Updated: Aug 1, 2022
This week on TheSpotlight, we have got Robert Nzaou Kissolo, the Congolese photographer based in the Republic of Congo's Pointe Noire. Working on a variety of interesting projects, he documents aspects of daily life that strike him in powerful ways. His work has been shown in France, the United States, Germany, South Africa, Congo, Ghana, and Italy.
“My work tells stories of Congolese people, who we are, how we define ourselves, and what we are or can be in the future.”
Robert Nzaou Kissolo describes himself as a 46 years old, family man, autodidact photographer, dreamer, nature, and Art lover based in Pointe Noire in the Republic of Congo.
Robert Nzaou also won the 3rd prize for the Objetivo Africa— Spain - 2017 with exhibitions almost all over the world. With exciting works coming from his desks soon, here’s what he tells us about being a Street Photographer in Congo.
What do you love the most about being a photographer?
First and foremost being a photographer has given me a voice; it has allowed me to be part of history by telling stories and representing my people (Congolese, African and Black people in general) through my lens.
Coming from a music background (Rapper and producer), everything I did and accomplished depended on other people's input, I had my share of relying all the time on other members of the crew/band to get any work done and it was very frustrating for me.
Photography, on the other hand, is a one-man band I believe, All I need is my camera and light to get going. I feel like I express myself freely and easily, I am very glad photography found me.
Can you share some highlights of your career as a photographer?
My first exhibition as a photographer will always be the highlight of my career, it took place in 2015 in Pointe Noire at a local gallery called Basango, I was just starting to take photography seriously, I had done work in 2014 in Pointe Noire that caught the attention of the gallery owner which came as a big surprise as I didn't even own a camera, the work was done on a borrowed camera.
A friend of mine from South Africa loaned me his camera as I was coming to Congo. Only after that first exhibition could I afford my camera. For a long time, I was a photographer with no camera. Another highlight is publishing my first photography book, holding the book in my hands for the first time was a great feeling!
In Congo Brazzaville art photography is almost non-existent, still, far from being recognized, painting and music are the most consumed arts today. I am part of the first generation that is pushing the genre forward, Baudoin Mouanda being the other photographer. Being at the forefront of this movement, and being recognized by Congolese means the world to me.
What role do you think photography plays in telling African stories as it relates to your work?
As we all know for centuries African stories have been told by non-Africans (Europeans for the most part) and you know what that did to our self-esteem, we haven't been represented the right way I believe, we were often stripped of our pride and dignity. From starving kids, civil wars, and political and economical instabilities as it was all about what was wrong with us as people, a one-dimensional approach, not one of us felt proud to be
African we were feeling sorry for ourselves.
One must not underestimate the power of images, it can uplift and put down an entire community based on the way they are portrayed, good or bad. Now that cameras are more affordable and available to everybody, Africans must take advantage of this tool to claim and reclaim the narrative and write their history that has been misrepresented for so many years.
As African photographers we have a duty to tell the world who we are, how beautiful and interesting we are, not the other way around. I also think that African stories should mostly be told by Africans to minimize the risk of being misrepresented which we have suffered for so long, of course, I can't police or control who comes to work in Africa, it's only a wish.
What is the rationale behind your pictures? What story do you hope to tell through your work?
My work tells stories of Congolese people, who we are, how we define ourselves, and what we are or can be in the future. One of the main reasons I got into photography was street photography, when I discovered the works of Masters such as Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Robert Frank, and Gordon Parks I realized that all they were doing is writing history, showing us the world around them, the beauty, the good and the bad.
Cartier Bresson and Robert Doineaux told the story of the streets of France in the 50s and Robert Frank did the same for the USA. I was in South Africa then and I remember searching online for stories on the streets of Congo Brazzaville and I couldn't find anything. I couldn't wait to go back home to Congo and start photographing the streets the same way other photographers did poetically for other places in the world.
