PHOTOGRAPHER: MALIKE SIDIBE
WORDS BY IRVIN RIVERA
Although his name spells almost exactly the same as the Malian Photographer Malick Sidibé, 21 year-old Malike Sidibe offers surrealistic dreamlike takes on image-making.
This young photographer’s impressive list of clients includes Nikon, The Met Museum, NY Times Magazine, Businessweek, Instagram Adobe and more.
In this interview, Malike opens up about his process, making personal projects, his style, as well as promoting himself as a photographer.
What’s your story? Who is Malik in the eyes of his family and friends?
My name is Malike Sidibe, I was born in Ivory Coast in West Africa and grew up in Guinea. My family and I moved to the U.S. in 2010 when I was 13 years old.
My friends would say I'm passionate about whatever I set my heart to. I love my friends, and I am always motivating and pushing them to bring out the best of themselves. I think they see me as someone they can always rely on. I feel my parents see me as that one crazy kid that lives in his own world. I was born in a Muslim family, so some of the things I do fly in the face of older traditions.
But my family loves and accepts me regardless, of course.
When did photography start for you? Does it also run in the family?
In 2009 I was still living in Africa. My father returned for the first time in 12 years, and was carrying a small “touristy” point-and-shoot camera with him. He showed me the pictures he had taken on a trip to China, and I remember thinking (and still do) that it was the coolest thing ever.
When he was leaving I hid the camera so he wouldn’t take it with him! The first time I took the camera outside by myself, I noticed that the way I was looking at things had changed. I began observing my environment in a whole new way, taking interest and noticing these details in the world around me.
I've heard the phrase 'The Art of Looking" before, and that's kind of what it feels like. I wish I had kept those photos, but at the time I did not realize that I was discovering my passion.
Can you recall the first time that you felt that Photography is something that you want to pursue?
When I moved to the States in 2010, I was really into fashion design. In high school I signed up for weekend classes at Fashion Institute of Technology, and learned how to sew. Initially my plan was to design menswear. After couple of semesters I realized that I was not really into making clothes as much as I liked to style them. That is when I decided to save up to buy a DSLR camera, and start taking shots.
Me and my friends began generating ideas for shoots, and would just go out and take photos. Very quickly I found myself being really obsessed with it. I started going out on my own when I was bored, scouting interesting locations to shoot my friends in. It quickly progressed from a hobby to getting paid work, as I found myself dedicating a lot of time and effort to try and get good at it. It still feels like a hobby to me, I don’t think I would ever look at photography as work.
Can you walk us briefly through your process? How do you come up with your personal projects? Does it take you time to conceive them?
Different shoots have different requirements, and are either set based on exactly what the client wants, or in some cases have openness where I can get creative and really explore. You can make decisions about lighting, or styling, have ideas about composition, and setting. But I wouldn't say the process is always the same, the ideas just kind of arrive as a creative flow.
The only thing on my mind is creating beautiful images, and the details all tend to fall into place as long as I'm prepared. In portrait shoots, for example, I like to spend some time getting to know the subject beforehand if possible. It always makes things more relaxed and authentic. Don't forget that sometimes creating a winning image happens after the fact with strong editing skills and choices. Being familiar with the tools & techniques to do so is crucial.
Where do you usually draw your inspirations from?
I get my inspiration from my everyday surroundings and experiences. I am very interested in what is around me. All my life, my family and I have been migrating from city to city. We never stayed in one place for more than 5 years when I was younger. Every place I've lived has inspired my work, sometimes in ways that I can’t explain. The stories I get from the people I meet & their personalities move me to create.
Who are your photography idols?
Jean-Paul Goude, Nick Knight Andy Warhol, and Irvin Penn
Do you think you would be a photographer for life?
I have a passion in a lot of things in terms of art, but no matter where life takes me I know 100% that photography will always be part of my life.
Are you familiar with the works of Malian Photographer Malick Sidibé? I only asked because you almost had the same name and you are both photographers with such a wide array of inspirational works.
Yes! Malick Sidibe is one of my favorite photographers. We speak the same language (Mandingo & Bambaran). His work has inspired me in so many ways. Ironically my name was spelled exactly like his! But when my family and I were moving to the U.S., my dad misspelled my name. Instead of Malick he changed it to Malike. Also, my grandmother was born in Mali which is where Malick Sidibe is from!
How would you describe your style?
If I were to describe my style of photography, I would say it is surreal and dream-like. Growing up in a developing nation, moving to New York, and now to LA, I’ve experienced a lot of different environments. I remember going to sleep and waking up to gun shots during war periods, and not having any freedom. And now I have the opportunity to live in a place where I have seemingly unlimited freedom. All of those places, range of feelings, and experiences flow into my aesthetic, and are rooted in this dream-like existence we're all living. Life is amazing.
How did you promote yourself to the amazing people and companies that you have worked with?
I am naturally a very outgoing person, love chatting with others, and am always genuinely open and interested hearing other peoples stories. I feel like that has been one of the most important tools for me, and helps build the relationships that cultivate work. I don't do it for that reason, but it's a nice side-effect. Otherwise it seems my work speaks for itself, so people are confident I can deliver when seeing that I put so much effort into it.
I'm also not afraid to be active and make myself physically present, which has led to some gigs just by meeting the right people (i.e. networking). I've been really lucky to get this far just off skills and strong networking, but am in the process of building ad campaigns, a new website, a traveling pop-up portrait tour, structuring a photo book, and now pitching my own projects/concepts to companies I've worked with before (while of course seeking new ones). It's crucial to stay active in any way you can!
What advice can you give to any young up and coming photographer who would want to break in to the industry given the current state and influence of social media?
Photography is a language. The more you practice, the more you learn to speak it. Also, your follower count, number of likes you get on a post, number of posts, etc do not reflect the quality of you (or anyone's) art & photography.
It's easy to be discouraged if you're not getting attention in this "attention economy." Strive, instead, to truly understand the art and practice of photography. Work to create your own art by starting with the same tools as anyone else, but make your unique choices. Remember, you're a time-traveler.
Photographers are freezing photons of light at one point in time, in a way that only they see it, and it's held captive in the composition of their photos for all time. The light will never cast in those places, in that way, ever again. What you see in those moments is unique to you, and it's your job as an artists to capture it. Consume yourself with that feeling, and the thought that you would do it anyway (freeze time), even if nobody ever saw it.
If you are gonna be a book, what type of book will you be and why?
I finally got my hands on this book called "So Far, So Goude", which is based on the life of Jean- Paul Goude. That book is a perfect reference to me, and to every artist that is on the run from this box that society is forcing us into.
Any charities that are close to your heart that you would want to help, given the opportunity?
I love to use my talents to support anyone who needs more representation, and to have their story told. To that end I've supported charities and non-profits by volunteering my time and skills. Most recently I've become interested in Wings For Life, which is an organization that raises money for Spinal Cord Injury Research, after making friends with a fellow photographer who is paralyzed (quadriplegic). We're excited to compete in the upcoming Wings For Life Scavenger Hunt in Orange County, CA in early November! Already plotting some photo projects to help their mission.