This conversation serves as a retrospective on Naita Ussene, as a photographer, and his country, Mozambique, as his muse. In the same way that Allen Ginsburg spoke of Columbia University in Harlem as the institutional backdrop for the Beat generation, Ussene speaks of Tempo magazine in Maputo as the training ground for a—as yet un-monikered—generation of Mozambican writers, journalists, and photographers who came of age side-by-side with the country’s independence in 1975. That generation now leads the literati in the nation’s capital.
Ussene’s career started shortly before the nation’s independence and his work documents the country’s transition from colonialism, through liberation, past civil war, to today’s nascent arts renaissance and greater exposure to the western world. With camera in hand, Ussene’s constant circulation throughout the country allowed him to chronicle Mozambican life from Maputo to the Rovuma; a feat only paralleled by Mozambican greats like Kok Nam and Ricardo Rangel, Ussene’s mentors.
Nafeesah Allen conducted this interview with Naita Ussene in April 2017. In the three years since, much has evolved. According to Notícias newspaper, Celeste MacArthur has retired. In 2018, opposition leader, Alfonso Dhlakama died in his stronghold in Gorongosa. A 2019 cyclone ravished the cultural capital of Beira, the hometown of Mozambique’s most acclaimed writer, Mia Couto. Due to recent events, Allen felt the urgency to revisit this interview and give it a home, before the home it came from evolved beyond recognition. Maputo’s cultural scene is also becoming ever more vibrant; it is shedding the heavy shadow of the country’s bouts with war and disaster. Foreign curiosity has been matched by the parallel quest by locals to maintain cultural heritage. More importantly, new art spaces have widened the aperture of connection between elder Mozambican culture keepers, like Ussene, and the next generation of aspirants.
Naita Ussene was born on May 5, 1959 in Ingure, Angoche, in Nampula province. He is married and the father of five children. Ussene began working at Tempo Magazine in 1974 as an errand boy. Two years later, he began working in the photographic section under the tutelage of Kok Nam. In 1992, Ussene participated in the founding of Mediacoop SA, which owns the daily e-newspaper MediaFax, the weekly newspaper Savana, and the radio station Savana FM. He has served on the Board of Directors and is the current Administrator and Photography Editor. He has traveled the entirety of Mozambique, as well as abroad, to take photographs and exhibit his work.
This interview has been abbreviated and translated from its original Portuguese by the interviewer. All photos provided by and with the reproduction permission of Naita Ussene.
I was born in Angoche, a coastal city in the province of Nampula. I left Angoche by boat for Maputo, then called Lourenço Marques (LM). [In] February of 1974, I arrived in Maputo. I went by boat, because my uncle was a sailor. I also had a brother who had already been living in LM for many years. At that time, my brother worked for Tempo magazine. It was a very progressive magazine. He said ‘let me see if I can find a job for you at Tempo.’
I started working at the magazine on April 8, 1974. We are talking about colonial times. I was only 15 years old, working as an errand boy. I worked until [The Carnation Revolution in] April 25  happened and I went on until [Mozambique’s] independence. After independence, in 1975, Ricardo Rangel and Kok Nam, [renowned Mozambican photojournalists] were managing the photographic section. Then, Ricardo Rangel travelled in 1975 to report on the country. In this period, the man who worked in the laboratory of the photographic section disappeared and he just stopped coming to work. Kok Nam invited me to help out in the laboratory. It was from there that I started to learn photography with Kok Nam and Ricardo Rangel. They started teaching me how to make the chemicals and how to process the negatives. They were already teaching me how to shoot, how to print, and all that. The moment arrived that Rangel gave me a camera and he said ‘take this machine and take photos of your friends in the neighbourhood.’
I started young and, at that age, we had to learn from others. Rangel and Nam were influential for me. But it does not mean that I did not learn with other photographers. There was Carlos Alberto and Danilo Guimarães. At work, I really had to show that I could do my job. They would look at my work and give me tips.
For journalistic photography, it is very important that you have the eye to see. That means that when you take a photograph, everyone—people who know how to read and people who don’t—still understand what that photograph really means to you or to the people in the photographs. That was the motto for both Kok Nam and Rangel. That’s what I learned.
