interviews
Interview
Photography

Omar Victor Diop

For me, the portrait is a way of getting to know someone and helping them to get to know themselves

A self-taught photographer, Omar Victor Diop was born in Dakar in 1980. He is inspired by the art of the portrait and more particularly self-portraits, taking on the codes of African photography of the 1950s and applying a contemporary approach. He showed his work for the first time in 2011 at the Rencontres de Bamako, which met with resounding success. He conquered Arles the following year during the Rencontres de la photographie, and in 2020 provided the visual identity to the Africa2020 Season.

Updated on 09/09/2020

5 min

Image
Omar Victor Diop
Crédits
© DR

You first studied business in France, how did you come to change direction towards photography?

It all started because I was bored in my professional life. I was working in a consultancy and would go hiking on Sundays. I started taking photos, first urban landscapes, then in a studio. At the time I had a ground-floor apartment in Ouakam (Dakar), which had a little courtyard, and that enabled me to use natural light because I didn't have any equipment of course. I took photos of people who came to see me at home, and one day I did a series with a friend who was a model. I started making up outfits with materials I picked up and posting the pictures on Facebook. That’s how photography professionals noticed my photos, and encouraged me to apply for the Rencontres de Bamako.

 

Barely two months after you started in photography, you showed your work at the Rencontres de Bamako in 2011. Everything happened very fast from there: tell us about your first ventures in photography.

My work was taken seriously, before I even started doing so! After the Rencontres de Bamako, it all happened pretty quickly, especially from a media point of view. The first time I saw a photo of mine in a magazine, it was in Libération and the same week I was featured in Jeune Afrique and on CNN. I couldn't believe it. I was really suffering from imposter syndrome, and thought that at some point I’d be found out. I would stay up all night watching tutorials on the internet and reading books on photography for dummies. I had to get up to speed! I remember having offers from magazines to do portraits. I put my equipment in the back of my car when I set off for work, and spent my lunch break doing photo shoots. It was hectic!

  

Your first major series “The Studio of Vanities” (2012) paid tribute to African portrait artists, whereas “Diaspora” (2014) was centred around self-portraits. How do you explain this sensitivity in the art of the portrait?

If I knew how to paint, I wouldn’t be a photographer. What I’m interested in is taking people’s stories. When you take a portrait, from one image to another you have different versions of the same person. My favourite moment, is after the session, when I edit them, and choose which interpretation of the person I want to showcase by adding my “two cents’ worth”. “For me, the portrait is a way of getting to know someone and helping them to get to know themselves”. It’s a pretext for telling the stories of the people around me and make my life what it is. The host of people I bring together in a series, is my way of relating my world.

For me “This is Africa” takes the right as an African to be involved in all conversations, all places and all contexts. “Tomorrow, Africa” is a slogan in the past.

Do you consider yourself in line with artists like Seydou Keïta, great portrait artist and self-taught photographer?

I’ve often been compared to Malik Sidibé and Seydou Keïta. I had already heard their name, but I hadn't looked into their work to find out about it. I was more influenced by my grandfather’s photography: he’s Mama Casset, the Senegalese Seydou Keïta. He’s not as well know because much of his work has been burnt or lost. He was a portrait artist who took exquisite photographs with an extreme aesthetic quality, African-style 1960s’ glamour. His style is very similar to that of Seydou Keïta, and you could get them mixed up if you’re not familiar with the physical features of the different ethnic groups in this area. I consider myself to be of this heritage, of all these great portrait artists of the major African cities, from Dakar to Kinshasa.

 

How did you imagine and design the visual identity for the Africa2020 Season?

I first acted on styling and stage-setting. I wanted for the image to say “Africa 2020” without it being in writing. The Africa of 2020, is an Africa that can be defined otherwise, with pastel colours, which does not need to be reduced to wax and cowry shells. To design the poster, we didn't want to go the usual casting route, we didn’t use an agency, the models were found through word of mouth or via Instagram. We wanted them to be “real people”. Once the casting was done, we wrote to all the designers we know. It was very organic, we received lookbooks through WhatsApp, chatted at 3 am on Sunday morning… We shot in a photo studio in an apartment in Paris, it really felt like being in a family, I had the impression of being in my studio in Dakar.

 

What does “This is Africa” mean for you? 

For me “This is Africa” illustrates a desire to claim the present. We can’t live in the past nor in a hypothetical future. For me “This is Africa” takes the right as an African to be involved in all conversations, all places and all contexts. “Tomorrow, Africa” is a slogan in the past.

 

For N’Goné Fall, General Commissioner, this season is “an invitation to look at and understand the world from an African point of view”. What are you looking to convey through your images?  

Create desire. My aim and my expectation regarding this season, is that people want to meet their obligations at home, that they want to find out more, to find out things on the internet, and why not go to stay in Dakar!  

Before, I kept my talk to myself. With the Africa2020 Season, it’s as if someone had given me a megaphone.

The Institut français and the artist

Initiated by Emmanuel Macron, the President of the French Republic, the Africa2020 Season will take place throughout France (mainland and overseas territories) from december 2020 to July 2021. It will be dedicated to the 54 states of the African continent.

Find out more about the Africa2020 Season

 

L'institut français, LAB