Guillaume Bonn captures the cameras of his heroes

In the iconic documentary photographer’s latest series, Shooters & Explorers, Guillaume Bonn laments a lost world…

(Words by)
Guillaume Bonn

Some time ago, I started working on a project called ‘Shooters and Explorers’. The idea was to photograph cameras that belonged to people whose work I admired. I wanted to capture the old analogue cameras of image-makers who have in their own way been explorers — either by using photography as a way to record people and places, or because they explored the medium of photography itself. I wanted to connect the machine to the man — to create a dialogue between technology, technique and vision. 

Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita were commercial photographers from Mali who took portraits of people who came to their studios, and ventured out to shoot at weddings and parties. They did not realise at the time that they were also capturing the spirit of the 60’s and the winds of independence that were spreading all over Africa. 

Sidibe’s photos of the well-dressed Malian youth at night could now easily be the theme of an Italian Vogue fashion shoot. But his pictures also illustrate the electric mood of a generation tasting their newly acquired freedom from colonial power. Their work recalls what portrait painters did in the royal courts of Europe during the 18th and 19th Centuries, by giving a glimpse of the social codes of Bamako at the time they lived. Their work is a reminder of what photography can achieve in capturing a capsule of time. It is a powerful prompt for our collective memory.

Another photographer whose cameras I photographed made it their life mission to record the last tribes and their traditions. In her book Vanishing Africa, Mirella Ricciardi re-appropriated the use of anthropological photography at the turn of the century to display the noble savage of Africa. With the help of the fast-changing times, she created a new photographic genre, dedicated to the recording of eroding life styles of primitive tribes around the African continent.

The photographer Peter Beard lived in a number of worlds at the same time, alternating between primitive conditions in the field in Africa and a jet-set lifestyle in cities like Paris and New York. His work reflected this split life — a combination of dead elephant carcasses and famous fashion models posing next to live cheetahs. 

In the process, Beard produced The End of the Game, first published in 1963, which remains the most important and prophetic book on elephants and African conservation in history, and was an early effort to explain how modern forms of human progress were destroying wildlife and wilderness. 

These were photographers who developed photography as language and used it as a way to describe and comment on life and times, society and history. Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher spent forty years criss-crossing the African continent from north to south, west to east, to record for posterity all of its traditional ceremonies before they died out. In this way, photographers who have contributed to the canon of human understanding can stand on the shelf alongside great novelists, historians and academics.

With this project it was important to me to show that, with a camera, you can carry meaning into the future. I photographed the camera of my childhood friend Dan Eldon, who had been Influenced by Beard, and experimented with collages and scrapbooks, but also ventured into the photography of war. 

We both went to Mogadishu in 1993 to record the US-led invasion called “Restore Hope,” which had started as a humanitarian mission, and ultimately turned into a hunt to arrest and kill a warlord who had refused to kneel down to the United States of America. Dan was killed there a month after I left, at the age of twenty-two, doing his job and verifying facts to bring about a better understanding of a very complex situation.

Recently I read that the language you speak determines how you think. In the same way I think the camera a photographer decides to use, in part, determines his vision. The different cameras I have used over the years have created different ways of telling the story I am trying to communicate. Changing cameras for me is like changing pens. It makes me write differently. 

The photographs in this series are my homage to analogue photography. But they also contain a longing for a bygone era, which held a certain way of being, thinking, creating and understanding: a time when some kind of ‘truth’ could still be told by a camera.

Want more from Guillaume Bonn? Here, the photographer remembers his dear friend, Peter Beard…

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