In my work, I tend to lean on stories that I find interesting and funny, and complex within Congolese society not always to solve issues but rather to trigger curiosity, dialogue, conversation, and debate.
Where does the inspiration for the photographs you create come from?
My family and friends are my biggest inspiration, I feel like one doesn't need to go far to find a story, all you have to do is look around you, listen, pay attention and observe and be patient. The stories will eventually find you.
Subjects and themes I tackle in my work are what I see around me, my family, and my friends.
I am also influenced in my work by paintings and street art which I am a big fan of, with painters like Kerry James Marshall at the top of the list.
What challenges do you encounter being a Congolese photographer?
Being a photographer in Congo can be very challenging at times. Firstly no printing house does fine art printing in Congo, as a result, my work gets printed in France and then shipped back to me which makes it an expensive exercise. Art Galleries are almost non-existent, the very few ones that you find, photography isn't on the top of their list.
Which I understand because there isn't a big market yet for it, Congolese don't see photography as Art yet even though there has been an improvement with that in recent years. I have recently added a few Congolese to the list of collectors who collect my work. Most of my clients are ex-pats living in Congo and Europeans and Americans who get in touch with me via my website.
Looking at your work “Louzolo” a lot of people are amazed by the series. What makes it special and does photoshop play a role in your final images?
All we need is love so they say; it's true for this series. The world is going through a lot at the moment, especially with the crisis in Ukraine I think we all will be very happy if more people were hugging, kissing, and laughing. Louzolo series is about Love and since we all come from love it's only right that we are drawn into it.
The technique I used for this series is called digital collage; it consists basically of cutting different images and gluing them to create one image. I used editing software to achieve this result, the same way I would have done it with a pair of scissors and glue. For this project I wanted to create images like a painter will do, not just take a straight photo as I did in some of my previous projects.
Your work mainly centers on street photography, what potential photography risks would you warn emerging street photographers about if you had the chance?
Street photography is my first love, it's the reason why I became a photographer. I believe it's the purest form of photography, being able to record the times and take moments as they're happening on the streets when no one is posing it's priceless. Having said all that it's not the easiest genre either, going on the streets and photographing strangers who don't always want to be photographed, having no control over light, having to face the police telling you not to...you need a set of skills which you acquire with time, human relations and understanding your camera amongst other skills.
I think there is more to be excited about than to get worried about, just like any other job you have to take risks to become the best. The main advice I can give them is to go on the streets every day of the week and shoot, not only are you going to be good at it but you're also going to be lucky.
What’s the best part about being a Congolese? Anything you would love to change in your community?
The best part about being Congolese is we don't take life too seriously, we laugh a lot, and dance a lot. We are also blessed with good food, not much is ultra-processed here yet. We can be too relaxed sometimes; we also don't care too much about punctuality, which can be a challenge when we work with Europeans! I wouldn't change anything, we're good!
Tell us about your photobook “Pointe noir en couleur”, why did you decide to publish that, and why?
Street photography is not popular in Congo; most people, even local photographers don't always understand its place so I am the first street photographer our country has known. Pointe Noire en couleur is the first street photography book in Congo, it's more than 7 years of walking the streets of Pointe Noire, 158 images.
Through the years I collected about 1000 images, they're all sitting on my hard drives. I have posted some on social media and media blogs but I always felt that only a few of them got the chance to be seen and appreciated. Galleries do not have enough space to exhibit that many images, I realized that if I didn't put those images in a book, no one would ever see them, that's when I started putting the book together. The book is self-edited and published which allowed me to have full control of the content.
Would you be going into other forms of photography soon?
I have a few projects in mind I need to complete and then I would love to explore moving pictures, writing scripts, and directing short films.
Tell us about your achievements so far and where you see yourself in the next 5 years.
Being able to tell Congolese stories and take them to the world has been my most rewarding achievement. So far my work has been exhibited in Europe, the USA, and Africa.
I see myself as a gallery owner, movie director, and farm owner.