Samuel Fosso

Photographic Self-Explorations

When Samuel Fosso opened his own photography studio in 1975 in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, at just thirteen years of age, he had already experienced a great deal. Born in Cameroon, he suffered from paralysis as a small child and only recovered slowly with the help of his grandfather, a healer in Nigeria. Following the outbreak of the Biafra War in 1967, Fosso was forced to flee, first to Cameroon and finally to Bangui. After a short apprenticeship with a local photographer, he set himself up in the city as a portrait photographer.

To avoid wasting expensive film material, he began filling unfinished film rolls with self-portraits in the evenings. Inspired by pictures in magazines, Fosso posed as colorful, cross-gender characters in extravagant clothes and accessories. Every so often he sent his photographs to his grandmother, but otherwise he did not show them to anybody, partly because he did not want to risk political persecution due to his rather unconventional portrayals. That changed in 1994, when he was invited to the photo biennale in Bamako, the most important festival of its kind in Africa, where he won his first award. It was only after subsequently meeting and talking to significant African photographers like Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keita that Fosso became more aware of the relevance of his own artistic work and was motivated to hone it further.

He himself remained the protagonist of his work, which at first continued to portray archetypes – always revolving around the question of identity – and became increasingly political. For his series "African Spirits", which was completed in 2008, Fosso selected fourteen personalities from Africa and North America who had played a significant role in supporting the black population on both continents in their fight for equality, independence and freedom. They include politicians like Nelson Mandela and Patrice Lumumba, civil rights campaigners such as Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, as well as athletes who were part of the black civil rights movement like Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith. Fosso reproduced existing portraits of these people from different sources, slipping into their roles himself in time-consuming and elaborate sessions. He used mug shots, police photos, press images and professional studio portraits. Fosso's large-format, black-and-white pictures are an homage to those who helped to strengthen black rights. Many of them paid a high price for their commitment, some even with their lives. Fosso created "African Spirits" to ensure that their efforts are not forgotten, so that following generations can find out how much has been achieved on the path toward equal rights and what is still to be done.

Biographical information

1962

born in Kumba, Cameroon

1975

opens his first photography studio in Bangui, Central African Republic

2018

honoured with the Infinity Award (Art)

lives in Bangui, Central African Republic and Paris, France