London Q & A: Photographer Philippe Sibelly

Marseille-born, London-based photographer Philippe Sibelly has an inspiring and very international mindset. Two of his projects, both detailed in the interview below, provide exciting and remarkable interventions in the ways that we understand contemporary cities, cultures, and even economics.

Sibelly’s The World in One City depicts London as a vibrant, multicultural city by including photographs of London residents from over 200 countries and territories. His Irish subject can be seen at right. Sibelly’s ongoing project, The Other Africa, overturns notions of Africa as essentially destitute and impoverished by showcasing the lives of middle-class Africans.

These projects provide deep commentaries on globalization and culture. They also provide a delicious kind of social candy for travelers and cosmopolitans.

Q: Sum up your profession.

A: In a perfect world I could give you a straight answer: if only I knew where my camera was, I could say I am a photographer. I am a qualified teacher of art, but teaching is such a demanding profession I had to stop as it was taking over my entire life. My last teaching spell is probably the reason I can’t find my camera any more. I am a househusband right now and I use any opportunity the kids give me to promote my photographic projects: The World in One City and The Other Africa.

Q: The World in One City is a fascinating look at London’s intense diversity. Describe the project briefly for our readers. What prompted the project? How do you feel about it now, a few years on?

A: When I arrived in London, in 2004, I was amazed by this diversity, especially after two six-year spells in Sydney and Dublin. Both are great cities but not the most diverse in terms of cultures. In London a lot was made about multiculturalism in the media before the 2012 Olympic Games announcement. I thought it would be a great challenge to search for Londoners from every Olympic nation. There were 202 at the time. It was also a great opportunity to meet people from every country of the world. After London got the Games, multiculturalism came off the front pages for a while.

As the 2012 Games are now fast approaching, the subject of London’s diversity is back at the top of the agenda. Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech on multiculturalism has also reignited the debate. I don’t think you can say it has failed, but asking if it works is a valid question.

The work has spent the last few months exhibited. It is currently at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, West London.

Q: You’re from Marseille, which I believe is France’s most ethnically diverse city. Do you return often? Do you miss it? Did growing up there shape the way you interpret the world?

A: I go back to Marseille as often as possible, but it is getting much more difficult with the kids. So many logistical issues! After living for nearly seven years in London I find Marseille quite frustrating now. If you think public transport and traffic are bad in London, check out Marseille!

Growing up in such a working class melting pot definitely has an impact on the way you interpret the world. I remember being shocked when I first arrived in Sydney, in 1991. It was such a contrast from Marseille. Very “Anglo-Saxon middle class.” Interestingly enough I find Marseille (and France in general) very conservative now. London is so dynamic, a place where pretty much anything goes. In spite of being so diverse Marseille remains very much “old France.”Q: Talk about your current project, The Other Africa.

A: If The World in One City was my way of meeting people from every country in the world, The Other Africa is my excuse to go to Africa any chance I get. I grew up discovering Africa through depressing news headlines, like pretty much everybody else in the West. I was about 15 when Live Aid happened. I glimpsed the Africa that Bob Geldof was going to save, images of dying kids covered in flies.

There is no doubting this Africa exists but it contrasted greatly with the image I discovered traveling to West Africa. My friends in Dakar surely don’t suffer from malnutrition, more the opposite. Very rarely is it reported that millions of Africans go to work everyday, produce and consume, just like “us” in the West. It is all the more regrettable because changes for the better in Africa should and will come from this African middle class and not via foreign aid.

In 2005 I decided to start documenting this emerging middle class through a simple series of portraits of professionals and images of cities at night. I do not seek to say that everything is fine in Africa. My goal is to try to correct the perceptions we have of the continent.

Q: Where do you like to travel?

A: I just love getting out of the house. Discovering a new part of London can be just as rewarding as going to a new country a 12-hour flight away. It is also quite difficult to travel with the kids, which makes London explorations particularly appealing. I love Surrey and the South East of England as well.

I traveled a lot in Asia and the Pacific when I lived in Sydney. They are great places for independent travel but Africa has got the edge. I am always looking for opportunities to go and live there. Dakar, Libreville or Accra would be great places for the kids to live in while they grow up.

Q: What’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to you on the road?

A: Without the shadow of a doubt meeting my partner. I was traveling overland from Sydney to Europe. I bumped into Loretta in a cafe in Xi’an, China. A week later we ran into each other again, in Beijing. A few days after that we met by chance for a third time, on a train platform, in Irkutsk, Siberia! She gave me her Irish phone number from the step of her train carriage as it was leaving for Moscow. I decided to go to Ireland. 14 years later we have two kids together, two little Londoners.

Q: That is an amazing story. Do you have any travel secrets you’d like to share, either secret destinations or tips for other travelers?

A: I have perfected the art of traveling light. Unless I go to Africa to photograph for The Other Africa, I don’t even bring a camera! Too often you spend so much time taking souvenir photographs that you only see the things you were photographing when you look at the photos once you’re back home. I have cut down on everything. I have a special traveling wallet, which is in fact just a small purse, as you rarely need any of what’s in your wallet when you travel. Most of the time I don’t even need what’s in my wallet when I’m at home!

I have come to realize that if I really need something on my journey I can always buy it there. Unless I’m traveling in Norway it’ll be cheaper than it would be in London anyway, and going to a shop to buy something other than a souvenir is actually a great way to discover a place. Buying a toothbrush in a supermarket in Jakarta tells you an awful lot more about life in Indonesia today than does climbing Borobudur.

Apart from the importance of traveling light the best tip I can give to any traveler is to always try to look as smart as possible when crossing borders.

Q: You have a month to travel anywhere and your expenses will be paid by a mystery benefactor. Where do you decide to go?

A: Can the mystery benefactor also mind the kids? If my expenses were paid I would be tempted to go back to Japan as it is not the cheapest place to travel but it is such an interesting one. Iran is another place I would absolutely love to go back to and discover more. It wouldn’t cost my benefactor much either as it is such an inexpensive place to visit. Iranians are simply the most welcoming and friendly people I have ever met. Of course I would be tempted to go somewhere in Africa but I’ll go there whether or not I have a benefactor’s help.

You may find it surprising but if I had to choose one place to relax for a month, enjoy culture, great food, people with lots of character, sceneries second to none and a whole range of activities, I would go to Corsica.

Like this Q&A? Check out previous Gadling Q&As with inspiring travelers like Benji Lanyado, Zora O’Neill, and Jodi Ettenberg.