Looking to present “an alternative view of African men”, Alice Mann has spent the past year taking portraits of members of London’s La Sape. “It’s a dynamic sub-culture emanating from Brazzaville,” explains the Cape Town-born, London-based photographer, “literally translated as the ‘Society of Ambiance Makers and Elegant People’.”
The men are part of the Congolose diaspora in London and identify as a European chapter of the movement, whose members wear items by European fashion giants Versace, Vivienne Westwood, Moschino and Gucci. “It’s an ideology, a way of being, where fashion transcends something purely aesthetic,” continues Alice. “Style underpins a lifestyle and provides a vehicle for self-expression. It’s understanding fashion as a medium that allows for power over how people may perceive you.”
By portraying the men standing proudly in their finery, Alice hopes to show an untold side of the African diaspora communities and challenge stereotypes in Western media. “There is a sense of individual assertiveness and agency that I wanted to communicate. I hope the series might encourage viewers to reconsider some of the problematic ideas inherent in the Euro-centric lens through which we so often understand society. The men I worked with don’t fit into a simple definition… but we sometimes instinctively want to put people in boxes.” Therefore in her aesthetic approach, Alice references “street casting” and the language of fashion editorials to draw parallels between what we’re used to seeing in magazines and advertising, and her portraits.
She worked closely with the men, who art directed and styled the shoots, feeling it was vital to representing their individual personalities. “It was important they were active subjects so each shoot was very collaborative,” Alice says. “I wanted these to be accessible images that the subjects have complete ownership over, and would feel proud of, showing their strong sense of self.”
Next, Alice is going to Paris to work with the La Sape community there, and will continue to collaborate with the London group.