Mali is currently one of the world’s hot spots, torn by a war between Islamist forces from the north and the Malian army aided by French soldiers: a conflict that has forced thousands of Malians to take refuge in neighboring Mauritania and reportedly resulted in civilian atrocities. Prior to the collapse of the government last March, Mali was a peaceful place, although one of the poorest countries on Earth. When photographer and proficient French speaker Francois Deschamps arrived in Bamako, the capital, with his wife and son in August 2010 on an eleven-month-long Fulbright fellowship to teach at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers and make photographs, his first impression was one of chaos.
“The place seemed about to fall apart, but then you realize that everything has its own logic and organization,” he recalled. While his students at the academy were “delightful, creative and bright,” they were hampered by lack of equipment: Some used the cameras in their cell phones, and others had no cameras at all and had to borrow from their classmates. The heat was oppressive – 110 degrees in the classroom or traffic-stalled car – with sweat pouring down everyone’s faces. The concrete roads were pocked with large potholes, and the buses often broke down. Deschamps took a flight in a small propeller plane in a hailstorm and said that it was a “near-death” experience.
But these conditions were secondary to his overwhelmingly positive encounters with the Malian people, who impressed him with their “sense of humor, kindness and directness. If they wanted something, they’d just ask you.” Indeed, the 500 Malians whom he photographed – ranging from his students to brickmakers to tribal hunters to elders to souvenir-sellers to homemakers to fellow photographers – collectively exude a love of life, their faces alternately radiating pride, dignity, strength, resourcefulness, humor and a welcoming friendliness. A small selection of these images, integrated within colorful patterned frames, are on view at two new exhibitions, one at the Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz, where Deschamps is a professor of Photography, and the other at Fovea Exhibitions in Beacon.
In photographing his subjects, Deschamps developed a collaborative approach: Meeting many of his subjects in chance encounters, he traveled around Bamako and other parts of the country with his digital camera, tiny portable printer and a selection of cardboard frames. After getting permission and taking a few shots of the person, he would let them choose their favorite image as well as the cardboard frame, which he had printed in a choice of 30 patterns based on his photographs of everyday items, from native fabrics to Malian money to red peppers from the market to crowds of motorbike riders to brightly colored rubber sandals to floating boats. He would then attach the photo to the frame and present it to the subject for free.
“I wanted to give them something,” he said, explaining that he had first conceived of photography as an exchange with the people whom he encountered on previous trips that he had taken to Fiji and other countries in the far Pacific. To record the encounter for himself, he then took another photograph of the subject holding the framed photo – a response that varied widely, with some people holding the picture in both hands close to their bodies and others extending it out into space, which allowed the camera to capture the background scene, be it of the Niger River, an ancient mud palace with crenellated battlements, a turquoise-blue plaster wall or a dusty landscape with brickmakers in the near distance.
The photographs in both exhibitions are organized into various categories of images: portraits; portraits with frames (blown-up versions of the originals that he gave away to his subjects); and the subject’s hands holding his or her framed portrait. By thus providing a frame within the frame – the place of the photo-taking functioning as a kind of fluid frame around the formal framed photograph in the latter series – Deschamps succeeds in unsettling the preciousness that tends to characterize portraiture and avoids the distancing and “objectifying” that tends to happen in depictions of people in foreign cultures or who otherwise constitute “the Other.”
He provides not only a context, but also a context chosen by the subject him or herself to some degree. The patterned frames, with their Malian imagery, are as enchanting as the lyrical Malian pop music that has taken the world by storm (to protest the war, many of the country’s top musicians have formed a Voices United from Mali movement). Deschamps thus succeeds in avoiding a sense of himself as privileged observer; each person he photographs is in essence his client and collaborator.