"Roots" - A Conversation with Remi Bouvier.
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In the introduction of Roots, you say that you spent six years in Ghana; what is your background and when did your passion start for photography?
Remi: My parents both worked and lived in different countries in Africa for 20-30 years; my mother was developing educational materials and books on issues as: Malaria, HIV, hygiene etc.. as well as working with craftspeople and artists. While my father had his business in Accra selling & installing generators, air conditioning units and more. I was born in Holland, but returned with my parents to Ghana after five weeks. I spent the first my first six years of my life in Ghana, and I still have many memories of living there, things I saw, smelled and experienced.
So basically, you spent your early childhood in Ghana?
Remi: Yeah, basically, just the beginning. My parents wanted to move back to Europe for work and other stuff, but also to give me a different POV on growing up, as we were still ex-pats there: I went to an international school; I had a driver to bring me to school, I wasn’t really living in reality. (Which is normal in Ghana if you are middle class or up, It’s not only anex-pat thing). They wanted me also to have a childhood experience in Europe where I needed to be more autonomous: making my own breakfast, going to school independently, have a small job to earn some pocket money. So I moved back to France for five years, in the south near Toulouse, and then to Holland. Now I’m 23, and this is basically my life.
This is really interesting because you developed Roots by going back to Ghana after many years. How was the experience of going back there after so many years and as an adult?
Remi: It was mind-blowing because it was the first time in ten years to be back in Ghana and on my own. I did come back in 2010 on holiday with my parents, but I was young and living in a bubble. I traveled to West Africa (Senegal and Sierra Leone) in 2014/15, but this was not the same because I did not live there as a child.
Then in 2020, just a month before Covid broke out, I had the chance to go on my own, now more mature and without the “bubble effect”. I was there for three weeks, and that was when I shot the pictures for Roots. It’s insane to go back there after so many years, with so many memories, seeing what changed, what got better and what got worse.
When did you start photographing, and how did the passion start?
Remi: At a very young age, I started taking my parents’ camera and shooting pictures of my lego sets or hamster. Then when I really started taking it seriously, I was 14, I realized it was a passion that I wanted to follow. I was still in school, but I changed houses 11 times in my life, so school was always challenging for me; I never felt comfortable there. So at 14, I decided to take it seriously. As soon as I graduated High School, I decided to focus on projects like photo books or Throwaway cam, a project I started where I send disposable cameras to people I find interesting.
When you went to Ghana in 2020, did you go there to make a book, or did it happen organically?
Remi: Yes and no, the first goal was to make a documentary about bike life in Ghana, and the photos were on the side, a bonus for me. But due to Corona and other problems, the book came first, before the video. But for me, the first goal was the documentary, as there is a huge biking culture there, and then the book on the side.
So the initial concept focused only on bike life but then evolved into something broader, about subculture in Ghana in general?
Remi: The documentary is entirely on bike life, but for the book, with my photography, I like to document things, cultures, and subcultures that are not under the spotlight. Because you know many people come to West Africa and they go there as tourists, they don’t know what is going on. Even if you are a local, you may not know what is happening in your backyard. And I wanted to make a book show things that were never seen before.
How do you think subcultures are emerging and developing in Ghana?
Remi: It’s insane, especially since 2010. So many things have grown or started from 0, boxing for example, was already big, but now they just opened a big stadium. Skateboarding in 2010 didn’t exist, now, it is there, and they just opened their first skatepark too. Also, in biking, ten years ago, there where may be 10/20 people doing stunts; now, there are dozens of youngsters stunting. It’s crazy to see how these subcultures grew and developed.
Yeah, it’s crazy to see a whole scene growing and taking their place under the spotlight; the media were focusing on what was happening in Europe and North America, while now some media focus and push the new creative scenes in various African countries.
Remi: Yeah, exactly; it amazes me how much Ghana is under the spotlight, how many people are interested in going there, to see what is going on but also to meet the culture and experience it. A lot of brands are starting to invest more too or coming up from there. I’m happy for Ghana, Ghanaians and for everyone who can discover the beautiful place it is.
In the book, there are a lot of different locations and environments, from boxing to bike life to empty planes in the middle of nowhere. How was the decision behind what to shoot and put it in the book?
Remi: Well, this is one thing about the book that if I had to re-print it, I would put some context to the photos. I wanted to have just pictures for this first book, as I think it’s the easiest way to get someone engaged, but some context would have helped.In this book, apart from cultures and subcultures, you see a lot about my memories.
For example, the pictures on the boat where you see an island, my parents had a little piece of land there, and they built a small huts there, so it is a memory from my past.To put context to the photo of the plane, I was at my uncle and auntie’s place; they stayed on the second floor, and you could look out on a part of the city including train tracks.
I remember seeing many people walking on the train tracks and I just wanted to check them out and see what was going on there. So we started walking on the tracks to see what was at the end. Imagine, this is in the middle of Accra, the capital city, a huge city. And all of a sudden, nothing, just nothing, an empty space. We walked through some bushes and got near to the airport landing strip. And there it was, an abandoned airplane. So we decided to check it out, and we went inside.Some people actually made their home of the aircraft (which you can see in the pictures), and this is what I wanted to show with his book because, you know, someone could have lived near there for 20/30 years and not know that someone was living there. Even if you would come there you just see an ‘’abandoned’’ airplane.
And the focus on boxing, how did it happen?
Remi: it’s so interesting too. My cousin still lives there, he has a friend that loves Boxing, and he invited me to come with him to this big boxing event. It was crazy, just the amount of people in front of the door. And suddenly you get in the boxing arena, I usually watch boxing on tv, but the energy there was just different. When I got there, I started filming, which was the main focus, and taking pictures.The atmosphere was crazy, and I could get so close to the boxers, interview them, get in the locker rooms, etc...
What is your favorite moment present in the book?
Remi: It’s a good question; I think probably boxing, as the atmosphere and the energy was so crazy I really had to take courage and just do it.
For example, one of my favorite pictures is one of a boxer just after his fight; he just finished beating somebody up and knocking him out. I remember him just walking around all dazed after the fight, and I knew that I needed to get into the locker rooms to take a photo of him; I was lucky that a security guard saw me with my big camera and brought me inside the locker. There were a lot of people outside going crazy because there is an urban legend that if the boxer wins, it is good luck to touch him, so everyone wanted to see him.
I loved this, but even with photos and videos, you don’t get the actual excitement; it will never be like standing there in real life.
But if you ask for my favorite moments, I also have others that I’m really attached to; for sure, the boxing for the energy and the environment of the arena, but also biking was terrific.
Every Sunday, it is riding day, and events go down everywhere.
It’s crazy because there are just so many people watching and participating. The last time there were like 40 kids in tank tops and flip flops doing wheelies for the whole afternoon.
Biking is also so interesting because it is a global phenomenon; they also do it in the US, Europe, and many other places.
Remi: Yeah, you’ll see it in the documentary soon; I talked with KBS Dabikestar, a legend in the Ghanaian biking culture for me and he told me that they were inspired by the United States, places like Baltimore and Philadelphia, and people like Chino. And bikers in Ghana got so much bigger now too, bikers from the US want to come to Ghana. I heard even Meek Mill wants to buy a house.
And when will the documentary drop?
Remi: At the moment, I’m working on a solo exhibition to show the photos in the book in a more physical way, and I want to have the premiere of the video there too. I hope it will arrive soon, I expect before the end of this year so keep your eyes peeled!
All image credits to: Remi Bouvier.
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