Philippe Sibelly is a man with a mission: to balance the “deficit of image” surrounding the African continent. Given the Western world’s daily reportage of strife on the continent, Sibelly launched The Other Africa, his ambitious photo project that aims to capture all 54 countries of Africa in states of more relative positivity. Born in Marseille, France, Sibelly is a natural globetrotter, having lived in both Ireland and Australia, and settling down in England. The Other Africa has already taken Sibelly to Algeria, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Gabon and more; the photographs will next be exhibited at the Alliance Française of Accra, Ghana, beginning March 12.
Sibelly was open and forthright with Afrik-News.com discussing the ultimate ambitions for The Other Africa recently. Interview.
Do you think the media’s negative news reporting on African countries outweighs its negative news about other countries in the Western world?
Totally! Not only does Africa receive more negative reports than other parts of the world, but the main problem lies in the fact that Africa hardly gets any positive reporting. It is this massive imbalance that has created this image of Africa as a continent with no hope. If you reflect in terms of images, it is a similar story: the images coming from Africa are mostly negative. To make things worse, Africans often see the West through Hollywood movies, where the good guys always win at the end. The Other Africa wants to balance this “deficit of image.”
Can you describe the wanderlust that led you from France to Australia, Ireland, and finally England?
This is a rather long story. In 1990, I was 19 and in search of adventure. I was very attracted by Australia, which, contrary to Africa, receives very positive media coverage. It is a great place indeed, but it seems that the negatives about Australia are never reported! I was attracted to this idea of freedom and adventure. What I discovered in Sydney could not have been more different from what I expected, but I loved it. I spent most of the next six years in Australia, living off casual jobs and taking lots of photos. In 1997, I wanted a change. In Europe or in Africa, short distances take you to totally different places, languages, cultures. In Australia, you can travel for hours, days even, without noticing a change. As I had no specific commitments, I decided to take my time, and came back to Europe without flying, travelling through 15 countries. I met many Irish people along the way, including my current partner. All told me how Ireland was the place to be, and I decided to head for Dublin. I had another six fantastic years in Dublin, where I studied photography formally at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Arts. I enjoyed my time in Dublin but I struggled with the weather. I decided to move to London, where the weather is a lot better than Dublin, and did not regret this move. London is an amazing city and I believe I will finally settle down here.
When conceiving The Other Africa, what made you choose the photographic themes of middle-class workers, nighttime cityscapes and radio DJs?
I wanted to show Africa in a different way to the media, in form and content. I decided to create images devoid of the usual journalistic energy. I wanted to depict a calm and peaceful Africa. I also wanted to create an illusion, trying to show people and places as if they could have been anywhere. The African professionals from the “middle class” are the forgotten people of Africa. A lot is made of Africans dying of starvation and diseases, or corrupt mega-rich leaders, but we never get to see or hear about these professionals leading “normal” lives: working, enjoying a good social life, going out at the weekend, meeting their families.
The night images convey the same idea of illusion. At night, these scenes could be anywhere. If you look carefully at the images, some details can give away the fact it is Africa, but there is a bit of work expected from the viewer. One of the main problems of most of the images coming from Africa is their sensational value: often beautiful images of horrific scenes. These images do not ask any effort from the viewer who gets numbed by aesthetic images, not even realizing they depict people dying.
The series of radio DJs is slightly different, a stand-alone separate project. Oral culture is very important in Africa. African history has been passed on orally rather than in written form. Everywhere you go in Africa, a radio is playing. I think it will make an interesting project, and it enables me to meet many interesting people across Africa.
What country will you photograph next: Ghana, Togo, Equatorial Guinea or Ethiopia? And when?
The next confirmed trip is to Ghana, for the first exhibition in Africa of the work in development. This exhibition starts on March 11, at 6:30pm at the Alliance Française d’Accra thanks to Royal Air Maroc. While in Ghana, I will photograph the three themes, then move on to Togo. I am hoping to link the next few trips with exhibitions, and I have some contacts in Equatorial Guinea, Niger, Guinea-Conakry and Ethiopia for more exhibitions, so I am hoping to visit these countries in the near future.
Why do you stick with the Fuji 690 camera exclusively for your project?
This is the camera I started the project with, and I want total visual consistency. I even use the same film for all the photos. It is a wonderful camera. The 6x9cm negatives give me the opportunity to print the images into a large format. The current exhibition photos are 105x75cm, but I will have some of the most striking images printed larger. It is also a very portable camera, and with a quite “simple” mechanism. No battery! So I don’t have to wonder about where to recharge it or worry about humid conditions, which can be tough on digital cameras.
Finally, there is nothing better than photographing somewhere and waiting for your return to see if any good images are on the films. I hate taking photos and seeing them on a screen as I take them. It kills the surprise, a bit like watching football highlights after someone told you the score!
Though he has quite a way to go, many existing photos can be viewed at TheOtherAfrica.eu.