people think in the animist way – for example, in Benin, they believe that you are taking their soul if you take pictures of them – or the new tendency is, “Oh, you are going to make money with that picture. You’re going to do postcards, or whatever,” so they want money. Plus you have this official thing, which is that you have to go through all the stupid system of talking to the mayor, and then the people, and you have to say something to everyone before [you shoot]. So this project actually took two years because, most of the time, to get everything together it would take forever. Because we’d need authorization for this, and then we have to make sure that this is possible, and it’s the right time, the right moment to take the picture, this and that… So it was not easy to do, for sure.
On Working With Doulsy
Doulsy is one of my best friends over there. He is doing something very special, because he is one of those who does things strictly from what he is. He creates these things, but he still lives in a garage. He doesn’t own anything, and he would tell me, “Now that we’ve done this thing together, I know that’s what I want to do. I want to create crazy things. I don’t want to just make money, and do my little collection. I don’t want to do that. It’s not for me.” He’s a very unique person, for sure.
I came up with the idea, and I said, “Okay, we’re going to talk to that subject, and we’re going to do a costume that is going to look like a tree limb.” He would come with his technique, mostly. Like say, “Okay, we can do it like this,” and he would have his own ideas. “Maybe we could add this, and add that.” But basically, I would come up with the concept of the picture, where we are going to shoot it, what is it going to be about, and how it should look in a general way. And then Doulsy would add his technical approach to it.
I’ve been modeling for ten years, so I guess my vision of photography was through fashion photography. But when I started photography, I was doing those test models, actually because of Alfonse [Pagano]. He was the one who got me into it. I was turning 36-37, we met and I said, “I feel like I want to do photography, but I’m too old.” And he said, “No, you’re not. You should do it. Give it a try. You’re never going to lose anything.” I started with this fashion thing, but it wasn’t interesting to me. It wasn’t complete. So I decided to create photography that would look more like me. Which is, on one side, this fashion background that I had – and then my African childhood, and my vision of this continent, and also the fact that I’m mixed. I have this African culture from my [Beninese] father, and European culture from my [Belgian] mother. I’m really the mix of both of them. I think that’s what I’m working on in my photography: that bridge between my two cultures, and the bridge between fashion photography and doing photography that’s useful. I need to interrogate, at least. If someone comes out to see my pictures, and comes up with questions, then I really have done my job. To me, it’s more important than the appearances.
On the Pollutions of The Prophecy
I think the African continent has a serious issue with plastic bags. That’s the first thing that Africa should get rid of. The problem of the plastic bags – we were in Burkina Faso and Cameroon two months ago, and I realized it’s all over the continent. You see these black plastic bags everywhere, no matter what you do. If you take Cameroon for example, they just decided a year ago, no more plastic bags, and you can tell the difference from one year. In Senegal, you would see trees with no green on them, but only black plastic bags floating in the air. You would pass a village, and there would be a big dumpsite at the entrance of the village, and a big dumpsite at the exit of the village. The new generation is growing up with it, so they don’t realize. To them, it’s part of their environment. They use something, they throw it, because they are not educated. There was a clash between the traditional culture, and suddenly they had to deal with the globalization thing. But they were not educated for it, so they were consuming like crazy. They would have three to four plastic bags just to carry one single thing. First they have to be educated. But most of all, the things have to be forbidden. The government needs to take a position on that.
You have also the problem of charcoal. They use a lot of charcoal, because they use a lot of incense. They use charcoal for it. They make a lot of tea, they use charcoal for it. The consumption of charcoal is humungous in a country like Senegal. But they don’t have that many trees. Now you have this solar panel way to cook things. You could use the sun. I don’t know why they don’t use it. They also have this economical charcoal thing, where instead of using half a kilo of charcoal, with two little blocks you can get the same heat. But you don’t see it. They just keep on using the traditional way of burning, burning, burning, burning. How long is it going to last? Because you can tell that Senegal is the end of the Sahara, and the beginning of southwest Africa, where it is more green. You can tell that the Sahara is moving more and more to the south. Because they are consuming too much wood, and the earth is getting sterile, and the way they produce things, the way of cultivation – everything is getting very serious.
If you see [Hann] Bay, where this river of blood is coming out in the ocean -- this was the slaughterhouse of Dakar. So every morning, they would kill the animals and the blood would come out from 7 or 8, until 9. Then you’d get the guts coming out, and you would have vultures, and the waves would turn red. And this is organic. But you would have the same with oil. Dakar is a peninsula, and they don’t recycle anything. Everything goes straight into the ocean. So me as a surfer, the first time I experienced that, you cannot get into the water because it’s too polluted. It’s just too polluted. And these people are living from the fishery there, and it’s disappearing. Because there is less and less fish. That bay used to be one of the most beautiful. Back in the ‘40s, it was classified as the second or third most beautiful bay in the world. You should see it now. The sand is black because of the oil. When you get there, you can smell it. I was doing a project of pictures over there, on the beach life, and I would have to take pictures in the middle of a crowd on the beach, and you would smell this odor of oil because of the people around you. It’s crazy. It’s just insane. And no matter what you try to do, the government, because everyone has things to say, and uses power here and there, nothing ever happens. It just keeps on going the same way.
If you take for example this slaughterhouse, they stopped doing that. Now I don’t know if it has something to do with us. Of course it’s a lot of different things, and this problem has been going on forever. But the government is really thinking about having plastic bags forbidden in the country. Other countries in Africa already took that position. But now Senegal is really thinking about taking that position, because it’s so obvious, and it’s a country that’s living mostly off of tourism. How is that possible? They have to take a position.
On Shooting on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef
I think it’s the same problem there. The environment is getting to be the number one problem on the planet right now, no matter where you go. You can go in a poor country, and of course you will see it. It will be obvious. Maybe it would be less obvious in a rich country, but it’s still there. If you go to Australia, and you see the Great Barrier [Reef], it’s literally dying. But the industries are more, and more, and more, and the government is not doing anything about it. Like everywhere else, it’s money first. How long is it going to last? How long until we realize that this is what we need here to live. We need the environment to live, to survive. And if you don’t pay attention to that, we are all going to disappear. Simple as that.
On the Impact of Public Art in Dakar
For them, it’s a different perspective. It’s just that everything is dirty, and the people don’t care. So when they see someone coming and painting something nice, it’s a very innocent approach. They see that “Oh, it’s looking good, actually”, and then they start to think about the subject. Because they would paint an African leader that really tried to do something in the past, like Thomas Sankara and all these African figures. It creates a relation in the people’s thinking. I’ve been [in Dakar] for four years, and I can tell that more and more of the young generation is coming together to really do something. When they say that art has an influence on politics, it’s not a joke. There’s a group called Y'en a Marre, which started from a hip-hop band in Dakar. They created this movement called “Y'en a Marre: Enough”, and they would come all together, and they would have this big market, and they would invite all of the political scene. They confront the political, and I think that’s essential. Africa needs confrontation, and Africa needs confrontation from their own people to say, “We don’t want any more puppets in power, that do things for themselves to get wealth, and big houses, and a lot of money in Switzerland. You need to start to work for your people. You need to start to work for this continent. Because it has a lot to give, and if it doesn’t come from the top, it will have to come from the bottom. There’s no way out of it.”