Frenchman Michel Puchercos captures the colours and emotions of people he photographed in Nigeria and Kenya and draws invaluable life’s lessons from their sanguine acceptance of daily existential challenges. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
“It is all in the eyes!”
For Michel Puchercos, it takes years of chasing after emotions to arrive at this conclusion. These emotions, strangely enough, seem rarely expressed as despondency but almost always as joyful.
Take the photograph before the viewer, for instance. Surprise, excitement and childlike warmth gleam through the eyes of the smiling boy. His attempt to duck from the camera’s field of view seems half-hearted. Meanwhile, a natter with his companion, who seems oblivious of the camera, is momentarily put on hold.
More photographs emerge, as Puchercos flips through the touch screen of his smartphone. He enlarges one and zooms into the eyes of another boy, who is Kenyan. Through the glint in the pupils, the viewer gets a hint of what has gripped the boy’s attention.
“If you enlarge it, you’ll see what he’s looking at,” the 61-year-old Frenchman says. “Is this photo exotic? No!”
“Exotic”, one word which dogs every step of the typical European photographer of African scenes, is definitely not Puchercos’ main interest. Indeed, he animatedly denies being fixated on the word. Those spontaneous moments captured in each of the photographs transcend the subjects’ nationalities. They are the moments he shares with his audience at the exhibition, Carnet de Route, which roughly translates as Traveller’s Notebook, but actually means Travelogue, and holds at Omenka Gallery in the upscale Ikoyi neighbourhood of Lagos.
For this early Friday afternoon interview, the decorous ambience of the Ikoyi-based The Wheatbaker hotel’s ground floor bar seems just right.
Back to the photographs. Not even one of them is Photoshopped. Nor was any of the subjects ever asked to pose for the camera. These are just simple shots depicting emotions and beauty, he explains. They are about things and people the locals are so used to that they don’t see any more. A little boy, in another photograph, stands beside a weather-beaten canoe in a beach. He looks so thoughtful, yet so young. “What I like is the way he is standing,” Puchercos muses. “He looks so small beside the canoe. What can he be thinking about? What is he dreaming about? Maybe, one second later, he’ll be looking at a crab or at something else…”
Really, it is just that one moment that interests the photographer. That one moment embedded among a series of others. That moment when the subject’s real humanity peers out from out of his smothering inhospitable conditions.
This is what makes the photograph of a Kenyan boy sporting nothing more than a loin cloth fascinating. The boy, who is from the semi-nomadic pastoralist Samburu sub-tribe, is carrying a baby camel on his back and running with it to safety. A smile lights up his face as the camera captures the moment for posterity. This is a story of an unexpected meeting, which lasted just a few seconds.
“I’m fascinated by the smile of African people,” Puchercos confesses. “They smile even when life is tough for them. This is a lesson of life.”
Indeed, the 1981 Ecole Nationale du Génie Rural, des Eaux et des Forêts (France) graduate draws his life’s lessons from the myriads of circumstances he captures through his photographs. Is it the fisherman holding a net, on whose face glows contentment? Or, is it the hearty laughter of the Makoko waterfront slum-dwelling woman? They all have one thing in common: they never allowed their circumstances define them.
Puchercos is also as fascinated by the well-sculpted body of the struggling fisherman, which puts Michaelangelo’s famous sculpture “David” to shame, as he is with the beautifully-braided hair of the pretty and proud female canoe-paddler. All attributes of humanity, he discovers, can be found at all levels of existence. So what if the well-dressed woman lives in Makoko? Or, so what if life seems tough?
“Of course, people can call these photograph exotic,” he adds. “But the colours add to the magic of the pictures.”
Colours… They, indeed, imbue most of his photographs with warmth and unique local flavours. Their vibrancy belie the gloomy circumstances in which some his subjects find themselves.
There is also the beauty in the colours of those durbar scenes he photographed while visiting the northern Nigerian commercial city, Kano. In one photograph, the viewer sees the back view of a father and son sporting similarly-coloured regal caftans and matching embroidered fez-like caps. In another, an all-white-clad turbaned horseman contrasts sharply with his red-clad courtiers. Then, there is the crowd of spectators all dressed in blue…
Flashback to his first encounter with the Kenyan Samburi people. It was obviously the colours of these pastoralist people that inspired an exhibition he held on October 2015 in the South Korean capital Seoul, which he titled Couleurs et Lumières d’ Afrique (Colours and Lights of Africa).
For Puchercos, it all began when he received his first camera from his father. He was about 9 years old, he recalls. The camera, which was very basic with a 6cm x 9cm film, was a company gift for employees’ children. “Sadly I don’t know where my first artwork is, having moved all my life from Iran to Algeria, from the south to east of France, from France to East Africa and to Asia, eventually ending up in Nigeria.”
But when he turned 19, he bought himself a Minolta with his first savings. Equipped with the camera, he stuck to taking portraits and snapshots of sports events. He also recalled the sleepless nights he spent developing black and white photographs. Then, there was the time when, as a university student, he was in charge of the photography association. That was a period that saw him participating in photography competitions and wining one. With the proceeds, he had bought more Minoltas (one for black and white, one for colour and 24-70 zoom and another for colour and 70-200 zoom).
Then, the era of digital photography crept in and dampened his enthusiasm. Besides the fact that the quality of films and their development nose-dived, the costs also went up. These circumstances forced him to abandon photography for 10 years.
A Lumix he got as a gift while he was in Kenya reignited his interest. “For a while, I also used a Hasselblad Xpan, as it was – at that time – the only way to take panoramas. Perfect for so many occasions.”
Then, the exhibition Lights and Colours of Africa reenergised him, albeit slowly. Indeed, it took his eventual relocation to South Korea for his passion for photography to be restored to what it used to be. “I am so happy to see full frame finally available: back to the 24×36!” he enthuses.
Photography for Puchercos, who serves as chief executive of officer and group managing director of Lafarge Africa PLC, is one way to strike what he calls the work-life balance. “It also helps me as a businessman and helps me develop my EQ (emotional quotient).”
Since his resumption as Lafarge’s CEO/GMD in Nigeria in 2016, Puchercos have come to respect Nigerians as a remarkable people. He likens the energy pulsating through Lagos to atomic energy and observes that virtually everyone in the city is a businessman. “Overall, every Nigerian wants to be a successful businessman,” he says. “This is despite the fact that life is hard, what with Boko Haram, [militancy in the] Niger Delta and infrastructural challenges…”
Curiously, most of his photographs are focused on people rather than on landscapes. For this reason, he wishes to honour the people in his photographs through donating the proceeds from the sales to the charity organisation Casa Alba.
The exhibition Carnet de Route, which opened on Friday, May 18 at Omenka Gallery in Ikoyi, Lagos, ends today (Sunday, May 20).