“Miverina”: Rijasolo’s Photographic Return to Madagascar

Rijasolo has been on Leica’s radar. He won first place in Leica Fotografie International’s “35mm Wide Angle” competition and also had a portfolio of his work published in the April 2010 issue of the magazine. His latest work, the highly personal, “Miverina” retraces six years of photographic tussling with the changing face of Madagascar, the country to which the photographer Rijasolo is connected by his family history.  On the occasion of his selection at the Angkor Photo Festival 2010, the artist talks about his photographic relationship to the country and his future projects.

Q: “Miverina, a return to Madagascar” is the fruit of six years of work. In the text accompanying the series, you speak about an obsession with your origin.

A: It was like an obsession, wanting to rediscover what I had forgotten, to confront my imagination with the reality of the country, with the real nation.

 

Q: How exactly did the project start out? How did you prepare yourself for these trips?

A: Ever since I was little – I was six months old when my parents took me to Madagascar for the first time – we used to go to stay there once a year, to see the family, to visit our second home. Then, in the early ‘80s we stopped going, as the economic and social situation was deteriorating year by year; it was the start of the Ratsiraka regime. We were dissuaded from coming back. I think it was from then on that my parents realized that they were going to live in France; that’s when they applied for French nationality. When I was 30, something clicked. I was living in Brittany, and a lot of people – mainly sailors – used to talk to me about Madagascar, about how much they loved this country. Paes and Rajoanarivelo’s film Mahaleo also came out. My pride was stung; I wondered why all these people I met were able to tell me about Madagascar, to love this country, my country, and why during my teen years, in my life as a Frenchman of immigrant origin, I hadn’t bothered to take the slightest interest in my family’s home country. And yet, like in many families of immigrant origin, Madagascar was always present in our day-to-day life. I always lived with Malagasy culture in the background, I understand the language, etc., but the only intimate memories of this country I had in my head were the images of my childhood: walking barefoot, a warm, reassuring light, a kind of insouciance. Maybe they were the only representations of Madagascar that I wanted to hold on to. It was this that gave rise to my obsession of getting back, of feeling my feet rooted on Grand Island, of rediscovering the perfumes, the places, of confronting my memories with reality. This obsession was exacerbated the day I was asked to show my French nationality certificate to renew my passport. One paper giving me the right to continue to be French. This wake-up call resonated in me like the start of a desire for a life elsewhere, or in Madagascar, at any rate. So in 2004, more than twenty years since my last Malagasy trip, I made use of a commission from the Finistère Regional Council to return to Madagascar.

Q: Like other photographers, you talk about the camera as an excuse to go looking for something, in this case your identity, your Malagasy identity. What exactly did the camera allow, and what role did it play in the evolution of your relation to the country and its people?

A: To say that the camera is an excuse to go looking for something is precisely the question I constantly ask myself. Do I use photography in order to meet the Other, or do I meet the Other in order to photograph him/her? Concretely, I don’t know what the first motivation is. Is the subject a pretext simply to photograph, or is photography a pretext to confront oneself with a subject, people, a given situation? I don’t have the answer. All I know is that the act itself – to photograph, to take pictures – is a means for me to record and interpret emotions, feelings. Photographing for me is first and foremost the desire to be coherent with myself, both on an emotional and artistic level. The “Miverina” series is the first work where I have started – a little – to find a coherence between what I felt on returning to Madagascar and what these images were meant to say. This series of images in fact talks about me, a state of mind, a representation of my relation to the country, the people I meet. For the last six years, I have thus been trying to translate what I experience in Madagascar through photography, what new form of identity is engendered by this return. But these photos shouldn’t be seen as a simple crude and linear description of this quest for identity; I would like the spectator to adhere to the sensuality that transpires from the work.

Q: “Miverina” seems to be traversed by a love of the medium and by diverse references: highly composed compositions are thus juxtaposed with spontaneously captured shots in which one feels a certain empathy on your part vis-à-vis the subject. Are there any works or photographers of reference who have spiritually guided you in your photographic quest?

