The many faces of Samuel Fosso

For nearly five decades, the photographer has experimented with fashion and performance to create resonant self-portraits. Here, he talks about opening a studio aged 13, adopting personas and his fashion industry crossovers with discount chains and luxury brands

By the end of Samuel Fosso’s new exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, which closes with a large room essentially wallpapered with close-up self-portraits, I’ve encountered his face more than 300 times. Or have I? Are any of them the real him?

There are many entry points to the French-Cameroonian photographer’s work, who has spent the best part of 50 years making images. He photographed other people to begin with, in keeping with the lineage of studio photography by portraitists like Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. But for the most part, Fosso has starred in his own images, many of which see him adopt other personas. Viewers might take interest in the formal elements of his photographs; find intrigue in the way his work ruminates on gender, politics and history; or simply respond to the spectacle of a person absorbing a character, as they would with an actor in TV or cinema.

It gives his work a sense of accessibility, as does his non-hierarchical approach to the brands and institutions he has worked with. In the late 1990s he created his Fosso Fashion series (revived more recently in a collaboration with fashion label Wales Bonner) for the prestigious title Vogue Hommes. Having broken his leg just before the photoshoot, leaving him unable to travel to the studio as planned, he requested to make the work in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. His former agent and her son shepherded the clothing to him, he did his own makeup, and of course, took the photographs himself.

Top: Self-portrait from his 70s Lifestyle series, 1975-78. Above: La Femme américaine libérée des années 70, 1997, self-portrait from the series Tati. All images © Samuel Fosso courtesy Jean-Marc Patras / Paris