Delphine Diaw Diallo Interview: How She Went from 300 Dollars in her Pocket to Successful Photographer


French-Senegalese photographer Delphine Diaw Diallo is one of my favorite artists. The images of Diallo have a kinetic force. They are not photographs you ponder while twirling your hair, or sipping your white tea. These are photographs that, because of their sheer eloquence, enter your mind and silence everything else. Force you to pay attention and unplug those headphones, pause the music, and abandon your Reddit surfing.

And I’m not the only one enchanted by her photography. Diallo was named by PDN as one of thirty “new and emerging artists to watch out for”, and has worked with many clients including Nike and Converse. In addition, Diallo has had her fashion/fine art/and portraiture exhibited in galleries around the world.

In this interview, Diallo talks about how she went from $300 in her pocket to a successful photographer, reveals why she’s disillusioned with current media consumption and explains how her subjects are her heroes.

Delphine Diaw Diallo

All of your work is powerful, allusive, yet completely illuminating. How did you arrive where you are now? Why fine art/documentarian photography?

Well first . . .  thank you for those words on my work. My story is not simple, but I can start to say that photography gave me hope and love. I previously did work as a graphic designer, art director, animator, video editor for 7 years in Paris and New York. Mostly working with the music industry. After 9/11, the music industry didn’t survive the economic crisis, and I was really tired of working so much for the music industry. So I took my first trip to Africa in 2003 and that woke up my photographic skills, and I started to shoot portraits of my family. Went back to Paris, and I was ready to move to New York, hoping this would push me to develop my passion. But I couldn’t find the courage until I met Peter Beard in 2008 in Paris. At that moment, the photographic journey became a reality. We became P.I.C’s (partners in crime) as he called it lol. He then invited me to Cassis, France and later to Botswana to assist him for the Pirelli Calendar 2009.

Delphine Diaw Diallo

This experience transformed everything in my heart . . .  from my relationship to people, to nature, and to the ultimate conviction that I was born to deal with visions. Peter Beard doesn’t consider himself a good photographer but instead considers himself a hard worker producing all the time. I really respected his philosophy behind his work. I spent months with him and he did give me a lot of tricks . . .  lol. End of 2008, just when Obama get elected, I moved to NY with my visa and $300 in my pocket. I had this amazing drive to make my dream become reality, no matter what it would take. I decided to work as a waitress for months. This job allowed me to keep 4 days off per week to help develop my photographic skills. I was shooting all the time for 3 years . . . editing, retouching, shooting, collaging. I had this urge to find a specific vision that isn’t linked with a style in photography but with something that really comes from your consciousness, with the outside world being the connection with it. Once you find the core of your work that “essence” can finally be born and can develop. My work wouldn’t be possible without those amazing people that I met in my life who inspired me to shoot them. I’m just taking pictures but the work before is way longer . . . those experiences take years and I’m still at the beginning. Fine art, fashion, documentary? I grew up with all those images, they belong to my memories and that’s why probably I want to explore all of them.

Delphine Diaw Diallo

Your “Portraits” series is highly creative. Everyone captured in it seem like elegant and strong people. Their eyes hold so much emotion. How did go about finding these people? Are they friends?

Yes, most of my portraits are of friends and family relatives (from Africa, Senegal). They are inspiring to me and I want make them my heroes.

Delphine Diaw Diallo

How do you think up these unique portraits? How do you get your images to speak so forcibly?

I love those people and I want make them timeless. I always thought about photography as a painter. I’m seeing the shape and the structure before shooting. I want to make them proud of who they are. I’m creating my own myths. They all have great stories.

Delphine Diaw Diallo

Also in many of your portraits you include objects that either emphasize or counter the subject’s personality (one of my favorites is the plucked bird). Could you explain why you decided on subverting traditional portraiture in this fashion?

I love anthropology and of course a fan of Darwin and other books that talk about the connection between bones (death) and human being (life). From native American traditions to the study of Carl Jung, to Indian philosophy to African traditions and many other beliefs, the connection with nature (inside and outside) is definitely what we’re missing the most in Western civilization.

Delphine Diaw Diallo

“Highness” features a beautifully crafted (though obscuring) garb. It strengthens the viewer’s connection with the subject’s eyes. Do you ever direct your subjects? Or do you allow their own feelings to shine through?

I’m very specific when I’m shooting but I will try my best to make the subject comfortable in expressing himself. Sometimes I will spend hours in a discussion with the subject to just get the right shot in 5 mins. I like to make people shine in my work.

Delphine Diaw Diallo

One of my favorite photographs in your “The Great Vision” series is simply a piano decorated with some family photos. Why do you think you focused on these ordinary objects—things most photographers would have passed by?

This photo tells everything in one shot. A photo of Jesus replaces the place of mother nature tradition in Native American culture, a little box of medicine on the left side of the piano with “success Academy sign”, a little white shelf at right corner, then 2 clowns of porcelain (big joke) on the right side with a beginning of frame with an American flag, a book called “Storm of the Century” by Stephen King placed on the piano with family pictures. But the most amazing thing is that the piano looks like someone is still playing it (I guess a ghost . . . lol)  and also the title New York where I’m living.

Delphine Diaw Diallo

Your collages are politically charged and consistent in speaking about the experiences of oppressed populations. Could you explain your process in developing them? For example with “Life 2013’s” The Blunt Reality of War in Vietnam the World?

Life magazine was a great starting point to talk about what’s happening now. More than ever, our vision is challenged and violated everyday . . . I’m not sure there’s someone in this modern society who’s really pure in owning his own vision. I grew up in the 80s and at that time my vision was polluted already by American TV (Dallas, Starsky & Hutch, Dynasty) and its unrealistic vision of the world through its constant conflicts. The world is way more interesting than anything that TV, movies or radio, is trying to give it to you. It is one of the big tricks of modern society, they are making sure you won’t see by yourself but you will let society drive your taste and beliefs without even noticing you didn’t have choice. Not really acting on your own life but being in the passive mode all the time receiving information.

Delphine Diaw Diallo

You have gift for capturing someone’s inner world onto a portrait. What final advice would give to other portrait photographers trying to get work out there?

Read more, be humble, love and believe in yourself and others, work harder!!!

Delphine Diaw Diallo

Here’s another video about Delphine’s exhihibition, “The Great Vision”.

Photographs with a kinetic force. Delphine Diallo is a force you can’t reckon with. Captures which make you get up, & work. Diallo makes it professional

The Great Vision from delphinediallo on Vimeo.

And be sure to check out Delphine’s work on her website, tumblr, and facebook!

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