Mbeubeuss, a garbage dump outside Dakar, Senegal's capital, has its own name. It was previously flat swampland on which it stands. It started as a dump site in 1968 and has since grown into a mountain of garbage. It has amassed so much plastic rubbish from the city that getting there requires driving on a trash-strewn road.
This is not the Africa of my childhood. It wasn't like this when I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s. When I returned in 2012, though, I was taken aback by what I discovered.
There was plastic debris everywhere in Senegal — on the roadsides, in the trees, and everywhere else. The younger generation has never known anything else; it is just a part of their daily lives.
I chose to do a series to raise awareness about environmental difficulties in Senegal, in the hopes of convincing people that things don't have to be this way. I wanted to link environmental challenges to people's cultural concerns, so I looked into animism, the notion that items and the natural world are endowed with souls.
Animism is linked to nature: it was about celebrating nature in all of its forms, cooperating with it rather than opposing it, and living in peace with it. With globalisation and the contemporary way of life, much of it was lost. I intended to construct a series of ghosts sent by Mother Earth to warn humanity about its environmental negligence and devastation with this series.
Each photo in the series highlights a different environmental issue, such as coastline erosion, oil spills, sanitation, and land burning for agriculture, to name a few. But this picture, the first in the series, was about the usage of plastic.
I got the notion to construct a garment that continued the garbage mountain, giving the impression that this spirit was rising from the waste heaps. I worked with Doulsy, a Senegalese stylist who had been working with repurposed fabrics and could sew just about anything: he was the ideal person to construct this outfit. It needs to have a feeling of scale, thus the model is perched atop an oil barrel to give the figure that height. We wanted to strike a balance between using discarded materials and creating something that looked like it belonged in a fashion magazine.
The model is clutching a child's toy and staring out over the debris, but this picture is more than that: it's a message. It portrays future generations who will be subjected to environmental disaster as a result of our overconsumption.
I had only meant to create ten photos at initially. All of them were intended to be filmed in Senegal and given to folks in the United States. When the piece was done, though, I felt uneasy: I felt like I was calling attention to Africa for the wrong reasons. I was disturbed that it made Africa seem to be singularly contaminated, as if this isn't a global issue. The only reason Europe does not resemble this is because it exports its rubbish to us.
So I continued the project, filming all around the globe, from Australia's coral reef degradation to the United States' coal mining devastation. My art focuses on togetherness, exposing the many ways in which we are all related to one another and to nature. Taking this series international aided in this endeavor.
My work has always been a mash-up of many elements, a type of merging of various fields and civilizations, as the French term métissage denotes. I am both European and African. I grew raised in a voodoo-influenced society while simultaneously reading western comic books. I work as a fashion photographer and an industrial engineer. All of this is reflected in my art.
I'm fascinated with identification and how we distinguish ourselves from people we consider the "other" in everything I do. Humankind has built an image of the other throughout history in order to justify their mistreatment.
It was a crucial concept in slavery and colonialism. But it's also at the core of our environmental policy. Only because we consider ourselves as separate from or superior to the natural world can we continue to abuse it in this manner.
People nowadays speak about the anthropocene epoch, a geological term denoting a period when humans has significantly altered nature. However, it implies that the issue is mankind as a whole, rather than the special capitalist system we have constructed. In truth, the system is the issue, and it is the system that must be confronted.