Born in 1984 in Maputo, Mozambique, Mário Macilau is a documentary photographer highly concerned with environmental issues and the living and working conditions of the most vulnerable people. His work has been displayed at different festivals and venues internationally. A recent exhibition of his body of work “Esquecidos” (Forgotten), dedicated to elderly African people, was shown at the Centre Culturel Franco-Mozambicain in Maputo, which gave us the opportunity to speak with Mário about his photography.
Q: Mário, how did you get your start in photography? What moved you to photography?
A: I developed an interest in photography when I was child. I remember that in my primary school books there were illustrations of professionals in different categories and each student was asked to tell the teacher his/her own dream for the future.
I wanted to be a journalist, but this was very hard for me as I came from a very modest family. I grew up with my mother and my two younger sisters. As the oldest and only brother, I had to fight to support them financially. At the same time, my mother, who has no formal education, was worried about sending us to school each day.
At that time, I did not know anything about life and, for me, everything was just imagination. I used to see other children who were happier than I was. In fact, I was often bullied by other children when they saw me arriving at school without shoes and with old clothes.
This made me feel that I was nothing and that I had no talent for anything. But I just kept dreaming and followed my feelings. I was motivated by the power of the still image to change people’s mind about the world we’re living in. I started photographing to record what I saw. I had no idea about galleries, exhibitions, residencies and awards then. The only thing I had on my mind was that I wanted to be a different photographer from the commercial and street ones who, after the Mozambique’s independence from Portuguese rule, took photos for people and families to record moments of their lives.
Q: Mozambique is recognized for its well-established documentary, humanistic photographic tradition. Do you feel that it had an impact on your own approach? Do you feel connected with that school?
A: It is true that Mozambique has a very strong tradition of photography but, in my own view and experience, that tradition has no impact on my work. I started my journey as a photographer by myself, without any formal education or information related to it. I am self-taught. I have learned that the best way to become the kind of photographer I wanted to be was to know more and more about life and people. The street, the places where I grew up and worked, helped me to open my mind and to develop my interest in photography.
This being said, what is good about the Mozambique school is the possibility of sharing experiences related to photography and its techniques with others in the country. Moreover, they have an important archive where everyone can access the images from the colonialism era and after independence.
Q: The portfolio you provided us is one of your recent works, “Esquecidos” (Forgotten), dedicated to elderly African people. Can you explain the process that brought you to produce this body of work?
A: In affluent societies, the demand of high-performance labor is paired with increasing life expectancy; a culture of care homes has been put in place. Elderly members of the family are placed in these homes under the care of professionals who are often strangers to these vulnerable groups. Care homes are part social club, dispensaries and hospices. This culture of displacement stands in contrast to the traditional social values of living together and becoming old under one’s homestead, whereby senior members of the family were taken care of by their offspring. Such cultures can still be found in rural areas and some parts of African countries. Thus, could aging be understood as an encumbering blessing? These are basically the reasons that motivated me to produce this body of work.
Q: Why did you decide to compose a double portrait made by successive black-and-white and color images?
A: Somehow, I wanted to explore the emotions and feelings of these people by playing with monochrome and color images, in order to understand how we can read each composition.
When I started my journey as a photographer, I used monochrome because it is considered more subtle and interpretive than color photography. This way, I could also develop my rolls by myself. Today things have changed a lot in the photographic industry because of digital technology. I wanted to experiment with new opportunities.
Q: In most of the pictures selected, the background is uniform, neutral: the context of each story is then undone. You work mostly as a documentary photographer, what urged you to highlight the images this way?
A: Well, I consider myself a documentary photographer and I like to believe that my work helps me to understand my subjects deeper, to develop a kind of relationship in order to bring back the dignity and values of my subjects as human beings.
Working on personal long-term projects, I have been trying to learn how to develop my own identity and strengthen my view in photography. For that, I have to learn each day with each person. For me, being creative, is the essential thing to apply. I try to create connections between myself and the people photographed. When I see the lines of light, I shoot my photographs.
Q: What kind of relationship do you establish with your subjects? Did these men and women easily agree to be part of your project?
A: In the first contact with my subjects, I try to make them feel more comfortable with my presence in their private lives. At the beginning, in fact, it may seem strange for people; they may feel invaded in their private life. That’s why I like to talk to people first, to show them my respect, to give them dignity by focusing on their identity to be seen by others. It is not always easy but it is possible and when it is not, then, we have to understand each other.
Q: What did you ask them once in front of the camera?
A: I try to keep everything natural; I like to make jokes so they can feel happy and comfortable. What I like in this work are the small details, expressions and attitudes of these people.
Q: Have you ever thought of developing this work by focusing on the other face of this phenomenon, elders living in care homes?
A: Yes. From the beginning this project was experimental. I focused at first on people who have been forgotten. The transition will be working in town at care homes.
Q: “Esquecidos” has been shot in different countries including Nigeria, Congo, Mozambique, Cameroon, Kenya and Mali. Is it usual for you to work on such a large-scale or, should I say here, on continental-scale projects?
A: I’m specializing in long-term projects focused on living, working and environmental conditions. As a documentary photographer, I strive to work on themes of positive change across different cultures, locations and perspectives, in my home country. I use it to confront issues of power, environment and cultural heritage that affect socially isolated groups and issues that define our times. But my vision depends also on where I can move and work. In this case, I was awarded the “Visa pour la Création” by the Institut Français.
Q: Can you please tell us the story behind this image?
A: This is Tongi Agiama, a 116-year-old blind woman. She is a survivor of the Cyclone Aila that ravaged many areas of the Khulna Division in Bangladesh in 2009, killing approximately 179 people and wounding thousands of others. My idea was to show positive details about strong people who can encourage the new generation with their story.
In 2010 I was selected to be a part of Chobi Mela VI International Festival of Photography in Bangladesh. When I arrived there, I was very interested in the emerging possibilities of exchange among cultural groups within a society. This has brought possibilities, both to me and to others, to try to develop a common civic culture based on the values of freedom and human rights. I started to contact the local people with questions about life in Bangladesh. I knew already about what happened there in 2009, so I decided to visit the place that was affected by this cyclone. That is how I ended up in her house and took a photo of her.
Q: You are now working on the invisible children, adults and elderly who work, as you have said, “day after day trying to collect the rest of cement left around commercial factories.” Previously, you worked on the Zionist Church in Mozambique. If you look back to what you have achieved in the past and to what you would like to create in the future, what would be the thread that connects them?
A: I would say that all my work is connected to three elements: time, space and humans.
If I look back to the past and think about the present, there are still a lot of things to be done. I don’t want to repeat myself, but my line and style will be the same. I want to focus my eyes on those who do not have a voice in our society. I want to hear those people no one wants to hear and I want to continue doing something for them.
Q: Are you affiliated with an agency in Mozambique or abroad?
A: No, I am not. My work is represented by a gallery in Lisbon and I am still looking for galleries in Europe and the United States.
Thank you for your time, Mário!
– Leica Internet Team