In the mid-1970s, at the same time Cindy Sherman started making self portraits to explore the construction of white female identity, half way around the globe, Cameroonian-Nigerian photographer Samuel Fosso opened his own studio at the tender age of 13. Casting himself as the subject of his work, Fosso used photography to stake his claim in the world.
Born in 1962, Fosso was sick and partly paralyzed as a child. Although Nigerians traditionally commission a portrait of their child at three months, his father saw it as a waste of money. Fosso wasn’t photographed until he was 10 — a void that shaped his vision from the very beginning. Growing up in Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War, Fosso fled to Bangui, Central African Republic, to live with an uncle after his mother died. He apprenticed at a local photo studio for just five months before opening Studio Photo National in 1975.
“In Africa we say to become a real photographer you have to take the picture and then make the print yourself; that’s how you establish your professional credentials,” Fosso says in the new book, Autoportrait(The Walther Collection/Steidl), which brings together five decades of Fosso’s self portraiture.
“My primary motivation for these self-portraits was to create images I could send to my grandmother, who was missing me a lot. Sometimes when I made photographs that I was not satisfied with, where I didn’t feel beautiful inside, I would cut up the negatives instead of printing them. But if I felt that the image was beautiful or represented how I felt inside, then I would print the image and keep the negative.”
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The visual diary of a young boy coming of age, Fosso’s early works demonstrate his fascination with the interplay between identity and presentation. Although dictatorial statutes of his country banned Western trends like bell-bottoms and platform boots, Fosso defiantly donned these styles, pairing them with poses and props set against makeshift backdrops that evoke the joys of adolescent rebellion.
“The self-portraits were more than just images; they were representations of my personality, which was rare among other photographers working in Bangui,” Fosso says. “The other thing was that I expressed myself freely and even wrote phrases on some of the prints, such as ‘La liberté c’est la vie.’ I wanted to express the idea that a man who is not free is not alive.”
Autoportrait chronicles Fosso’s growth as an artist as he transformed the studio into a theater and began to adopt various personas to explore the expression of Black identity at the intersection of gender, sexuality, and history in series such as Tati (1997) and African Spirits (2008).
“While all the series I have done can be understood by viewers as discrete and self-contained, and therefore different, to me there is one unifying theme behind all of them—and that is the question of power,” Fosso says. “I want to show the Black man’s relationship to the power that oppresses him.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Samuel Fosso: Autoportrait
Published by The Walther Collection/Steidl
$85 / 75€