Uncomfortable truths? With typical “French” bluntness Delphine tells us about: NYC bringing out the best in her and why France could not, the power of Vision and harnessing the courage of individual women into an empowered collective force.
You are French and Senegalese; born and raised in Paris and now living in New York – what do you think about NYC?
I spent 29 years of my life in Europe so I am relatively a baby in regards to time spent in New York but it is very much home for me. NYC culture helps me a great deal; I find that people here have a deeper respect for all types of work and artists from different places. There are so many people from so many different backgrounds that it helps each group to understand the other. This is powerful for the city because humans can release sadness and heal scars by understanding each other – I learn from you and vice versa. In this way NYC is a window into the future. Women in New York are strong and very vocal – just like me so I feel at home.
Did you not feel at home in France?
France was challenging in many ways and I can’t say that I ever truly felt French. As an African descendant one has to face many hard realities and limited opportunities both economic and social.
Is that particularly French?
Discrimination and Identity are two different things, Americans from all backgrounds feel American. In the USA immigrants can become Americans in 2 generations, in France that’s not possible. My mother is a French white woman, she is French but how can I be? I remember spending time at the beach when I was a child and being regularly called “black cow” . . . that was a normal expression! That’s a similar story for a lot of ‘foreign’ and mixed people. Imagine all the pain caused by exclusion that can’t be expressed. France doesn’t accept us as 100% French. That’s a problem that my art has helped me to deal with: a struggle to find identity and belonging, 10 to 15 years of struggling to understand who I am.
Why is integration particularly poor in France?
On a cultural level France refuses to see another side of the coin, it refuses to learn from other cultures; this is seen in language, movies, fashion etc. Minority comedians make it to the mainstream but not many others do because of a narrow window and a general lack of consciousness. At the Cannes lm festival, which claims to be the guardian of good cinema, the tiny numbers of movies with minority characters that are screened usually employ the same lazy stereotypes and ultimately fail to connect with us because of unbelievably poor representation. I spent my childhood visiting the Louvre with my mum, trained to understand art the French way, taught to believe it is the most beautiful city in the world and nothing equally valuable could possibly come from the other part of me. The books we read, as children contained nothing about our backgrounds in them - when you nd out that your history has been erased from study books you feel as if you have been screwed. The default French position is to reject it if it comes from abroad and it has gotten pretty good at ignoring the rest of the world.
Why did you choose photography as your vehicle for expression?
My background is visual art – it’s what I studied at the Académie Charpentier School of Visual Art in Paris. What I discovered for myself is that Vision is a Trick and most people use it to create the wrong meaning. That’s what happens in a lot of fashion photography and movies; vision is used by the media to diffuse the truth. I wanted to tell a deeper and more meaningful story; instead of being a writer I chose to be a visioner because its time for someone to use vision to make a new vision. I chose it because I didn’t have a choice; I felt that there are not enough visioners. Out there it’s an industry of separate industries: political and social art, portraiture and documentary, for me they are all linked. I don’t take photos, in fact I see myself as giving photos.
How would you describe your work?
I would say that with every click I set out to create a world. I do it in black and white for people to understand the depth of the form. It’s a science of vision – anthropology, mythology, religion, the sciences and martial arts, a science of the amazing wisdom I discover from men and women, music, all combining to transform into vision. There are not many photographers that do that, I want to make sure that people understand my work comes from study. Every year it gets stronger, I study different rituals and mythologies from Asian to Native American to Burmese and everything I can get my hands on in between. I spend most of my time studying and not necessarily shooting because study is what makes my work evolve. I always gure out the money part, people ask if I get paid but the meaning of life is not the money – I do it for the passion and truth and I get contacted for work by great clients because my work comes from a new narrative and re ection of the world and somewhere inside we all want to contribute to a better tomorrow.
How do you approach your portraiture work?
I like to see my role as a receiver and revealer of each person’s unique gift. I discovered the tricks of master photographers - I learned how to make things beautiful. It also revealed the stupidity of transporting reality when it is incomparably beautiful– it’s a foolish trick because after 5 to 6 years you end up with no real story. Photography is a ritual. When I meet someone I am going to shoot I can talk to them for hours and it takes literally just 5 minutes to capture the image. The time spent talking to them is to get to understand them. The relationship and love creates a vision – falling in love with my subject is what I aim for every time.
You were mentored by the acclaimed photographer, Peter Beard (renowned for his images of Africa). What similarities do you share and differences?
We share a passion for understanding the world around us although he was more focused on wildlife. He had met an amazing woman who mentored him and introduced him to Africa and he in turn mentored me. His path was to detail the transcendence of beauty and sexuality into nature, that was his understanding and I was not really in agreement so we had many strong debates about it. He liked to hear my story and I had to tell him that my perspective of Africa was very different. Although we disagreed he was very good at understanding. He was one of the reasons why I had to nd a way to show beauty in a different way and that ended up becoming my addiction. I can see beauty in women everywhere and its not in the body, its in the eyes! In every eye, if you put them in portraiture all eyes are the same. Through the eyes you can see the similarities. We have been conditioned to divide but we can build a better world through the eyes regardless of background, age, time and gender. I guess you could say vision can end our division.
