Viewers might know Malick Sidibe with his collaborations with fellow Malian, musician Boubacar Traore. But in 2006, Susan Vogel dedicated a raw short film to highlight the titular photographer’s life. The documentary captures his studio in Bamako, where people come and go for Sidibe to take their picture. He also narrates how he became a photographer despite of his lack of training. In fact, there wasn’t a photography school during the early years of his career. Mali’s independence from France meant that education had to reboot. The film gets over that history lesson though. It seamless jumps into 2006. During that time, he would do things like guide the hands of the women he’s photographing. He shows his subjects how how to pose sometimes. The main thing for him is putting his clients at ease. He relates with them as if he knows them, a task he does easily.
Vogel also shows history, both on a large scale and through a personal one, through interviewing Sidibe. The digital quality here is not the best but is forgivable, as it still captures how he discusses his style. He’s one of the few photographers, if not the only, to take pictures of working class Malians. And he poses them as if they’re in movement. This is a different aesthetic that his contemporaries adapted, who preferred still poses in depicting only the upper class. Viewers, lay men or otherwise, assume that their generation invented movement and candid photography. But these interviews with Sidibe catches this unconscious way of thinking worldwide that democratized photography. These interviews also feel candid enough to hint on something more conversational and free. It’s just like his photos and the photos that others took worldwide.
The short documentary feels a little interview heavy as it progresses. But Sidibe’s insight is still glorious to see and hear. The political and intellectual upper classes had the upper hand. Sidibe talks about how those peoples’ books and ideas remained after they’ve gone. He uses the word posterity when describing his subjects. Working class people were similar regardless of where they are and when they live. Specifically, that they usually did not appear on public record. It’s serendipitous then, that he came to this world at a time when democracy has promise. And that promise manifested in the political, artistic, and technological sense. The great thing about these interviews is his lack of ego when talking about his work. This humble and intelligent figure is no longer with us and here’s hoping that people follow his footsteps.
Stream Malick Sidibe on OVID.