Ivorian-American director and photographer Gerald Kokra Malaval is a citizen of the world with a clear vision in the palm of his hands. On a mission to document the life and work of diasporic communities across the globe slowly going extinct, Gerald enables not only for their stories to be shared but also, their identity to be kept alive.
Since as early as 2020, Gerald has dedicated a great portion of his photographic work to capturing Montreuil, a city in France close to his heart.
We sat down with the visionary via Zoom call to discuss his introduction to the world of photography, his latest documentary project and all he has learned throughout the process of creative expression.
First and foremost, thank you for accepting to be interviewed by African Lens. To start-off, would you mind telling our readers; Who is Gerald Kokra Malaval?
Alright, so just like you thanked me, I want to say thank you as well. I’m humbled and honoured to be considered for this opportunity.
To answer your question, Gerald is a citizen of the world, a photographer, a director and a documentarian. That sums it up to me.
Sounds about right. Can you tell us where you are based as of late and originally from?
I am currently based in Paris, France however, I am originally from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. I was born from a Cape Verdean father and an Ivorian mother.
From our previous conversation, you mentioned having a US nationality.
My mother gave birth to me in the States and that’s how I am linked to the country. Therefore, I have American and Ivorian citizenship.
Ok, it makes sense. When did you start with photography?
My journey in photography started roughly in 2018 and so, about five years now. Before taking a chance, I was always admiring the profession from afar and coming from an African upbringing, it was always hard to convince myself this is something I want to pursue. This is because parents (generally) are strict and want you to seek a career of a higher standard in society. So it took me a long time to really get into it.
That’s quite impressive to think it only took you five years to come up with a direction. What is your greatest source of inspiration in this field?
For me, it’s honestly straightforward as my greatest source of inspiration are people. Regardless of the type of photography I am exploring, whether it is fashion or documentary, it always comes down to people.
I think everybody has something to say and a story to tell, and every time I come across meeting new individuals or while I’m working towards my documentary project for example, I am often excited because I know that I am doing this for the people.
I’m curious, perhaps you could describe some of the backlash you’ve received as an individual pursuing a nontraditional occupation part of a conservative cultural background?
The funny thing is that anything surrounding Africans and photography, what I’ve come to realise is that there is a lot of ignorance. Where I’m from in Abidjan for example, a couple of years ago, people were making fun of photographers because all they knew was the neighbourhood photographer who used to take photos for a dollar; he looked like he was struggling and his equipment was very outdated. In their mind, when I told them I wanted to pursue photography, that’s the first thing that came to their mind. I can’t possibly be in America or a western country and aspire to be a photographer.
After revealing to them what it is exactly, how you can make a living out of it, there are countless photographers who are successful and still serving our society. Along the way, they ended up seeing the vision and accepting the fact that this is something I wanted to do. Afterwards, a lot of support came my way and my family are my biggest supporters today. Everything I do now, they back me up. However, it was quite difficult at the beginning because of the ignorance. I don’t really blame them because our society portraits this idea that it is ok for everybody else to claim success aside from artists.
I like this last phrase of yours, it definitely stands out. Before we get into your practice, would you reveal to us what are some of the gears you use to take photographs?
I primarily work with film by using a variety of cameras, but mainly the Mamiya RZ67 and the Minota x700.
As you already mentioned, you recently started an ongoing project; documenting the heart of Montreuil, which is its community. How did this come about?
Montreuil has a special place in my heart for the simple fact that I was privileged growing up to go there on vacation every once in a while. My grand-father was there and my grand-mother still lives there today. Throughout the years, I formed an attachment to this place because I have made good friends and had a chance to play in different areas.
In 2020, pre-covid, I visited (Montreuil) after a while and it just kind of clicked in my head; I wanted to document memories of my childhood. My initial thought was to capture playgrounds I used to frequent, my friends who are now grown ups just like me and such. As time went by, I had developed a different approach to documenting this place and what was once personal became more so of a community-oriented project.
At the moment, there is a huge gentrification that started in Montreuil and most of the faces I’ve seen that day, I’m not going to be able to see in 3 or 4 years down the road. The rent is getting more expensive and all of these people are going to be pushed out. In that regard, I am making a statement in documenting this specific area as we will not be able to see it again. I want to create an archive for the next generations.
That’s very powerful. To give us an insight into the many stories behind faces; what are some of the harsh realities of the immigrant people you have photographed?
The number one most common thing that seems to be an issue in that area specifically and pretty much all I’ve heard after speaking to a few folks; there is a big problem with housing for immigrants that come across the border. To the point that a lot of them are placed in hostels, which I have yet to photograph however, I am making the sufficient effort to reach out. These hostels are overpopulated and it creates a state of precarity as they don’t really receive much support. The majority of them are from West African countries however, they do not speak French properly and unless someone comes to help them, they are facing the same problems over and over again.
As far as a story that really shocked me, it is about one of the portraits I have submitted - the lady wearing a hijab, she’s actually from Tunisia and she’s been in Montreuil for over 40 years. What was once unfamiliar to her, meaning coming to France is now her only home and she now fears going back because she has nobody left. When she told her story, it sounded very scary to me because I realised that taking the chance to come overseas or to immigrate anywhere, you are erasing a big portion of your life for a new one. It was a crazy contrast to think that she is now afraid to go back where she’s known but feels more comfortable to live in a country that was once unknown to her. In a sense, I felt really sad for her but also, it opened my eyes to a degree of the different realities of immigrating somewhere.
Why do you believe it is important to capture the life of diasporic communities in the West?
This question is by far my favourite. I could say so many things but it sums up to this; we’re living in a time where representation matters tremendously. While I have the opportunity to live in between 3 different continents, my aim is to build a bridge across communities, particularly amongst black people. I think that bringing forth the diaspora is a big step towards educating one another in our differences, but also our similarities. It is important for the natives in Africa to view our living conditions because more often than not, people want to paint a picture that life is so perfect over here. If you give them a chance to see how life is around here in real time, they might get a different feel before choosing the option to leave. I made it a mission to really be honest and showcase reality so that people know what they’re getting themselves into. There are opportunities up here, don’t get me wrong, but also, there is the harsh reality once you are there and sometimes it may be better just to stay home.
If I may give an example, I shared some photos on Halloween of a group of children I photographed and people in America were shocked to see it was also celebrated in France. For something as simple as this, you can see how impactful it is to bring my photos to light.
I totally agree with you. That’s one of the things that made me gravitate towards your work. Honestly, your technique is already remarkable but just the thought behind it, which you now explained and shared with us, is of great importance. We just started a new year. any plans you would like to share with our readers?
Absolutely. As far as photography, we have a festival in Ivory Coast called Abissa that I really would like to document it. It’s a cultural concept with music, dance and spirituality, people come in different costumes and it’s very popular in Ivory Coast and Ghana. It is a fusion of traditional and contemporary gatherings that I want to make a book out of.
The second thing I want to work on is this city called Sassandra, which has been left behind for years and it has one of the most beautiful sights and beaches. I really want to get in there as they are planning to make big constructions and the face of the city will change forever. Once again, similar to Montreuil, it faces the same dilemma and I want to document it now before we do not have any records left of how things used to be. These are the two main projects I have for this year.
You can find more of Gerald’s work here.