Pierrot Men: Poetry in Black and White

Marian Nur Goni of Africultures had the chance to speak with Pierrot Men, a key figure in Madagascan photography and well beyond. He just published a monographic series retracing thirty years of work. You can read the interview below in English or in French.

Q: Your name is a reference today. I know a lot of photographers who are simply crazy about your expertise, your mastery of black and white (which nonetheless transforms in the eye of the viewer into something completely natural), your sensitive gaze; yet, people are less familiar with your early work. How, exactly, did you discover photography and what made you start taking photos?

A: My first love was painting. I started painting in 1972 and my last canvas dates to 1989. I mainly did oil paintings, copied from my photos. One day, a friend discovered my painting and my photos. She told me that my photos were a lot better and that I should stop painting! At the time, in 1974, I had just opened a little photo studio in a very poor neighbourhood of Fianarantsoa where I did family portraits and ID photos. I used to travel around to photograph weddings, birthdays, turning of the dead ceremonies (*see footnote), football matches, etc. I did this to make a living, but it also enabled me to familiarize myself with and master the camera.

In 1985, Dany Be, the pioneering Madagascan photographer and also a great friend, invited me to take part in an exhibition in the capital. It was a collective show in which I exhibited ten photos. It was my first exhibition and the audience encouraged me. Since then, I have exhibited in Tananarive every year, right up until now. That’s how my photographic career got started.

Q: After some 35 years of companionship with a camera, how do you consider the evolution of your work today? Do you often go back over your archives?

A: I am very lucky; my eye has not yet tired. I still bear the same gaze on my people and I still get as much pleasure from looking at my archives. I don’t just look at them. Whether in my old black and white lab or on my computer screen; I still enjoy rediscovering certain images or even bringing them to life again when – which isn’t that rare – I discover old pictures that I hadn’t noticed before.

Q: Madagascar and its inhabitants have always been at the heart of your photographic work. After so many years of bearing a loving gaze on this country, do you feel that there are subjects you haven’t yet explored?

A: I have wasted a lot of time. My best pictures are those that come to me naturally, but today I go looking for them more. It’s a new stage, a new approach. There are plenty of other photographic subjects to explore. I have, above all, photographed the Southeast and its coast because it’s the land of my childhood, of my family, my ancestors. This photographic combat is unending, but it is true that going to discover other places, other peoples on the main island appeals to me more and more.

Q: Are there any photographers you feel close to, whose work has nourished your gaze and path?

A: There are a lot of photographers that I respect. I love their work, they all have things to say. They all stimulate me. I thank them all.

Q: What do you consider important to transmit through photography?

A: I am a witness of the day-to-day, of life. Am I a chronicler? I don’t have a set approach. I don’t know how to do well-constructed reportages; other people do that better than I do. No, each of my photos is a little chronicle in itself, a little story, an encounter, a snapshot. Each image is the visceral expression of what I see. Photography has taken everything I have: time for my family and friends, my youth, my strength, but it has also offered my the most beautiful of gifts: Madagascar and its intimacy, the love of an entire people, my people, and that’s what I have always transmitted, or try to transmit.

Q: When one thinks of your work, one immediately thinks of your chiaroscuro, of all the shades of black and white that flourish magnificently in your film prints. But have you ever worked in colour?

A: I started in colour! For the record, the lab that used to develop my films was terrible. I was so disappointed every time that I decided to start using black and white film so I could develop my own photos. That was when everything really took off. It’s not unusual for me to interpret certain photos in colour today, but shortly afterwards, I often come back and take the picture in black and white.

One mustn’t forget either that my first true love, my first school, was painting … and you rarely paint in black and white! (laughs).

My painting wasn’t very good, but I owe it a lot in that it brought me a great deal in terms of framing, composition, light, chiaroscuro. Also, and above all, I’m indebted to it for having helped me discover photography! It was out of the necessity of finding subjects for my paintings that I started going to meet and photographing people.

Q: Éditions de l’oeil has just published “Chroniques malgaches”. How did you conceive of this publication?

A: It’s an ensemble of my work, from my first pictures to the present.

Q: You aren’t just a photographer; you also run a photo laboratory in Fianarantsoa. This activity and your own path and experience give you a considerable overview of the situation of photography in your town and, no doubt, in the whole of the country. In your opinion, what state is 35mm photography in on the island today and, more generally, what is the state of photographic creation?

A: It’s a pleasant surprise for me. From 1970 to 1997, there were practically no photographers, apart from studio and itinerant street photographers like me when I started out. Today, there are a lot of photographers, a great deal even. They are really passionate and brimming with confidence. Many of them have become my friends. Agencies and collectives have formed. Not to mention the Mois de la Photo (Photo Month), which attracts more and more participants. As far as I’m concerned, photography is alive and well in Madagascar.

(*) The turning of the dead is a funerary tradition carried out in highland Madagascar. Three to four years after their burial, the deceased’s shrouds are changed, accompanied by a big celebration. Zebus are slaughtered, everyone dances, and the alcohol flows. Photographers are summoned to immortalize this ceremony, which generally takes place between July and September.

-Leica Internet Team