Guillaume Bonn: From Maputo to Mogadishu

Circle Art Gallery, 3-26 July 2019

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From Maputo to Mogadishu

For many years Bonn has been trying to come to terms with the changes that are transforming Africa into a place that is far removed from what he knew as a child.

“We are told that progress is a good thing, that mobile phones and the Internet will make us all happier and our lives better. Along with those things, skyscrapers, highways, parking lots, and all the other accoutrements of consumerism have begun to find their way into Africa, and to change it.”

In this exhibition, Bonn is trying to capture the last vestiges of the twentieth century on the coastline of East Africa before they disappear. Bonn traveled northwards beside the Indian Ocean creating a visual notebook as well as a repository of memory.

Along the coast from Mozambique to Somalia, newcomers had arrived continuously from other places, each bringing new influences with them. There were conquerors, explorers, traders, and immigrants, and they included the Portuguese, Omanis, Indians, British, Italians, Germans, and French. Subject to the varied forces of their own histories, each country is also unique in their modern incarnation, not entirely free of the collective traumas of their colonial past and many already succumbing to the embrace of a powerful and wealthy newcomer from abroad, China.

WARRIORS

They risk their lives to save wildlife.

For the last few years I have struggled with the notion of what it means to be a documentary photographer. I feel that people put you in a box with a label and that’s all you are allowed to be. However, I have always been interested in the concept of the aesthetic and always was inspired by fashion.

For some time now I have been deconstructing my approach to photography so that the visual experience is purely aesthetic rather than based on telling a story. I could sum up this process by asking myself how could I photograph without being a story teller or how can I just take a picture without meaning just for its beauty? I have largely failed in this process, but it has launched me on a different path. I feel that my photography has grown in the process.

Recently, while researching human-wildlife conflict in Kenya, I came across a story that finally allowed me to mix fashion with documentary. The shocking number of elephants and rhinos that are being shot every month for their tusks and horns is well documented. Yet despite global pressure the situation remains critical. The reality of the situation is more complex than what is generally understood. This war is a contest for resources fueled by both marginalized and privileged sections of society. Impoverished men whose families have lived side by side with wild animals for generations turn to poaching to feed their families. They incidentally also help fuel the demand for horn and tusk by wealthy Asians. In the process of my research I found that privately owned and managed game reserves are doing a better job at protecting their wildlife than the government-run National parks. However, I was not expecting to see how militarized the antipoaching war had become. Well-equipped and highly trained game rangers are fighting organized international crime rings on a daily basis.

That’s when I realized that all my questioning about photography, aesthetic, documentary and fashion had brought me to this exact moment where I could use it all to tell an important story. The best way to do so, I thought, was to isolate the rangers from the field, where they track and apprehend poachers, often having to return fire in deadly contacts. I photographed them against a white background in full gear just moments before being deployed for their night patrols. The photographs show how what they dress themselves with – from camouflage gear to tree branches – is a creative process of achieving invisibility for self-preservation. In a way, my photographs strip them of that camouflage the importance of the clothes they wear, taking the camouflage out of the camouflage by shining a light on people who don’t want to be seen.

Unlike fashion this is no story of beauty and illusion but like fashion the clothes are the essential element that is telling an important story that everyone needs to know.

Guillaume Bonn (b. Madagascar, 1970)

Bonn studied Economics and International Politics at Université de Montréal and Université du Québec à Montréal and graduated from the International Centre of Photography in New York.

For the last twenty years, he has reported on conflict, social and environment issues. He was one of the first on the ground to cover the Darfur crisis from inside Sudan for The New York Times and also reported in depth on the sexual abuse committed against children in Congo by United Nations peacekeepers.

Bonn is the recipient of a PDN award, the POPCAP12 African contemporary photography, a grant from the Pulitzer center for crisis reporting and was nominated three times to the Pictet prize. He is the author of five monographs, including; “Le Mal d’Afrique: A Journey into Old and New Africa” and “Mosquito Coast, travels from Maputo to Mogadishu”.

He has directed a number of documentaries, including “Peter Beard: Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond” on the American artist, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and shown on TV channels worldwide. He worked as a cameraman on “Dying to Tell the Story”, a ninety-minute Emmy award winning CNN documentary made on his childhood friend and photographer, Dan Eldon killed in Mogadishu during the US failed “Restore Hope” operation.

He was a contributor to Vanity Fair magazine for fifteen years, and covered a range of stories, including the conflict in North Uganda with the late writer, Christopher Hitchens, the murder of conservationist Joan Root near Lake Naivasha, the Paris Fashion Weeks and “Agony and Ivory” on the African elephants and the ivory trade.

Bonn is a contributor to Everydayafrica and a creative visual content consultant for the perfume company Memo Paris.