The authentic eye of photographer Mário Macilau

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Through carefully composed black-and-white imagery, Maputo-based photographer Mário Macilau captures the dignity of people who live in undignified circumstances.

The 34-year-old photographer showcased some of his work at the Cape Town Art Fair in February. He has won numerous awards and, celebrated for his contribution to African photography, his work has been shown all over the world.

He was chosen as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers in 2015, presented a speech at Harvard University in the US and was one of three artists presented at the Holy See’s pavilion for the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale in 2015.

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In 2016, he was nominated for the Greenpeace Photo Award for his series The Profit Corner, taken at a landfill site 7km outside of Maputo. He spent months documenting the lives of the people living on or near the rubbish as they searched the heaps with a particular hunger for old electronic devices.

“I’m inspired by the people and lifestyles from my environment where I grew up. I have witnessed so many changes there. Local people have to create and adapt themselves to be able to live and to find pleasure from what is available, and people are happy,” Macilau says.

“Besides that, you’re easily inspired by everyday realities, which made me realise that life isn’t about class and social divisions between people, it’s about creating as happy a life as you possibly can.”

Macilau focuses on the normality of his surrounding environment and the life he lived then and now, and believes it’s important to focus on his community.

“It helps me to understand myself more, as well as the world around me. My work is often about locally relevant political issues, environmental conditions and socially isolated groups.

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“These three broad themes come into focus through their impact on socially isolated groups – groups of people who need to retrieve their voices and cast light on these issues as they affect their own particular experience,” he says.

“I use the intimacy of portrait photography to tell the stories that are not being told, and to give a voice to hidden identities and cultural issues that fascinate me.”

Macilau didn’t make a conscious decision to become a portrait photographer, but first experienced the potential power of the medium when he was a child.

“I remember being fascinated by the emotions that could be communicated through photography, and later I made a very immature decision to trade my mother’s cellphone for my first camera in 2007. At the time, I had no idea that I would grow and mature into the kind of photographer that I am now.”

“I am fascinated by light, composition, expression and ideologies in each practice,” Macilau says.

He adds that, aside from drawing inspiration from his environment, photographers such as Andrew Tshabangu, Santu Mofokeng, Ernest Cole, Peter Magubane, Michael Tsegaye and Nii Obodai also play an important role in his work.

Macilau adds that he tries to present the subjects of his photographs with a sense of dignity.

“I try to give dignity to the people who I photograph – to give them that dignity and also to create positive change in their lives through the messages in the photographs.”

His next project will see him travel east.

“I am working on a new project in India. I’m exploring the car mechanic industry in New Delhi, as well as the severe impact that traffic congestion and poorly maintained cars is having on the environment.”

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