Photographer Mário Macilau uses the “language” of his profession to question society

Written by Jackie Prager, CNN

Surrounded by his images in his studio in Maputo, Mozambique, photographer Mário Macilau adjusts the contrast of a recent photo he took. The simple but striking image shows a boy covered in powder, taking part in a traditional religious ceremony. Macilau strives for a delicate balance between black and white in photography while highlighting people living in the shadows of society.

The visual artist travels through his home country, capturing images of social and environmental issues. For Macilau, photography is “a very important tool for bringing a positive influence to the world”, he said, adding that it is “about the way people think, the way people see, the way people judge, the way people stereotype certain cultures”. ”

Macilau, 38, uses his art to question all aspects of society. The focus of his long-term projects ranges from depicting the impact of colonialism on Mozambique’s architecture to preserving the country’s ancient religious ceremonies and the raw realities of marginalized groups.

“We have to archive the social values ​​that we have,” he said. “For the next generation, they need to know where they come from in order to know where they are going.”

Macilau’s art has been shown around the world, including in group and solo exhibitions in Lisbon, London and New York. As a child, he spent several years living on the streets in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, where he worked to support his family financially before becoming an award-winning photographer.

Behind the lens with Mozambican photographer Mário Macilau

He says he discovered his passion for photography at the age of 14: “For me, photography was a toy. That’s what made me happy. It wasn’t until Macilau decided to trade in his mother’s cell phone for a camera that he began to pursue this art form as a profession.

“Growing in Darkness”

The photographer’s experience of life on the fringes of society led him to create one of his most haunting series, “Growing in Darkness”. Over the course of several years, Macilau has documented the conditions of street children living in Maputo – a harsh reality faced by many Mozambican children. According to a 2020 UNICEF report, 74% of children in this southern African country lack adequate access to basic infrastructure, including sanitation and electricity.

“My idea was to show them (from) different perspectives…how they live, where they live, where they sleep,” Macilau said.

Mário Macilau (right) speaks with a man he photographed riding his motorbike through Mozambique. Credit: CNN

Before filming the series, he spent time getting to know the children. He says he has earned their trust to become “invisible” and capture their authentic everyday life.

“You have to build trust with people,” he added. “You have to tell them why: why you are photographing them; why this project is important for you, for your creativity; and what are you going to do with this project?”

The series was shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale. All photos were printed in black and white composition – a style Macilau continues to use. This motif is prominent in another of his long series, “Profit Corner”, which humanizes people working and living in a local dump.

An image from Macilau’s “Profit Corner” series. Credit: Mario Macilau

“I want people to look at my work and the first thing they have to find (in) is beauty,” he said, explaining how he thinks using a stark contrast of black and white in his photographs helps people “understand more easily and…they don’t forget the photo.”

Inspired by his Mozambican heritage and personal experiences, Macilau says he feels responsible for using his photography to expose our society’s challenges and help make the world a better place.

“I try to show people around me that there is room for everyone,” he said.

Watch the full episode of African Voices with Macilau here.

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