You spent time in Saint-Louis in Senegal and formed the studio ‘Magic’ (a tribute to Malian Photographer Malick Sidibé) where you photographed members of your family in praise of the simple life. Tell us more . . .
I started to document Africa as a rebellion against the typical way of showing Africa. I
was upset with my mentor Peter and I was determined to show a truer Africa. I didn’t
see the classic pictures of my people! Most of the images that have been done about the continent t commercial requirements but I was liberated from those constraints because 90% of my work is not commercial. I was more interested in creating a world and I was already convinced that you couldn’t create a true world from a commercial starting point. The guardians of Art limit knowledge of complex and wonderful cultures by reducing what we are given to fast food art, this explains why art from the Caribbean or Africa has to be colorful and clumsy; they condense the art to a very narrow idea. I have recently started to have a different mission to open the understanding by talking at universities about this.
Why do you refuse to sell your work through galleries?
The fact is that galleries don’t need our message or us; they just need the money we can generate so they enslave us. It’s the society that needs artists; we do art for a reason. If you don’t do it for a reason then you shouldn’t be an artist. We are here to elevate people because at the moment everyone understands pretty but not beautiful. A lot of photography out there lacks depth; we have never seen so much art but does it change anything? They do it for the wrong reasons, where will we go? Galleries are nothing but supermarkets of art but the other side is something that has real value to everyone. I am doing art because I have a message so I invest a lot of time to create vision. Vision in my work is un-negotiable because I have to leave a legacy. Vision comes to me not by a bolt of lightning but from study, continuous study. I feel like a kid because I always want to learn more and make my work understandable through different cultures and languages.
You have recently been involved with the Native American protest movement?
Yes! I was humbled to add my voice to their protest movement. Back in 2010 I joined them from New York to Montana and I feel very strongly for their cause. We all need to listen to them to understand their battle and certainly need to support them. They are not recognized as members of society, they are invisible and pushed away from society but yet they suffer with dignity. I was honoured to offer my skills to this movement: Portraiture is a map of the new world. Imagine a world where everyone accepts every type of archetype – Indian, African, and Native-American etc.
How do you see change happening?
Expanding the consciousness is important: vested interests have money at stake so it
wont be easy. Expanding the future: the new generation won’t buy into the ridiculous vision of division. Technology: my generation is the last one born into a world without mobile phones; we were slow at understanding the world. In 10 years I have gathered 2000 contacts in my phone, imagine a kid born today? The new generation is changing the world faster than ever before but the old generations are insisting on holding them back and the news wants to scare them into division. Trump has helped
to bring the racists and hypocrites out of the shadows – in a way America and the world had to witness the worst US president.
Do you face pressure to not talk about the things you talk about?
I don’t face pressure because I am independent and not commercial focused but I do get suggestions as to subjects I should be shooting more of. I am elevating the conversation and raising the bar for Queen-ness and Motherhood. I am not just showing desperate refugees but also those who are happy and fulfilled where they are. Why does the image of a hungry child in a refugee camp not make them uncomfortable but my work does? I have been able to live and work with amazing people who don’t want the bullshi*t: its okay for me to just be honest.
Do you worry about being labeled discriminatory?
There are two conversations – race and discrimination. My mum is white (the love of my life is white) the most pure and wise person in my life is white. The clients who work with me are white and they understand me. I believe that we don’t have any color – our vocabulary is limited by color: white, black etc. We have to use these simple words to get people to understand us. It’s other things that create the gap: more men hire me than women – why? It makes me wonder because I have realized that when men come to me they understand the depth of the work and trust my authority. Women can sometimes feel competition and fear the authority of another woman. That annoys me because I have found my strength and I would like to teach others the same regardless of background or gender. I just see beauty: the true beauty. Also I don’t think a lot about the perceptions of others because I produce a lot and I am an action woman. My creative process is Feel, Do and Understand 2 to 3 years after as opposed to understanding before I begin. If it takes me that long then imagine what it could be for the other people who view my work – I do the work because I know I have to do it. Understanding eliminates color and all other divisions: by the end of your life you truly understand on thousands of levels but if you can do some of that before then at least you will benefit from a much better life.
You’ve worked with Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Swizz Beats, J Cole, The New York Times, Esquire, The New Yorker, Nike, Time inc, to name a few, that’s got to be the greatest example of organic success?
I was not in agreement with the gallery route because I wanted to travel the world and do my work and sell through social media. I believed that I would be able to make that simple dream a reality. I got a call and spoke to Swizz Beatz on the phone and he brought me on board for the next no commission exhibition. Cole’s record label contacted me to shoot their vision - Chris Rock came to me, the other brands you mentioned and others like Tumi and L Oreal also came to me because they saw something in my work. And the result of all this is that I was pushed to work even harder – why would 3 amazing visioners contact me without knowing they were going to? It’s about projection becoming reality.
Delphine is currently finalizing her latest project – Women of New York.
She describes this project as: “Through portraits of women, I aim to counter a patriarchal affront currently swelling in the United States.
Shot over several months the project exemplifies how confidence and courage on an individual basis can be harnessed to embolden women as a collective force.
Find out more about Delphine Diallo: www.delphinediallo.com