There’s a lot of reality”, Guillaume Bonn says, “in going to Somalia and being scared.” He should know. He has seen a lifelong friend murdered there, and he has been shot at, and kidnapped, himself. But he remains down to earth. “I am a storyteller,” he says, “I want to tell stories that have not been told before.”
Bonn is a French Madagascan who grew up in Kenya and Djibouti, among other places. He has been trying to capture the complexities of Africa – especially Somalia, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania – for two decades. Over the years, it has been the places caught in time-warps, straining towards Africa’s future but tangled in its past, that have most intrigued him. For years he struggled with how to bring such a diversity of places and people together. Eventually he turned towards the water, the seas that have brought Africa so many of its invaders. The French, the Arabs, the Germans, the British, the Portuguese – all started at the coast.
Bonn has spent years on a project he calls “Mosquito Coast”, in honour of the bringers of malaria that plague all four of the countries he covers. It began as a personal quest, a man reaching for a sense of belonging, clutching for the place where he grew up as it faded before his eyes. Then, like an epic novel stretching beyond its characters to capture a whole region, it expanded, not merely pinpointing something familiar, but telling a new story. Bonn’s camera records buildings and places decaying in a thousand different ways, left to crumble, battered by decades of war, aerated with bullet holes, rubbed away by the sea.
Colonies and post-colonies, civil wars and proxy wars and the cold war, all have shaped these nations. “A new Africa is about to be written, with the Chinese moving in,” Bonn says. But it was not the future that he set out to show; it was the ways in which these countries were changing, and disappearing. “I was interested in capturing something that is just about to go, for ever.”
He was reaching for the last vestiges of the 20th century, trying to capture a smell, he says, an atmosphere, to grasp something that no longer exists but lingers as a shadow. He is fascinated “by places in between, by that no-man’s-land as a place sheds one skin and goes into another, which is full of metaphor and maybe some nostalgia.”
At the heart of his photographs is Somalia, a country that has now been torn apart by civil war for nearly 30 years. Bonn has witnessed its transformation. He went there as a teenager in the 1980s, relishing holidays in Mogadishu, its streets lively with cafés facing the blue sea, its citizens lounging under the blue sky. A few years later he was back, a tourist no longer. Somalia was his first war. It was there that he saw his first dead body, lying on the desert road on the way back to Mogadishu from the front line. He was just 20 and could not bring himself to take out his camera. That night he reproached himself: “I was there to take that picture.”
Mogadishu had shed its skin; it had unfolded into a different place. Two years later, when Bonn’s best friend from childhood, another photographer, was murdered by a mob, the city became different again. Going back there in 2002, he found himself outside the cathedral. Bullets flew over his head. Abandoned by their hired toughs, he and his translator dived behind some rocks, “like into a pool”, to avoid being killed. They succeeded, but at a price. “Going back to Somalia was one thing, Mogadishu was another. I was shit-scared of going back to Mogadishu. It can turn into hell very quickly.”
He decided to wait for peace to break out, or just enough peace to let him do what he wanted – “a lull in the civil war that would permit me to go there and come back with all my limbs”. It was hard, but eventually it came. The resulting pictures, with their washed-out colours and sense of languor, do not radiate the heat of war. They are heavy with memories, many of them fading, as these places slide into a treacherous future.