Ongolo Proud African

Interview with German photographer and Afrophile, Mario Gerth

9 October 2023

Beautiful art sells itself. I first saw Mario Garth's photographs hanging on the walls of the upmarket African restaurant in Singapore, Kafe Utu (Check out my review: Kafe Utu brings authentic African cuisine to Singapore). I bought two portraits in museum print under acrylic glass (prices range from €350-€9,999) and have been a fan of Mario's work since. I was delighted when he agreed to this exclusive interview with ONGOLO, where we talked about his photography career and love for Africa.

One of Mario Gerth's best sellers is this 2010 portrait of Mayo, a Mursi girl. Photo credit and permission: Mario Gerth.
One of Mario Gerth's bestsellers is this 2010 portrait of Mayo, a Mursi girl. She is my favourite! Photo credit and permission: Mario Gerth

MM: How did you get into photography?

MG: From 2004 to 2008, I left Germany and took off to travel around the world by bicycle. During those four years, I travelled 40,000 kilometres, crossing mountains, deserts, savannas and saw all five continents. Africa was the most impressive to me. I spent 18 months cycling from Cape Town to Cairo and during that time, I came across many cultures. They impressed me a lot and after I came back to Germany, I sold my bike and bought a camera. I went to Kenya and spent three months with the Samburu people and started photography.

Bestseller: The unmarried Samburu. The Samburu tribe are found in Northern Kenya. Photo credit and permission: Mario Gerth
Bestseller: The unmarried Samburu. The Samburu tribe are found in Northern Kenya. Photo credit and permission: Mario Gerth

MM: I’m intrigued. How does someone travel by bike from Cape to Cairo? What do you carry for the trip and where do you stay?

MM: Cycling through Africa is a long and lonely journey. You drive through long stretches of desert and savannas, so empty and uninhabited. Through towns and small villages on lakes or rivers. You sleep everywhere, mostly in a tent, with strangers in the villages who become friends. With nomads at the well, with the animals in the meadow. Especially under a sky with millions of stars. My bike weighs around 80 kilos. I transport everything to be self-sufficient for 10 days. Food and water, pots and books, tools and tent, mat and sleeping bag. Few personal things, a diary. The clothes on your body and a shirt to change. Less is more. This little thing made me very happy. 

Stuck in the mud in Burundi. Back from the river: young boy and girls decorate themselves with flowers and fruits they might find at the river side. Photo credit and permissions: Mario Gerth
Stuck in the mud in Burundi. Back from the river: young boy and girls decorate themselves with flowers and fruits they might find at the river side. Photo credit and permissions: Mario Gerth

MM: Are you a self-taught photographer?

MG: I studied in nature, while traveling and every day. Many other photographers too. And I always asked myself, what makes a picture, what is aesthetic. What makes this picture unique. I train my eyes every day.

MM: What kind of photography do you do? 

MG: I photograph what I love to see and love to share. Mostly portraits and cultures but I also spent weeks in deserts or mountains. My aim is to bring back a realistic pictures and share the wonderful beauty of this world.  

Bestseller: Surma Girl from Mago Park in Southern Ethiopia. Lip plates are a symbol of beauty. Photo credit and permissions: Mario Gerth
Bestseller: Surma Girl from Mago Park in Southern Ethiopia. Lip plates are a symbol of beauty. Photo credit and permissions: Mario Gerth

MM: What camera do you use?

MG: My long term love is a Canon Eos 5D Mark II and I love my prime lens, a Canon 85mm portrait lens. 

MM: What drew you to Africa? Which countries have you visited?

MG: The colourful culture, the singing at night, the stars, the wide landscape, the smell, the warmth of the people, the hospitality - all that makes me come and come again. My work as a professional photographer started in 2010 and since then I have seen 25 countries in Africa and around 100 worldwide. I love most the Sahel area, the slim line between desert and forest - this is where most nomadic people are at home. 

Back from the river: young boy and girls decorate themselves with flowers and fruits they might find at the river side. Photo credit and permissions: Mario Gerth
Back from the river: young boy and girls decorate themselves with flowers and fruits they might find at the river side. Photo credit and permissions: Mario Gerth

MM: I like that you focus on Africa’s beauty rather than its problems, having seen civil war, poverty, dictatorship and violence. Was that a conscious choice?

MG: Yes, I want to restore balance. Africa is always the “chaos continent” in the media. Wars, crises, viruses, poverty. Our image is shaped by it. Little is reported about the beauty that is so abundant here. Africa is colourful, is loud, and is deeply rooted in nature. We can learn so much about Africa if we take our time. And invite this continent into our lives.

MM: How did you get people to trust you enough to capture their faces and lives on film?

MG: I bring with me what few have. My time. And I integrate quickly. I sit around the campfire in Angola, I wrestle with the Mundari warriors in Sudan, I fetch water for the women in Chad, I teach math to the children in Kenya, I go and harvest in Burkina Faso. When everyone is singing, I sing, when everyone is naked, so am I. This is how I respect my fellow human beings and become one. That creates trust.

Mario Gerth cycled 40,000 kilometres around the world, including the famous Cape to Cairo route. Photo credit and permission: Mario Gerth
Mario Gerth cycled 40,000 kilometres around the world, including the famous Cape to Cairo route. Photo credit and permission: Mario Gerth

MM: How do you support the communities that have contributed so much to your work?

MG: Every trip costs a lot of money. With this we pay for drivers, cooks, guides, local guides, small accommodations, food in food stalls. We pay for each individual photo and bring gifts for the whole village. We take money from every picture sold and pay for a child in Uganda to go to school for 12 months. When we meet schools in Africa, we organize donations, pens, books, notebooks, etc.

MM: Who buys your art?

MG: We have good relationships with some galleries, art shops and buyers around the world. My clients always have a connection to Africa. Maybe they spent a one-week holiday there or they worked in Africa for a while. They may have relatives there or migrated themselves once from Africa to Europe or America. When they buy my art, they don’t buy just a picture - they buy a glimpse of home, they buy a portion of their culture, the freedom on Africa and the spirit they expect there. There is always an identification, and this is always motivated by something.  

Baro Tura, a Lady from Arbore Tribe, Ethiopia. I photographed her 13 years ago and met again in May 2023. Photo credit and permissions: Mario Gerth
Baro Tura, a Lady from Arbore Tribe, Ethiopia. I photographed her 13 years ago and met again in May 2023. Photo credit and permissions: Mario Gerth

How to buy: visit the Mario Gerth photography website (link). Worldwide shipping available.

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