A: Right from when I started out in photography, I was very quickly seduced by black and white photographers such as Sebastião Salgado, James Nachtwey or Paolo Pellegrin and by their capacity to document a subject by foregrounding an aesthetic stance. Then my interest rapidly veered towards photographer — travellers such as Klavdij Sluban, Josef Koudelka, Pierrot Men, Bernard Plossu, ­Raymond Depardon and his 1979 work Notes, along with photographers obsessed by their day-to-day, their life, and who use photography as a personal diary, or at times a therapy. I’m thinking notably of Antoine D’Agata, Michael Ackerman or Anders Petersen. I like this kind of photographic practice that proves that the only limit in photography is the frame of the image itself. I recently discovered the work of the Russian Igor Posner who has a magnificently dark and melancholic gaze. For my part, I consider myself a walker. I like the word ambulation a lot, to wander from one point to another, not to get constricted by the angle of a subject, just to photograph depending on whom I meet, depending on my mood, my receptivity.

Q: What equipment do you use?

A: I have always liked using Leica MS. I work exclusively with a M6 and a M8.

Most of the shots in the “Miverina” series were taken with the M8, with a Summicron-M 28 mm f/2 lens. This gives a 35 mm focal length. 35mm is truly my favourite focal distance, with which my main reports have been shot. It’s a focal length I know by heart and which enables me to adopt both the best physical and psychological distance to my subject. I also have a Rolleiflex Planar 75mm f/3.5, but, unfortunately, I only use it very rarely because of the cost of producing shots (development, contact sheets, scanning, etc.) I have practically never worked with a reflex camera, even when I work for the press. But the need to have one is growing more and more pressing so that I can carry out other types of photographic works.

Q: Why are the edges of your pictures often blackened?

A: When I worked on the post-production of my shots for the “Miverina” series, I indeed deliberately applied a vignette to my pictures using an image editing software programme. Some people may be shocked by the systematic nature and harshness of this aesthetic choice. This prominent vignetting might sometimes hamper the reading of the image, just as it can also totally re-harmonize it. In fact it was important for me in “Miverina” to recreate an oppressive atmosphere, an impression of confinement in each of my images. It was important for me that the person viewing these images would feel something violent and bitter in the relation between me and Madagascar. So I needed a strong contrast with deep blacks and pure whites as if to signify a duality between the difficulty and joy of returning to Madagascar.

Q: In 2007, you and four other photographers (Vincent Nguyen, Vincent Wartner, Vincent Boisot, Vincent Capman) set up the Riva Press collective. Can you tell us about this collective experience and what motivated you to work together?

A: Riva Press was born out of a desire to bring different points of view, different ways of working and different networks together in a same direction: to distribute our images in the French and international press. Furthermore, all five of us took the same photo-journalism course at the EMI-CFD in Paris. Concretely, Riva Press allows us to pool our financial and technical means to give us the best distribution tools, like a high-quality website, which displays our best subjects or to sell our images on the Internet. The idea of being part of a group, of a structure enabling us, as young photographers, not to feel alone with our questions, our tentative steps in this jungle that is the photographic world is what motivated us to work together. Without Riva Press, we would never, for example, have been able to show and explain our work at the “Visa pour l’Image” festival in Perpignan – in the collectives’ section – or to participate in projects, such as the magazine Zmâla (an annual magazine devoted to works produced by collectives throughout the world). All these stages of getting our work known that we accomplish from year-to-year encourage us to continue.

Q: What projects do you have now?

A: My future projects naturally involve Madagascar. I have numerous ideas for reports in mind and I need a little more time and money to realize them. The next stage will be to cover the Malagasy presidential elections due to be held in May 2011. But there is a long-term project that I would particularly like to realize there, which is the creation of a photographic training centre, a bit like the one in Bamako: a centre where young people would be given a technical and artistic initiation into photography during long or short or training sessions and which would allow them to integrate the profession. It’s a project that’s very dear to me. I am building up contacts, studying possible partnerships in order to find the best way to set up this project. I can sense a pressing desire amongst the Malagasy youth to train, to learn to create and to be able to express themselves artistically. Unfortunately, there is practically nothing, or very little, for young people to be able to fulfil their potential in Madagascar. And yet the Malagasy community-group network is one of the most developed in the African region. I would like to make my contribution to developing photography in Madagascar.

-Leica Internet Team

The interview above was conducted by Marian Nur Goni of Africultures. Marian is in charge of the Afriphoto website and activities and is editorial coordinator of Afriphoto photo collection published by Africultures / Filigranes. She is currently studying for a PhD on the history of photography in Djibouti at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. You can read the French transcript of the interview here.