“I really enjoyed watching them dance; the liveliness of their movements fascinated me. That’s probably why I’ve only ever photographed people.”
Malick Sidibé’s photographs of Bamako, Mali, are infused with bursts of emotion and eruptions of excitement. “I don’t like posed pictures,” he has said. “Even in my studio photos, I was interested in movement. That’s what attracted me to young people and their parties as well. I really enjoyed watching them dance; the liveliness of their movements fascinated me. That’s probably why I’ve only ever photographed people.”
While Sidibé certainly captured a shift in atmosphere as his society transitioned from French colonial rule to independence in the 1960s, his practice also created the space for these shifts to take root; beyond capturing the excitement of the time, writer and art historian Manthia Diawara highlights how Sidibé played a role in shaping and expanding Bamako’s youth culture. Looking back at his own early adulthood in Bamako, Diawara notes the value of Sidibé’s images: “They show exactly how the young people in Bamako had embraced rock and roll as a liberation movement, adopted the consumer habits of an international youth culture, and developed a rebellious attitude towards all forms of established authority.” In Look at Me! (1962) Sidibé invites us to feel the fervor of young people embracing newfound freedoms, both political and personal.
Sidibé was introduced to photography in 1955. Newly graduated from Maison des Artisans Soudanais with a degree in jewelry making, he was hired to paint the decorations for Frenchman Gerard Guillat-Guignard’s Photo Service. Also working as a cashier and a photographer’s assistant, Sidibé learned quickly and opened his own studio, Studio Malick, in 1962. Throughout the two decades that followed, Sidibé was a prolific commercial photographer, working across genres making portraits as well as carrying out reportage work.
Sidibé also became quite skilled at repairing cameras for the photography community in Bamako and developed strong ties with other photographers. He was outgoing and put down deep roots in his community—traits he found essential to his local success. “You have to remember a good photographer is also a social animal…because the customers don’t really see the camera, they see you, the artist—you become the product they’re buying. It’s like sugar cubes in coffee: you stir the sugar into the coffee and it dissolves and enhances the taste…. So a good photographer gets to know everyone.”
Hannah Morse, Intern, Department of Photography, 2021