Photographer Paul Sika Speaks On The Influence of Cinema, Video Games & Manga Comics In An Exclusive Interview w/ Prêt-À-Poundo
Take one glance at Ivorian photographer Paul Sika's work and you'll be immediately hypnotized by colors and untold stories. We got the chance to speak to the 29 year-old self-taught artist about how he first fell in love with photography and sharpened his eye, while at the MASA Festival in Abidjan last month.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you get to photography?
Photography came as a surprise actually. I was in London about to start studying computer science, which is my big passion also. When I was working at Tottenham Court Road, I saw a trailer for The Matrix Reloaded and thought that I could make good films like it. That's how I turned to art. So, as I was studying computer science, I just started. I bought a camera in order to experiment a bit with taking pictures before moving to film eventually. I stayed in the field because I discovered how huge it was.
Did you go to school for photography later?
I applied for a photo school and was accepted but I didn’t go. There were several reasons why but, mainly, I felt that I'd have better growth if I was outside [of school]. So, I remained outside.
Was it a challenge to start on your own?
Well, yes! But although it was a challenge, because I love and am so passionate about photography, it didn't feel like a burden. It felt like a natural step to overcome every time. I've been in this spirit, in this mindset, in this atmosphere, since I’ve started this.
How were your first photographs? What did they look like?
I remember when I bought my first camera we went to the London Bridge with my friends. My pictures were all blurry. It was at night, the photoshoot, and everything was blurry [laughs]. There was something I hadn’t understood about how fast you take a picture in low lights and things like that. They were all blurry and it was a shock! When I downloaded the photos to my computer, I was like… man… everything is blurry [laughs]. That was my first photoshoot.
Where can we find those pictures?
England. When I move back to the Ivory Coast, I left a lot of stuff there. I’m such a light traveller. I don’t carry much baggage or luggage. Even when I move, I tend to not stay too long where I passed. I carry this in many aspects of my life. When I moved from London, there was some stuff that I left there. I didn’t go back to finish it. Part of it was this lot of CDs and photographs. I don’t even know where they are. Those photos were in there somewhere. I saved them on purpose, though. Someday, I'll see how blurry they were. [laughs] My style has changed so much. It looks nothing close to when I first started. If you see my first photos and my photos now, it’s like seeing two different people.
"Basically, I wanted to make a moving picture through style photography. I wanted to make complex pictures — not complex for the sake of it— but in order to tell stories"
How did you progress from these blurry pictures to what you do know?
After the blurry pictures I wanted to take some monochrome and sharp ones [laughs]. So I did a lot of black and white, I would shoot everything: a window, a part of the street, the tube, I would just shoot anything! At some point, I started to get kind of bored about what I was doing. I thought that there had to be something beyond that. I started to look for another type of photography. Back then,when I saw the trailer for The Matrix, I thought: "I want to do cinema." Cinema pushed me into photography as an experiment of faith. My passion for cinema remains in mangas and video games, so I invested those outlets back into my photography.
This is where it all comes from. I’ve been consuming animé, movies, and avideo games since I was a kid but I never thought I'd do art. I remember when I was in high school, someone invited me to join the photography club and I answered, "Really? What do you guys do there?" The person described it passionately, "you know,we develop film photography in dark rooms." Because I was comparing that description with the fun I had with video games and computers, I was like, "man, you can’t compare photos that come out of a dark room [to the] cool stuff that comes out from my computer. I’m not gonna do photography on the side." I was invited twice and declined both times, so I surprised myself when I actually became a photographer.
How did you find your own style?
It’s the cinema part. It’s the video game part. The storytelling part of moving pictures that lends itself back to photography. Basically, I wanted to make a moving picture through style photography. I wanted to make complex pictures — not complex for the sake of it— but in order to tell stories, have layers, and be captivating. Actually, I kind of learned some filmmaking and just applied it back to photography. It being an aesthetic medium, they were some amendments to make so the style translated to photography.
It's roughly the same process: I imagine the stories, I place them on a some type of developing sequence, but I don’t do storyboards because I don’t know how to do them [laughs]. Afterwards, I share them with the people I wanna shoot with – the 'actors.' In the beginning it was just normal people but at a point it became important to have actors because what I was asking was so difficult. People couldn’t deal with that pressure. So, I share it with my cast and we rehearse, if necessary. Then come the principles of photography: we shoot and I do the post production.
"I have to feel the beauty without grasping all of it at the same time. That’s very important for me"
Generally, what kind of actors are you looking for?
The cast depends on where my feelings are at. I don’t organize a casting. I don’t gather people to cast them. Maybe, someday, I’ll do it. But, so far, I'll just meet people and, if I think that a person is interesting to shoot, I'll make a mental note. For example, if someday I have to do something, I should bring this person to the table.
What made you choose such a colorful palette?
