Bart Luirink

Mario Macilau and the value of growing in darkness

Mario signing. Photo by: Jan-Wouter Stam

In a subtle by-the-way, Mozambican photographer Mario Macilau taught his packed audience at ZAM at the Amsterdam launch of his book an interesting lesson. Once a streetkid in his country's capital Maputo, Macilau made a living begging and washing cars. “We never wore the pretty clothes that were donated to us. People give less money to well-dressed street kids”, he says.

In conversation with Dutch photographer Kadir van Lohuizen Macilau spoke at length about his country, his book and his own growth from a child partly living on Maputo's streets to an internationally acclaimed photographer. 

At age 32, the boy who once stole and sold his mother's phone so that he could buy a camera, has had exhibitions in cities worldwide. Last year, I had the privilege to preview some of the work that made it into the newly launched book at the Venice Biennale. Part of (of all places) the Vatican pavillion, it was a spacious, perfectly presented confrontation with Macilau's journey and I silently gave thanks to God that the Vatican's curator had suppressed any possible inclination to frame the works in a paradigm of charity.

Growing in Darkness, published by Kehrer (Germany), documents the lives of Maputo's streetkids of today. It was only after much hesitation that Macilau started the project. “I felt I lacked the right reasons, the correct impetus, other than wanting to simply spend more time with them and learn of their reality”, he writes in an introduction to the book. But when the children asked him why he didn't take pictures of them -were they different from 'normal' children? Did they not deserve to be in a magazine or exhibition?- he changed his mind.

Growing in Darkness resets the misguided schools of thought that portray street children as pitiful objects of charity and not as individuals: a mere 'other', species wandering on the cities' boulevards of broken dreams. Macilau shows how wrong those projections are. These children do dream; they live, they charm, their surroundings, do their business. In portraying their universe, Macilau doesn't present a romanticised picture either. He acknowledges the complexities of life on the streets, of child labour. But in his imagery he documents a fullness in the objects of his photography that will hopefully open the eyes of those used to more cliche'd frames.

Growing in Darkness also contains a number of essays, one of which, by Mozambican writer Mia Couto recalls the research he -Couto- once did for a play about street children. “I wanted to find out what they most longed for”, he writes. "I imagined that deep down they would harbour a long list of dreams and wishes, but, interestingly, there was a theme that was repeated, recurrent. The boys wanted to have an identity card. An identity card was a dream writ large, the route to a wider world of work and civil status.” 

The street kids wanted ID's. They wanted that, not the nice new clothes offered by hordes of well-meaning do-gooders. Just a card! It sounds like an easy thing to give -alas, bad governance and an increasing lack of state services to the poor, in Mozambique and worldwide, has come to mean lack of recognition of their very identity. Here, again, listening to, and looking at, Macilau's subjects, opens eyes to what may well be an unknown reality, gruesome in very different ways to the usual stereotypes.

 Googling reports on Macilau's visit to Amsterdam I found endless references. The good news is that his works receive so many accolades. But sadly, quite a number of times, the title of his latest book has been screwed up to read 'Growing up in darkness'. That in itself shows how he, and the place he comes from, are perceived: his book can only be a tale of suffering on the dark continent. But Macilau tells us a different story. A story of how one can grow in darkness. As he did.

EXCLUSIVE PRESALE | Our audience in the Netherlands can order the book at ZAM here.