At first glance, you may think you recognize some of these iconic photographs. The poses, clothing, and framing seem familiar, but look again. These faces aren’t from history books – they are self-portraits of renowned photographer Samuel Fosso, and they have earned him this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.
Founded by The Photographers’ Gallery in London, the highly coveted prize began in 1996. Every year, a group of more than 100 international photography experts nominate artists for a recent exhibition or published book in Europe from the 12 months preceding. A jury then awards one artist a £30,000 ($37,000) prize for their significant contributions to contemporary photography.
For Fosso, 60, it was his exhibition at Paris’ Maison Européenne de la Photographie in 2022 that placed him in the running. “It was the first time there was a retrospective (exhibition) of all my work. All my artistic work was shown. All my self-portraits were present,” he said.
Known as “the man with a thousand faces,” Fosso has been artistically borrowing identities for over 40 years. From challenging social archetypes with an imagined Black pope to embodying historical figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., it is this performative self-portraiture that caught the jury’s attention.
“Even though his technique is quite simple, and straightforward, and traditional in many senses, it’s really powerful and impactful,” said Shoair Mavlian, director of The Photographers’ Gallery and voting chair for this year’s prize. “His work goes beyond photography and really talks about history and global politics. He’s been interrogating these things for a really long time.”
Fosso’s self-portraits can be traced back to when he was a teenager. Born in Cameroon, he moved to Nigeria but fled the country as a young boy after the Nigerian-Biafra civil war in 1972, ending up with an uncle in the Central African Republic.
Three years later, at age 13, he began taking photographs for a variety of commercial work, from weddings to graduations, and even portraits of newborn babies.
At the end of the day, with some of his leftover film in the camera, Fosso would dress up and take photos of himself.
“I wanted my (future) children to know how I was when I was a young man,” he said. “And I also sent these photos of myself to my grandmother who was in Nigeria. I was really close to her and wanted to show her how I was evolving.”
Over the years, this practice became explorative. From highlighting African American fashion in his first collection of photographs called “70’s Lifestyle,” to examining oppression and colonization in the 1997 series “Tati,” much of Fosso’s work explores identity politics – garnering worldwide attention.
Embodying “African Spirits”
Though he says he likes all his series, Fosso confessed a special love for “African Spirits.”
In 2008, he dressed up as 14 prominent Black historical figures – from Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah and Malcolm X, to Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis. He studied their photos to mimic their demeanor, their fashion choices, and their poses before impersonating them in front of the camera in his studio.
“It’s never evident, what Black people suffered for independence or during slavery,” said Fosso. “The new generation must know how these people were for us, and what they did for us and even that they were murdered for Black freedom. That is the aim.”
Having exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, the Tate Modern in London and more, Fosso is no stranger to the limelight. And yet he was still surprised to receive a call announcing he’s won this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.
“It makes me want to continue,” he said, “because people know what I did is important, they’ve confirmed it, they’ve accepted what has been done.”
Samuel Fosso’s award-winning work is currently on display at The Photographers’ Gallery in London until June 11, 2023.