French photographer Charles Fréger has taken portraits of people in uniforms and costumes since the late 1990s, and his latest collection, Cimarrón: Freedom and Masquerade, features outfits worn by descendants of African slaves in the Americas. Photographing Cimarrón – a Spanish-American term for these former slaves – took Fréger from Colombia to the Caribbean to Brazil to Central America, and even to the southern U.S. We asked him about the genesis of the project and how he gained the trust of his subjects.
Costumes of Freedom and Resistance in the Americas
enRoute How did you get started on Cimarrón?
Charles Fréger In 2011, I had the idea of photographing Mardi Gras Indians (African-American Mardi Gras carnival-goers who wear costumes influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel) in New Orleans. And they gave me the idea of going further. I started Cimarrón in 2014.
When they were talking about their traditions, they expressed what became the theme for most of the photographs I shot for the project: They are African-Americans who believe that they own the heritage of African culture, and they dress up in feather outfits that are a tribute to Native American peoples who provided sanctuary to runaway slaves.
In the first series, there was this trilogy of cultures with three influences: the European carnival, African-American culture and Indigenous culture.
ER Is there a central idea that unites the photographs in Cimarrón?
CF The project is very much about this clash of cultures. The meeting of three different influences in the territory of confrontation, domination and then syncretism, which is the mix of cultures: how one culture changes another culture.
When I speak about confrontation or domination, it’s because the colonials forced Indigenous people and slaves to swallow their culture, but Indigenous people and slaves then incorporated their own religion and culture with their understanding of colonial culture as a type of resistance.
It is complex because the meaning of these traditions has been a mixture of these three cultures. Sometimes the original meaning of a dance or ritual could be religious or from a carnival, or from the Christian tradition. But the original meaning has been twisted. The whole story is talking about this twist.
er How did you research the topic?
cf It is like when you are looking for oil. You dig a hole and you check if there’s anything. And then, you need to check if around it there is more. And maybe you will find more, and maybe you will find nothing. Usually, you discover that the territory is bigger than you expected, and you have to explore it.
er How did you gain the trust of your subjects?
cf It was a team effort. I don’t know if it’s about trust. It is about people agreeing to welcome us for a few hours to photograph them, out of the context of the tradition – not the day of the dance. People accept that they have to jump into a type of representation and they do so in a way to represent themselves. And my work in that way is absolutely about representation.
The French writer Marie Darrieussecq described my work as “human beings standing up on the planet.” I think that’s right. I go everywhere in the world and I photograph people standing up. And standing up means being alive. So it is a statement, to stand up and look at the camera and throw yourself into your identity with strength and pride.
To see the full collection of photographs, pick up a copy of Cimarrón: Freedom and Masquerade