The Long View: The Afterlives of Colonial Photography from Algeria

Photography and French Algeria

In the autumn of 1839, a group of painters led by Horace Vernet stood before Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, showing him a photograph they had just taken outside of his harem. ‘This is the work of the Devil!’ he reputedly shouted out. The photograph was the first image taken not only in Egypt, but in Africa more broadly. Vernet had taken the photograph only 80 days after the daguerrotype, the first commercially successful photographic process, was announced to the French public. Invented by the artist and chemist Louis Daguerre, the daguerrotype process sparked the interest of the French government. They acquired the rights to it, and presented it as a national gift free to the world. At a time when France was building its colonial interests, the story of the daguerrotype in Africa shows how a creative process can become a political tool. But hidden beneath this power play are the lives of the individuals the French colonial project affected. Theirs are the faces that peer out from the photographs produced in this period. They tell a very different tale to the official narratives that the French government tried to project, and can speak powerfully to us today.

The Egyptian ruler’s response reflected not only the general mistrust towards the new medium which claimed to produce perfect reproductions of reality, but also a concern that it would breach local customs — the harem was the most private part of a household, reserved to women only and thus unrepresentable. His concerns would soon be confirmed as French influence in North Africa grew. The 1830s marked not only a revolution in the history of photography, but also the beginnings of the so-called French second colonial empire. Following France’s loss of most of its overseas territories to Great Britain and other European powers in the eighteenth century, attempts at constructing a new empire commenced. The French conquest of Algeria in 1830 is now seen as a the first major event in this political agenda.

From the first days of the conquest, the French army assigned soldiers to produce maps and drawings of the occupied territories; at times, professional artists from France were employed. By the late 1840s photography largely replaced other media. Algeria had the steepest rise in private photographic studios in the region, which specialised in photographs of Roman ruins (these served to justify French conquest due to a shared Latin past — both Algeria and France used to be part of the Roman Empire), as well as in the so called ‘scènes et types’ depicting local people classified according to European understandings of race and ethnicity, and heavily sexualised representations of Algerian women, confirming Muhammad Ali’s fears. In early twentieth century, aerial photographs of large cities such as Algiers or Oran were published in propaganda booklets disseminated in mainland France and highlighted the new, French quarters built next to the old, Muslim Casbah. With time, as cameras became cheaper and exposure times shorter, photography became more widely used; as a result, the 132 years of French occupation of Algeria produced a vast photographic archive.

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René Prouho, Alger – vue générale, 1929. Bibliothèque nationale de France

Following Algeria’s independence in 1962, these photographs kept resurfacing in both countries. For example, the 1990s and 2000s saw a rapid rise in the publication of photo-books by former French settlers (pieds-noirs), which drew heavily of colonial photographs of Algeria. By reaching back to the colonial photographic archive, the pieds-noirs could express their nostalgia for a French Algeria which they had to flee after independence. In light of a continuing relevance of colonial photography for the ongoing memory work both in Algeria and in France concerning their shared past, I have been exploring some of the contexts in which these photographs resurface in contemporary artistic and photographic practices.

Revising the past?

The ethical underpinnings of contemporary engagements with the colonial archive lie at the core of this project. The archival photographs from French Algeria have not become stable referents of a long gone past but remain contested records that influence the present. This is reflected in the work of Marc Garanger. He went to Algeria in 1960, during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) as a photographer for the French army. He was 25 years old at the time, and was assigned to take photographs of the inhabitants of rural Algeria. At the time, the head of the French army decided to attack the mountain villages of Algeria where 2 million people lived, some of whom joined Algerian resistance, and in order to deprive the rebels of their contacts with the villagers, he decided to destroy the villages and transfer the population into regroupment camps. Garanger would take the photographs of Kabylia’s inhabitants with a detachment of armed soldiers with machine guns guarding the women who were lined up and sat on a stool outdoors, in front of his camera. His photographs would later be used to create identity cards for Algerians living in villages in order to facilitate French control over them. In order to obtain a ‘legible’ image, Garanger was asked to unveil the women, violently breaching their customs. Over a period of ten days, he took 2000 photographs. 

