Industry Trends

The changing world of photography through the lens of a gallery owner

Published on 26th August 2021

Every summer since 1970, the village of Arles in the south of France becomes home to Les Rencontres d’Arles: a prestigious photography festival that attracts photography enthusiasts and connoisseurs. Known for showcasing unseen works from known and emerging talent from around the world, this gathering of exhibitions has launched the careers of many photographers over the years. 


One of the returning exhibitors is Catawiki partner Art-Z. This Paris-based gallery, led by Olivier Sultan, has spent the last 20 years developing and amplifying photographic talent - namely from Africa. For this year’s Rencontres d’Arles, Olivier will represent his photographers both in Arles and online on Catawiki. We caught up with Olivier about the world of photography, how it’s changed and what the future might look like. 

What first sparked your passion for photography? 

“I have always been fascinated by photography; it started with old family photographs. Then, when travelling to Africa in the 90s, I developed a passion for African studio photographers in Mali, Senegal, Benin and Zimbabwe.”

What was the turning point of turning your passion for photography into your career?

“Definitely meeting with Malick Sidibé in his Bamako studio in 2001. It made me realise how his photographs and his philosophy are deeply intertwined, and how he’s in constant connection with the people around him. I was stunned by his ability to see a person beyond physical appearances; he is able to figure out who someone truly is within seconds. We quickly became friends and from then on I organised a yearly exhibition in Paris from 2002 to 2015. Visiting him in Bamako was the greatest treat — to simply sit and talk outside his studio provided tremendous lessons in photography, life and African philosophy.”

Your gallery focuses on contemporary African photography. Why this specific focus?

“Over the last two decades, photography has become contemporary Africa’s leading art form. It reflects on people’s identities, and it also helps to connect communities by eliminating boundaries between the various African countries. I consider my role as a ‘go-between’ who brings artists to light.”

You’ve been in this business for over 20 years. How has the world of galleries and buying and selling photography changed? 

“Twenty years ago, only a handful of African photographers were known by their names, such as Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé and Samuel Fosso. Today, African photography is finally getting the recognition it deserves, with dozens of photographers pursuing meaningful careers, including Zanele Muholi, Santu Mofokeng, Nyba Ouédraogo, King Massasy or Mabeye Deme, who have all exhibited in prestigious institutions around the world. African photography is now massively entering private and public collections.”

How do you see the role of an auction platform like Catawiki in this shift?

“Catawiki has an educational role in this shift: this platform brings a wide range of artists to a large international audience of collectors. Specifically, in times of COVID and endless lockdowns, Catawiki has significantly impacted our way of doing business. My art gallery Art-Z was closed for most of 2020, and Catawiki provided a great and welcome platform for exposure and sales. It enabled my business to keep going. In 2020 and 2021, we have organised about five exhibitions at the Paris gallery. Most of the artworks were synchronously displayed online on Catawiki, hence counterbalancing the lack of physical visitors.”

How do you determine the value of a photograph?

“Many factors come into play, but most importantly: the reputation of the photographer, the quality of the print, the number of prints available, the signature and the originality of the subject matter.”

You represent a wide roster of talent; spanning many different genres and styles. How do you select talent for your gallery?

“I select talent based on three major criteria: the originality of their work, sincerity and consistency.”

What significant trends are you seeing in the photography world?

“There are numerous trends at once. Some photographers lean more towards documentary and photo-journalism, while others are focusing on aesthetic compositions. I personally like photographers who are able to combine both ‘worlds’.”

What is your role as a gallery owner in the creative development and evolution of the artists you represent?

“As a gallery owner, I try to support the photographers financially by purchasing and selling their works. I also actively approach museums and institutions to encourage them to acquire photographs of African talents. On a personal level I advise photographers, usually on how to avoid following the latest trends.”

What are some of your highlights on display at Les Rencontres d’Arles this year?

“The latest series by Senegalese photographer Mabeye Deme called ‘Dakar la Nuit’ is being greatly appreciated by the public. So is the new series ‘Tenir’ by Malian photographer King Massassy, which features close-ups of worker’s fists.”

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Find Art-Z at 28 rue de la Liberté at Les Rencontres d’Arles until 31st August, as well as online on Catawiki via the auction.

Discover more photography

You might also like:

Malick Sidibé: capturing life through a lens

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