Photographer Ana Pollard pays her respects to ‘the eye of Bamako’, Malick Sidibé, in her own studio portrait series shot in Abidjan

In celebrating his subjects as individuals and by seeing “the future of the world” in their faces, the legendary Malick Sidibé breathed new life into the deep-seated tradition of studio photography in Africa. After being ‘discovered’ by the West in the 1990s, he went on to become one of the most lauded and emulated artists the world over. His passing earlier this year has, if anything, brought even more attention to both his story and that of Mali’s post independence history, which he so exuberantly immortalised in his images.

Photographer Ana Pollard has added her own voice to the conversation with her project Homage a Sidibé. Having travelled the globe as a lawyer, a photojournalist and through humanitarian work, Pollard has captured the present optimism of her new home, Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire, by reflecting upon Sidibé’s ability to showcase the positives of society through the lives of everyday people. Here she tells us all about it.

I discovered him on my first trip to West Africa in 2010. His images stood out to me as refreshingly different to those of Africa we are often exposed to that focus on negative stories. His portraits bring to life a vivacious 1960s and 70s Bamako. I love the fact that the personalities of the sitters come through as relaxed and complicit in the photographic process. The photographs show, in an informal way, the daily life, fashion and culture at this significant period in Mali’s history following independence from France.

Another element that draws me to Sidibé’s work is the use of African fabrics. The contrasting prints create powerful images and also reflect a complex cultural heritage. Batik originated in Indonesia and the printing technique industrialised by Dutch colonisers. The textiles were later mass-produced in Europe for West African markets. In Côte d’Ivoire the patterns have acquired different meanings and associations and are even given their own names.

What new perspectives does your homage bring to his work, and your own?
This project was a departure from others I have worked on documenting social and conflict issues. Sidibé’s photography inspired me to focus on positive developments in Côte d’Ivoire. Sidibé is quoted as saying “I don’t like sadness” and similarly I wanted to portray the lively energy in the economic capital.

It is also interesting to bring the legacy of Sidibé’s work to a different time and place in West Africa. After years of instability and a recent civil war following the 2010 elections, Côte d’Ivoire is experiencing a renaissance. The project was an opportunity to capture an element of this through portraiture. In practical terms, I opted to have a sequence of images similar to a photo-booth capture. The first set is in black and white, as a nod to Sidibé, and the latter in colour. This gives a sense of ‘émergence’ and also brings out different qualities in the textiles.

How did you connect with your subjects?
Most of the sitters were found by walking around different neighbourhoods in Abidjan. I approached people in the street and invited them to have their photograph taken for a project on fashion and culture. A very basic studio was set-up on the spot while the sitter chose a backdrop from a selection of textiles. For the most part, the sitters were involved in an economic activity on the streets, for example selling telephone credits, or on their way to or from their place work. I also photographed a few ladies at their workshop where they craft jewellery for a social enterprise called Muse Group.

Most people were very receptive to having their portrait taken. Women in particular dress extremely well and were proud to show off their sense of style. Some were complete naturals at working the camera and were a lot of fun to photograph. On some occasions my little pop-up studio drew a small crowd of onlookers. I think I was a bit of a curiosity. A lot of life happens on the street here and I enjoyed being part of that. I am still regularly bumping into people who I met during the process.

How did you come to arrive at photography at this point of your career?
I practised law in the UK for a number of years and later went on to work in the humanitarian field in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. I spent a lot of time on photography whilst abroad which finally led me to a master’s in photojournalism and documentary photography. I am now focusing solely on photography. These choices have always responded to an interest in people and what is happening in the world.

What’s next for you?
I am building a new project looking at mental health issues in in Côte d’Ivoire.

Words Will Larnach-Jones

Visit Ana Pollard