12. Samuel Fosso (Cameroon, b. 1962), Self Portrait, 1976, gelatin silver print, 2004.6
Born in Cameroon in 1962, Samuel Fosso lived in Nigeria with his family until 1972 when war forced him to move to Bangui, in the Central African Republic. At age twelve he began to work as a photographers' assistant and by thirteen had opened his own portrait studio. It was at this time that Fosso began to experiment with self-portraiture as method of finishing out unused portions of film at the end of the working day. The early photographs were meant to be a photographic document to send to his mother and family in Nigeria, but it was not long after that Fosso had begun to explore self-portraiture as an end in itself. Creating crude backdrops and donning elaborate costumes, Fosso explores the nature of identity within the context of Euro-centrism, often mimicking postcards by missionaries sent back to their home countries in boast of their "progress".
Fosso's self-portraits move beyond the accepted notions of the genre and begin to delve deeply into the realm of identity (real or imagined) and culture. His work explores the way culture (in this case both indigenous and European) shape the way identity is formed. Fosso seems to be attempting to 'extend' his identity through the elaborate fictions based on personal and cultural fantasy. The images conflate the fictions of masquerade and photography's claim to present the truth.
In ways similar to Diane Arbus, Fosso is able to present us with a glimpse into our own humanity. By photographing himself over and over, and in different costume and context, he reveals the ways in which we construct our own identities. As Arbus points out, "We've all got an identity. You can't avoid it. It's what's left when you take everything else away." In that sense, Fosso is shifting and confusing his own identity. Through simple sets and elaborate costumes he explores different possibilities for his own identity and causes us to look at the ways in which our own identities are formed through those things that we can control and those things we cannot.
Fosso lives and works in Bangui, Central African Republic and since 1994 has had many opportunities to present his work to a larger audience throughout Europe and America.