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discussion with Régis Michel, journalist
Before evoking Alain Paris and place his work in the field of photography, it seems necessary for me to come to an agreement on what photography is. What is photography? An art, a media, a tool? Here's an inexhaustible topic for reflection. Its strict definition in fact is not sufficient to circumscribe this art of temporality.
In the (French) Petit Robert dictionnary, on page 1426 it is written: "Photography: process, technique allowing the obtention of a lasting image of objects, by the action of light on a sensitive surface". Rubbish! It is is much more than that, indeed something else.
In 1990, I directed for television a short programme on the Ventilo school of photography that Alain Paris had created in the small town of Kafountine in Casamance. On this occasion we had questioned the village elders, gathered under the palaver tree. None of them had given us this definition. All have on the other hand evoked the magic, indeed malefic aspect of the camera and pictures taken by the first whites passing through their town, 50 or 60 years ago. It's "the pictures that steal the soul", instrument of the toubab witch doctor ("white man" in wolof) used to harm the disarmed natives. Here, this is what photo is: A Gri-Gri! Magic! Black or White magic ? "Sir, both, Sir!", it's Magic in Black & White ! How Strange ! How can a photographer create anything ? Not by intervention, but by "seeing" differently. Photography is precisely that: Seeing differently what we're looking at.
Now the scope of constraints is vast and the field of possibilities is limited. The photographer can record nothing else than reality! It alone traverses his lens before exposing his film or tickling the megapixels of his digital camera. His talent, if there is any, is to play with this reality, and to sometimes deform it. Before speaking of Alain Paris' work, it was necessary for me to specify some of these rules and to recall that, despite appearances, photography is one of the most difficult and most remarkable of all the arts. Alain is not a photojournalist. His concern is to see and not to give account. To see reality "otherwise", to see it "better" but never to reproduce it. Those who've seen him work have surely felt amused by the smile he wears when during his photo shoots. You'd believe that he's being a voyeur at that time! There is in fact great pleasure during in his photographic sessions, but it is not on the sole account of the beauty of his models.
Neither is Alain a fétichist, nor is he obsessed by the tool. Only results count! He can shoot with a Leica, with a medium format, or with the latest digital SLR. Many of his pictures have in fact been taken with a Minox or a Hexar. For him, the camera is merely an accessory. As with the brush for the painter, it cannot be the goal itself of his expression.
In fact, Alain isn't a photographer at all. As he says himself, he merely "does photography". For he associates the primal joy of the dilettante to the rigorous technique of the professional. This Italian word, present participle of the verb 'dilletaro', means "to enjoy", and therefore designates "the one who devotes himself to an art by pleasure". Thirty years after his first pictures, Alain has not exhausted that pleasure.
Pleasure of the photographic art or rather of "photografrique" art. For Alain PARIS hasn't stopped putting this continent in pictures. His productions, Studio de Brousse, Seetsi, Black Mirages are in fact various facets of the same passion for a world that both fascinates and moves him. Very quickly, Alain nevertheless diverted himself from the african landscape to look exclusively at its inhabitants. As a film director knows that a backdrop can be made of cardboard, Alain feels, too, that the african savannah and the virgin forests impair the vision that we can have of the individuals. The beauty of the continent's landscapes will never equal to him, that of its men, and especially of its women.
Of a stay in Senegal or Burkina, he can bring back only a couple of film rolls, and of his numerous trips on the dark continent, he brought back merely a dozen pictures of landscapes, traditional ceremonies, or other exotic snapshots. Since 1989, without interrupting his trips, Alain in fact has locked himself in a studio to shoot his Africa. This is not the "Ghostly Africa" of Michel Leiris. Neither is it that of the ethnologues, the poets, the third world journalists. It is neither modern nor ancestral, nor poor or corrupt, nor cheerful or sad. His pictures do not have the troubling exotic quality of Peter Beard's or those of Mirella Ricciardi, nor do they have the informative wealth of Raymond Depardon's or Françoise Huguier's pictures. These folks are not content in photographing Africa, they inform us about her. This is not Alain's primary concern. The landscapes, the elephants, the famines and the wars have seduced or moved him as they did all of us, but those things are not, alas, strictly speaking, "endemic". What he shows us of Africa is truly unique. In full modesty, and very subjectively, he attempts to reveal to us its very beauty. That of its women, of whom he shows the stare, the skin, the hands, the muscles... Who had showed all this before him? And moreover who had seen it?
Yes, Alain's Africa, is unique. It is woman, mother or mistress, naked, strange and sensual. With Black Mirages, he gives us to see the most beautiful and most evident of what Africa undoubtly has, but that which no one can describe. A stomach. The fertile one of a mother or the stretched skin of a dancer? Hands. The ones of an Ashanti princess of Ghana or of a Diola countrygirl of Casamance? The nape of a neck. The one of an amazon warrior of Congo or of a parisian model? Suppleness of bodies, frankness of a stare, raw purity of Africa to which these "Black Mirages" send us back.
Alain is not a simple lover of this land. More than others, he reveres and defends it. Each one of his pictures is an invitation to a trip and his work says more to my eyes than countless works devoted to the continent. True lover of a female Africa that he locked in his darkroom, he invites us to only see her beauty and campaigns, in his own way, and better than others maybe, for her survival.