It’s something I followed without realizing why at the beginning. It’s just something I wanted to see. I think the colors form patterns and textures in a certain way. Personally, I love to look at something so deeply that my mind doesn’t rest easy. This is how I know something is beautiful, if I don't master it from the first take. Whenever I do something, I have this personal need to create something that my mind hasn’t mastered on the first take. It has to be moving, somehow, and I have to feel the beauty without grasping all of it at the same time. That’s very important for me. So, the colors have this role and, by extension, we live in a busy world where we see many pictures, videos, people speaking. There are lots of voices out thereand somehow [the colors] make you stop. It’s the pattern, intricacy and how the colors are laid out. It makes the picture shout and say: listen to me for one second! And that one second is what you need in order to look at it, grab the picture for just one second, it’s enough. Once you have it, you have the rest.
"My art is not just photography or storytelling, it's at the crossroads of both paths."
What are the stories you’re telling?
At first, I told stories that I was kind of imagining, that were set in our world. Then, I thought of adapting some stories. For example, there's a section of the bible from The New Testament called The Servant of the Mount that I interpreted in contemporary Abidjan. I interpreted other stories twice but eventually started wondering about my own stories. Throughout my first collection you can feel this. You can feel the stories are coming out. My art is not just photography or storytelling, it's at the crossroads of both paths. This is where I actually am now. Yes, I'm telling stories and I hope to compile these in a complete, fully fleshed-out saga. I love Star Wars, for example.
You talk about crossroads. You used to reside in England and you’re from Ivory Coast. You have a kid playing video games and you have a women washing clothes. We can feel the two roads.
There are several roads that come to one. I love to say that an artist doesn’t create. An artist receives and transmits. I was born here, I fed, I captured the things that are developed here. I also watched a lot of mangas, a little bit of Japan. I went to England indeed and I stayed there for four years. Four years immersed in a new country, which itself is a mix of several countries. I was spending so much time watching movies. I could watch movies all day in my bedroom in the dark [Laughs]. I had my little notepad and while the movie was going on, I was taking notes. This is how I went to art school.
I pay attention to my intuitions. My intuition was: go back home. And I understood why.
Have you visited Japan?
No, but I would love to. I’m working on it. I hope to go to Japan.
Why did you move back to Ivory Coast?
It was a really strong feeling. I can’t think of a reason but I am also a really intuitive person. I pay attention to my intuitions. My intuition was: go back home. And I understood why.
Because there’s many things I wouldn't have done if I wasn’t here. These photos wouldn't have been made if I wasn’t here. I started this style in Ivory Coast. The photomasking style has one photo shoot as it's genesis: that’s Asana Diallo. In that picture, the tall ladies, I shot them in Ivory Coast while I was on holiday. I was a computer science student on summer break. All of it was done here.
How did you get to that aesthetic? How did you learn it?
I was reading all those video games reviews. They were really tough. The graphics were important, describing all the technical words for it. I was reading so many Consoles + editions that I was becoming a reviewer myself. You know, I would read everything, from cover to cover, even the fine letters. This is where my money used to go. It doesn’t look like it but, indirectly, I went to school too. I was looking carefully at these video game graphics and it taught me something. I didn’t realize where this was going. I didn’t know that I was learning something.
When you look at the colors in my pictures, think of video games and you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Look at animé and mangas, all the work that they have to do.
What’s the thing that inspires you? What was your favorite as a kid?
I'd say video games. I would play constantly. I'd spend all day playing video games. I used to love fighting games like Street Fighter. Another game that I will never forget was Zelda — The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a masterpiece. You know you play those games and you know what you love. If you're a tough reviewer, on Consoles + for example, it kind of increase your standard of beauty and aesthetics. When you look at the colors in my pictures, think of video games and you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Look at anime and mangas, all the work that they have to do. They have to make the characters really expressive. I was in school all the time. I was learning and I had no idea.
Is there a place for photographers and artists in Abidjan?
I do live from photography. Around 40 to 50 percent of the collectors of my work are from Ivory Coast. The rest are in Europe and America. It’s an impressive game and I have a cool gallery.
This is our first time in Abidjan and we have the impression that there’s a lot of things happening. Is it like this all year long?
Well, the scene is building up: the galleries and foundations are really important in Abidjan. There’s few galleries that are really working a lot and some of them are having openings every week or every two-to-three weeks. You have a lot of young people doing their stuff. People are not only working on the art stuff but also the web. The things that are happening are really interesting. For what the country is, I would say that photography is booming.
What are you working on right now?
The codename of the project is Souvenirs. It has to deal with memory as a collective. It’s going to be massive and collaborative. This is all I can say for the moment. We are working on it heavily. It'll be great because people from here will be participating. It will be available in May.
I heard that you were the grandson of Andy Warhol.
[Laughs] I almost started believing it. I said it once as a joke and it ended up in a piece. But the truth is that I love Andy Warhol’s work but the person who really inspired me is David LaChapelle, who was at some point under Warhol. So, this is where the joke comes from. Thank you Okayafrica for clearing that up! [Laughs]
You can currently see Paul Sika's work at Hôtel Ivoire in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. We'll keep you posted on the upcoming project. Scroll through our gallery to viewthe photographs and if you want to talk about it, tweet @okayafrica with #paulsika.