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Mozambican photographer Mário Macilau on documenting the lives of society's most vulnerable

Mário Macilau on using photography to visually investigate the notions of identity, politics, religion, cultural heritage and the human condition.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 11 September

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Mário is inspired by people he encounters, especially those living on the margins of society

Having started photography using an analogue camera, Mozambican photographer Mário Macilau says that it was always the process that fascinated him the most. The sound the camera makes when you shoot and the act of developing photographs in a dark room were part of his ritual from the very beginning.

The 34-year-old photographer started his career in 2003, and went professional after he traded his mother's old cellphone for his first camera in 2007. While he has shifted entirely to digital photography since the early days, Mário still enjoys working primarily in black and white with muted tones and textures. He also uses depth of field and natural light to make his black and white images more nuanced.

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Mário mainly works in black and white with muted tones and textures

“I have learnt that black and white photography has a powerful way of allowing the viewer to experience the image and the composition. Composition, light, shadow, texture and tonal qualities all become more obvious and important when colour is absent in any photographic work. I retain a bias towards black and white photography for these reasons,” he wrote in his book Growing in Darkness.

The Maputo-based photographer states that in order for him to keep working in his preferred medium, he focusses on long-term investigative projects. He believes that the value of photographs is depreciating, especially in terms of their value in magazines or newspapers as most of them are becoming digital. “Everyone today is a photographer. Cameras are everywhere and the image pollution online is huge. That’s why I work on personal projects as I consider my photographic practice to be a visual investigation, taking a critical view on identity, political issues, and environmental conditions,” he says.

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Mário feels that his work is a constant exploration of how humans sustain themselves in changing environments

One such project led to a nomination for the 2016 Greenpeace Photo Award which dealt with the global issue of e-waste. Taken at the Hulene landfill about seven kms from Maputo, the place attracts thousands of people who live around it and make a living off recycling the waste. The recyclers use burning tyres to separate metal from circuit boards which they can resell. Mário spent several months documenting the daily lives of the workers, bringing into focus the impact of our insatiable appetite for new electronic goods like cell phones and televisions. His other accolades include being selected by Fotofestiwal in Łódź in Poland to present his first monograph Growing in Darkness as a solo exhibition.

Mário says that his work is a constant exploration of how humans sustain themselves in changing environments. "I attempt to explore the way in which conditions of labour, cultural heritage and the environment alter over time. I have always concerned myself specifically with how these conditions are articulated through the environment in which people live, and the relationship that people have to that environment. How do humans sustain themselves and adapt to shifting environments, when their labour, their lives, and by extension, their relationships to one another are all affected by that environment,” he notes.

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The Maputo-based photographers sees his work as personal documentary

Calling his work a 'personal documentary', he adds that he prefers long-term projects that require commitment and trust, “which leads to a better understanding of these conditions, and to seeing the beauty that resides in the hearts of the people”. “I have come from the same culture and the same reality, between the agony and joy of life, and this is how and why I can access those stories."

The people he encounters inspire him, especially those living on the margins of society who still manage to find some happiness. In his long-term project Faith, a continuation of his earlier project called Zionist, he documents the practice of animism in contemporary Mozambique. “Faith looks a traditional religions where members believe in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena, whereby the spirits of ancestors can affect the lives of the living. Through their practices, these traditional religions preserve ancient cultures of Mozambican tradition. The religious practices involve teachings, traditional medicine, healing methods, rites of passage for young men and women, and how to behave towards the members of the community. It reflects local and yet diverse conceptions of God and the cosmos."

The article was first published on Design Indaba. This is part of an exchange programme between Design Indaba and Design Fabric to introduce the rich works coming out of Africa's art and design scene to India, and interlink one culture to another.

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