“Composition, light, shadow, texture, and tonal qualities all become more obvious and important when color is absent in any photographic work” – Mário Macilau
Mário Macilau is a social documentary photographer and activist from Mozambique, whose powerful, monochrome images interrogate some of the most critical issues of our time.
Ottowa, Canada, October 2008, Macilau opens his first solo exhibition, (at the National Arts Centre). Yet less than a decade earlier, he, like many of his young compatriots, was scratching a living on the streets of the Mozambican capital, Maputo.
Photography has no shortage of amazing stories, but Macilau’s is among the most remarkable. His journey to become one of the most exciting photographers of today, could well be the plot of a movie.
Macilau was born in Maputo in 1984. When he was still young, his father left for South Africa in search of work, and despite his age, being the eldest son, he had to help support the family. He began by selling his mother’s biscuits in the local market and then graduated to doing odd jobs like washing cars and helping to carry bags. The days were long, and he would often sleep overnight in the market with his friends instead of heading home.
His mother, despite her best efforts, couldn’t afford the fees to send him to school, but her tenacious young son spent his free time reading books and volunteering with NGOs, where he learned English.
He was 14 when he first picked up a camera. It was lent to him by a close friend and he used it to capture his surroundings; his local community, and what he describes as, the ‘post-conflict reconstruction driven by the local population’, following the long civil war that ended in 1992.
“When I started taking photos, it was all magical as I was not aware of what I was doing; I didn’t have any information about photography particularly and even about art in general. In my family no one had experience with art but, I started to look at everything around me, the environment where I was born and raised.”
He shot exclusively in black and white, developing his images in a homemade darkroom in his family home, a process with which he became enamored, poetically describing the process: “the light falling upon photographic emulsions containing silver halides to reveal what was recorded as a latent image, which, when subjected to photographic processing, becomes visible and insensitive to light.”
However, at the time he had no designs for photographing professionally. With little to no disposable income, he struggled to afford the chemicals needed to develop his images, and he didn’t possess a camera of his own. That was, until, aged 23, when he was approached by a friend who had been gifted a camera by a Portuguese family for whom he worked.
Though Macilau didn’t have the money to buy the camera, he did have a mobile phone that his mum had given him (as he was the family breadwinner), and so he exchanged it for the camera and began his photographic journey in earnest.
He began posting his images online using a computer in the local library, and it wasn’t long before his work was garnering attention from industry figures across the world, leading to his first solo exhibition (in Canada) and a second at Lisbon’s Museu Coleção Berardo in 2011. It was his 2012 series, Growing in Darkness, however, that truly provided the launchpad for his photographic career.
This critically-acclaimed body of work documents the street children of his home city, Maputo. Captured over the course of four years, the striking imagery is imbued with artistry, yet, simultaneously forthright, and raw. He captures the quiet dignity, strength, and resilience of his subjects, whilst conveying the reality of their difficult existence.
It is a powerful body of work, one that embodies Macilau’s ethos and unique visual style. It emphatically verifies his assertion that ‘black and white has a powerful way of allowing the viewer to experience the image and the composition’. The striking monochrome tones, driven by his mastery of light, emphasize the profound complexities of the subject.
As is his modus operandi, Macilau got to know the children before photographing them. He frequented their make-shift ‘camp’, a place with little light, and no water, against the advice of many of his compatriots who considered it ‘too dangerous’. People often put up metaphorical barriers when approached by a photographer, but, spending time with them, and finding shared commonalities, he was able to put them at ease, and thus capture them with complete veracity, a trait often missing from the work of outsider photojournalists.
“Initially, I visited these youth without my camera. These simple encounters allowed this group of children to trust me, and it also allowed me to trust them. Photography can be like a border; not a physical one, but rather a mental and emotional one. It is from this position of a friend that I managed to capture their existence: the adversity of their environments, the endurance of their young but possibly condemned bodies, and their resilience that, daily, defies the inhumanity of their hardships.”
Growing in Darkness, set the foundation for his subsequent work: long-term projects, focusing on the realities of human labor, environmental exploitation, and the legacies of colonialism on communities in the global south. It is a format that allows him to develop a deep understanding of the topic, and to understand the often complex stories of his subjects. He has documented, among others, his compatriots who make a living collecting, recycling, selling, or using electronic waste (Profit Corner, 2015) and, the animism that once underpinned the culture in his homeland but is rapidly fading due to hegemonic globalism (Fe/Faith, 2015-2019).
He has exhibited extensively across the world, both in a solo capacity and as part of group shows, and received numerous awards and commendations. He continues to live and work in Maputo, driven by the same profound humanism that engendered his early forays into photography, and stands, as one of the most exciting, visual storytellers of our day.
All images © Mário Macilau