In 1976, I had already proven myself to be a dedicated worker, so I started reporting. I did my reporting with the masters—senior journalists—and that was the practice at Tempo. The younger ones worked with the elders. So, I started working on a report with [Raul Alves] Calane da Silva. We went to Boane to do a story about communal villages. From there, I started my career as a photojournalist.
The city [of Maputo], after independence, was more alive. People were joyful, because the country had just entered a stage of freedom and you could see this in people. You could feel their desire to learn and to be themselves, living their lives. Despite the fact that it was also a moment of change—because this completely changed the existing political system—there was more freedom. You had more in terms of cultural life, because the restriction on what people could do had changed from colonial times. Colonialism was over and people felt freer. There was cultural expression. For example, there were cultural movements. Writers began to appear from this freedom. You heard of Calane and [journalist and poet, José] Craverinha. And in the musical area also, musicians gained the freedom to live this part of their lives. There were fine artists, too, like Malangatana, Chichorro, and [Alberto] Chissano, who were the best artists. They started to feel more open and began to see more cultural movement in the city.
This country is large and the people of this country are cheerful. And wherever I went in the countryside, I always took photos without any problems. I think that you have to show people your sensitivity, in the sense that this is part of their culture. Taking photos is a way of publicizing your country. It’s a way of showing what you are as a country. Even if it is hunger, if it is poverty, you can not say ‘no’ to the photo. Let the photo be taken. Photography also captures the images for which the country is already well-known.
I think the Mozambican people are a peaceful people. It is a people with a lot of tolerance. It is a people that believes that everything can be solved. And, I would say, people are optimistic. There is the sense that if all of this is gone tomorrow, we can still make do and continue on with life. The people are united in the sense that people think that one day, their luck in life will change. But, after that [there was] the problem of the sixteen-year civil war. Then, the country weakened a lot and the country regressed. The country basically stopped. But today the country is back. You see now when you walk around, there is a different scene of people. People are in motion and that’s very good.
Can we talk about your travels with [ex-President] Samora Machel?
I travelled with Samora to several countries. The thing that left the biggest impression on me from my travels was when I went to the United States [in September 1985]. Another highlight was when I went to Russia. There was a meeting between President Samora and Gorbachev. There was no press allowed, but I managed to be there in that meeting. I also participated in the overthrow of Idi Amin in Uganda. We went to, at what was called at the time, ‘the front line’ in Tanzania. And we were told we were going to Uganda and it was at the time of Idi Amin. And that I remember well, because I was about to turn twenty.
I kept working with President Samora over the years until his death. Until his last visit, we were together. He made it a point to tell the team that was in Tete to go back to see if the guidance that had been given was being implemented, to take pictures and such. And Samora’s death was when I was in Tete. Since I had travelled a lot with Samora, when my parents in Angoche and my wife, who was studying in Harare, heard [about the 1986 plane crash that killed Samora and 43 others] everyone was asking about me.
It was really difficult [photographing Mozambique’s civil war, referred to by Mozambicans as the sixteen years’ war]. I did not participate so much in the war, but I photographed the war. There was one time I travelled from Maputo to Inhassoro. It took me three days. And during that period, on the departure from Maputo to Inhassoro we had no attacks, but in the return to Maputo we had attacks after passing the bridge to Xai-Xai. That is where RENAMO [The Mozambican National Resistance] attacked.
It was another life. I took some pictures of corpses that we saw on the street. I think I have one where soldiers are pointing a gun at a man who was accused of belonging to RENAMO. The man did not have anything. They pointed the gun at him. I do not know if they killed him or not. At that moment, I just left. Those were hard times.
Are there young Mozambican artists that you think are emerging today?
There are some who have learned well. There are others who learn in daily life. And these young people are good. They have another vision, another look, different from the one we had. I quite admire some of these young people. For example, I admire Mauro Vombe a lot. There is also Inácio Pereira, a photographer at Notícias newspaper, who is very good. And there is a photographer in Beira who is also very good.
I have been fighting and I always struggled to have a woman photographer in this country. The photographer, reporter, photojournalist—a woman. The only female in this country, until today, is of my generation. That is Celeste MacArthur, [the Mozambican photojournalist, who reportedly retired in October 2017]. And there is a female journalist and a photographer at Notícias in Beira. There are no others to this day. We really do not have many female photographers. We have a few journalists, but no photographers⎈