Photographers chronicling violence in Central African Republic recount their extraordinary discovery and rescue of prints and negatives after Fosso's studio was attacked by looters
The life work of one of Africa's most important living photographers and contemporary artists, Samuel Fosso, has been rescued from destruction after his studio and home were attacked by looters in war-torn Central African Republic.
Fosso, who was born in Cameroon but lived in Bangui for years, is an award-winning photographer who has exhibited his work around the world. His prints – often involving self-portraits of himself as historical figures including Mao Zedong, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba – are regarded as highly collectable and sell for thousands of pounds.
His archive could have been lost for ever – another casualty of the CAR's bitter conflict – this week were it not for its chance discovery and extraordinary rescue by two photographers chronicling the violence – Jerome Delay and Marcus Bleasdale. Delay, Associated Press's chief photographer in Africa, who has covered conflicts around the globe, had been photographing intercommunal violence – including horrific lynchings – when he came across negatives strewn in the dirt.
Bleasdale said: "Jerome was taking pictures in Miskin, which is the Muslim quarter where Fosso lived – although he's not a Muslim himself. Everyone had left and the Christian population was looting.
"He found a bunch of negatives lying in the dirt. Some of them had been rained on. Fosso's housekeeper was still there trying to protect the house and studio from looters. He went in and there was maybe 150-200 prints which he rescued. But there were [also] boxes full of negatives – Fosso's life work – maybe 20,000."
Amid gunfire, the two photographers – accompanied by Human Rights Watch director of emergencies Peter Bouckaert – returned to rescue Fosso's negatives.
"Everything of major value was being stolen. But the prints had been left inside the house even as the roof was being ripped off," Bleasdale added. "A lot were portraits he had been making of local people. We couldn't rescue his cameras but we went back to get the archive."
In a blog for the New York Times, Delay "Thirty years of work lay scattered in the dust. It reminded me of Serbian militias destroying birth reports from Muslim Kosovars in the early 2000s.
"I started to pick up the negatives … Ten minutes after I started to gather up his work, a French patrol drove by, demanding to know why a journalist was frantically putting things in a bag. Once I explained, the captain proposed that he 'shoot and send the looters away'.
"As my helpers left, I entered the house along with some colleagues.Fosso's office was littered with more boxes of negatives and prints. Limited-edition, museum-quality prints, some burned on the edges – they must have tried to set the house ablaze – some soiled with water and mud. As we walked out with the most valuable work, an anti-Balaka militiaman toting an AK-47 rushed by firing into the air. He accused us of 'having called Sangaris' – the French forces – and ordered us to leave.
"Shoving all the prints and negatives into my car, we sped away. I called Fosso in Paris. He was devastated. But at least some of his legacy has been preserved."Peter Boukaert described the chaos of the scene they discovered in a dispatch for Human Rights Watch: "Young men with grenades were walking around us. Occasionally, French and African peacekeepers entered the neighbourhood and fired in the air to disperse the looters, but they usually quickly returned as the peacekeepers were leaving."
Fosso's career took off in the mid-1990s after a chance encounter with a French talent scout led to his work being shown at the Guggenheim in New York, and in Paris and London. In 1994 Bernard Descamps had been in Bangui and had asked to be introduced to local photographers and was taken to meet Fosso – already 20 years into his self-portraiture.
Since being introduced to a wider international audience, his work has been compared with artists as diverse as Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman.
Despite his international fame, Fosso had continued to live discreetly in the Central African Republic until a few months ago when he and his family were forced to leave the country because of deepening conflict.
In an interview in the Guardian two and a half years ago, Fosso said his favourite photo was a self-portrait of himself dressed as an African chieftain clutching a bunch of giant sunflowers. He described how he had found his photographic voice.
"I started taking self-portraits simply to use up spare film; people wanted their photographs the next day, even if the roll wasn't finished, and I didn't like waste. The idea was to send some pictures to my mother in Nigeria, to show her I was all right.
"Then I saw the possibilities. I started trying different costumes, poses, backdrops. It began as a way of seeing myself grow up, and slowly it became a personal history – as well as art, I suppose. In 1994, there was an exhibition of African photography in Mali. I looked out some of my self-portraits, and won first prize. Now my work has been exhibited in Paris, New York, London."
After the rescue of Fosso's archive Delay spoke to his agent in Paris, Jean-Marc Patras, which he recounted in the blog.
"Samuel is cool, calm and collected," Patras told Delay by phone from Paris on Wednesday morning. "It's a bad story, but at the same time we can look at it as the glass half empty or half full. We are positive. His wife and kids are safe since last July in Nigeria. He has been in Paris for a month. If he had been in his house when they destroyed it, they would have killed him."