TE: All the skills Westerners often don’t have!
WB: That was the time before the modern consumer system came in to French Guiana. The other side of the story is when you go to the slums in St. Laurent – these things are getting really serious. First, you have problems of hygiene, and unfortunately, the modern system has left a stain on the Bushinengue cultural mindset. So I told you, a few decades ago, a man was valued for his ability to build things with his hands, now unfortunately the trend is he is valued for his ability to acquire the biggest SUV. You can see some of the impact in villages too. Everyone visits the big supermarkets and things like plastic bags, bottles, and nappies are dumped in the river by the villages with the assumption waste will be washed away to the sea. Or they just dig a hole, dump all the trash and burn it not knowing the impact on the environment. Also, because of the consumer mindset and temptation of money, many people go into “parallel trades”: trafficking drugs, illegal gold mining and prostitution, with all the problems they lead to. For example, to extract gold you need mercury, and the problem is you find children illegally mining in the forest manipulating mercury with their hands and dumping it in the river where people fish and wash themselves. This is the dark side of life in French Guiana but it’s very complex. On my second trip in 2010, I wanted to understand a very simple question: why do people dump trash in the river. It’s very complex, not only do you have this newfound consumer mindset but education also has a role to play. Most of the teachers come from the continent, these are only white people and they absolutely do not mix with black people – they just stay with themselves. It’s very horrible. They make no effort to understand the local culture and even the programme at school is completely disconnected. For example, the Bushinengue students in French Guiana know perfectly how to locate the Alps on a map but at the age of 14 they do not know what happened in 1848 – the abolition of slavery. So, you have the education system and the French economic system that allows people to rely massively on grants and subsidies yet people are not encouraged to undertake businesses or to gather into organisations or associations to defend their rights.
TE: What’s the feedback been on your project in both French Guiana and Europe?
WB: Afterwards, I thought about what I would like to do with my pictures. I wanted to share their message with people in Paris, especially students from high school or university, to raise awareness about what’s going on. After my second visit to French Guiana, I did something deeper, a socio-anthropological study about the situation there for the Bushinengue, in collaboration with a really nice organisation called Mama Bobi. They’re a local charity merging people from a French continental background and Bushinengue people, working together to find solutions for the current problems in the Maroni area. They’ve been working on these issues for twenty years – environmental responsibility, employment and so on – so it’s a real struggle but it’s just amazing, the perseverance they show is really humbling. With their help, I drafted a report, shared it with them and they sent it to the MPs of French Guiana to try and get their support to bridge the gap between the traditional Bushinengue system and the French administration. They wanted to raise awareness of the disconnection between those who voted in Paris and the real situation in French Guiana trying to encourage every stakeholder to collaborate. It’s very hard work.