When Photography Becomes Social Transformation: An interview with Mohamed Keita
by Alessandra Rosabianca
Mohamed Keita is a 26-year-old Ivorian photographer. In 2010 he arrived as a political refugee in Rome where he still lives today. His encounter with photography represents a turning point, soon becoming a profession. Mohamed shares his passion for photography with others using art as an urban research tool and as a means of social transformation. He has since started photography workshops in Mali and Kenya thanks to his meeting with the Pianoterra Foundation. His photographs have received various awards and have been exhibited in numerous exhibitions, both in Italy and abroad. We had the pleasure of interviewing him.
Mohamed, how did your encounter with photography come about?
I had arrived in Rome as an asylum seeker and, at the time having nowhere to live, I was sleeping on the street. During the day I used to go to Civico Zero, an inclusion and welcome center. Among the various services they offered, there was a photography workshop available. Once a week a volunteer from Salerno taught us how to use a photocamera. I was immediately hooked! My interest was so evident that other volunteers from the center gave me a camera as a gift. I started taking my first photos, which were then developed and exhibited at Civico Zero. Professors from a private photography school happened to pass by the center and, after seeing my photos, they offered me a scholarship to attend their courses. This is how I was able to start studying photography, a study that I then decided to deepen by enrolling at the Higher Education State Institute Cine-TV Roberto Rossellini.
Why did photography represent a turning point for you?
It represented a turning point because before there were things that I could not convey. The camera gave me the possibility. I found a new, universal language to communicate what I had inside.
In what way is photography a means of social transformation for you?
For me, photography is a key, an instrument of knowledge, sharing and tolerance.
You spoke of photography as a starting point towards primary education and cultural development, and you gave life to Kené as an opportunity for training and growth. In your opinion, what is the most important thing that kids attending your workshops should learn?
The power of images. It is important that they understand what an image can do, and let themselves be surprised. It is an incredible source of knowledge and discovery. The camera gives you the opportunity to first know yourself. Knowing yourself then helps you to get to know others. If you don't know who you are, it's hard to really know others.
What do you teach in your workshops?
I teach photography and how to use the camera. But I don't just teach technique. In my workshops I share my life experience and make my experience available for the students. This is what allows me to be in touch and relate with the kids who attend my workshops. I have a duty to do what little I can. I feel I have to share the gift that has been given to me and the opportunities that have been granted to me. Not only do I teach and train people, but I ask them to do the same, so that they can circulate knowledge. It is important not only to receive, but also to share!
What have you discovered about yourself thanks to photography?
To be curious. It makes you want to learn more about others. Watching is not enough, you also want to know. It allowed me to share my experience with different people while not forgetting where I started from. Embracing other stories helps you to not forget.
How has Africa and Italy changed for you after looking at them through the camera?
They are two very different cultures. There is a difference between looking at them with interest or without interest. The camera gives you the opportunity to deepen your gaze, without passing over it. In the beginning, I was divided between two cultures that were so distant. I was precariously balanced between the two. Photography has given me the opportunity to bring the two worlds closer together leaving a space of respect. I found a balance that allows me to fully experience being a part of both cultures.
If the camera were a megaphone, what would you like to let the world know?
Go beyond diversity and see what unites us!
Mohamed Keita’s portfolio www.mohamedkeita.it
Pianoterra Foundation www.fondazionepianoterra.net
Civico Zero www.civicozero.eu