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Marc Garanger, Femmes Algériennes, 1960. © Marc Garanger

But Garanger was no supporter of the French presence in Algeria and hoped that his photographs would eventually testify to the resistance expressed through the women’s fierce gazes. Once he had served his time in Algeria, Garanger arranged for his photographs to be exhibited in France to start a public debate about French military practices in Algeria. He also published anti-colonial photo-essays to raise awareness of the brutalities of occupation, and to memorialise the Algerian struggle within French national imagery.

However, the photographs he had taken in Algeria and his role as a French soldier imposing the camera on Algerian women, haunted Garanger throughout his life. In 2004, commissioned by the French newspaper Le Monde, he went back to Kabylia to meet those he had photographed. He found that many of the women who sat motionlessly in front of his camera almost 50 years earlier were still alive and lived surrounded by their children and grandchildren. Travelling with his camera, he photographed these women again. Some of them were then reprinted in Le Monde on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the war of independence, in 2004.

Garanger’s decision to revisit his own colonial archive and rephotograph his former subjects raises multiple questions regarding photography and ethics, and especially the photographer’s responsibilities towards his subjects. Already in the early 1970s, the American writer Susan Sontag argued in her essays published in The New York Times that the moment when we press the camera’s shutter button we perform an act of violence: to take a photograph is to control the subject of the image. Hiding behind the photographic camera, we are given the impression of mastery over the environment. Garanger’s 1960 photographs embed the inequality of power between photographer and subject, as the women had not only their personal and political freedoms restricted at the time, but were also unveiled for the purposes of the camera. Risking being seen as a simplistic attempt at revising the past or a personal apology for participating in the colonial machine, Garanger’s 2004 project foregrounds the ethical charge of photography through re-photographing the same women, this time, negotiating with them how they will appear, or not, in front of his camera.

Repressed memories

The idea of photography as a site for negotiating the relationship between photographer, the camera and subject is also explored in the work of Bruno Boudjelal. Boudjelal trained as a geographer, and up until the age of 30, he did not show any interest in photography at all. It was only once he had learned by accident that his father was not, as he had thought, of Italian descent, but had left Algeria for France at the beginning of the war in 1954, that he decided to purchase a camera and travel to the homeland he never knew. This was in 1993 and ever since then, Boudjelal continued to travel to the country, always with camera in hand. Boudjelal’s own relationship to Algeria and its history is thus ambiguous. Having grown up with his mother’s French surname and unaware of his father’s traumatic history, he does not fit easily into what Marianne Hirsch defined as the generation of ‘postmemory’. For Hirsch, ‘postmemory’ described the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective and cultural trauma of their parents or grandparents, whose experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and so affectively as to seem to constitute their own memories. However, Boudjelal, who only found out about his father’s heritage as an adult, did not grow up being conscious of his trauma. When he decided to travel to Algeria, his father was reluctant to accompany him.

In 2012, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence, the bimonthly magazine Manière de Voir featured over sixty photographs by Boudjelal in an issue entirely devoted to Algerian history since the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1954, and its relations with France. In image after image, Boudjelal’s photographs subsume viewers within a blur, obtained either through the photographer’s motion or through an intentionally ‘faulty’ focusing of the camera. The blur obfuscates a clear vision, preventing Algeria from emerging to the surface of the photograph.

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Bruno Boudjelal, from the Frantz Fanon series (2013). © Bruno Boudjelal/Agence VU

Boudjelal also applies other visual barriers as many of his photographs are taken through windows, gates, or, as in the case of the image below, by peeking briefly above a wall; many of his images are dark and further occluded by rain, shadows, mist. Algeria, which during the colonial period was key for the formation of modern French identities, but which following a traumatic seven years long war that won it independence became repressed within French collective memory, struggles to emerge from a blur and resurface fully in Boudjelal’s photographs. Sigmund Freud observed that ‘the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious’. The blur which perpetually obfuscates our vision throughout the magazine, suggests that Algeria is still held at distance and outside of French consciousness.

Yet a photograph such as that of the Château des Deux Moulins — a building constructed by the French around the centenary of their invasion, turned into a French school and bombed by the Organisation de l’armée secrète (a French far-right paramilitary organisation which sought to prevent Algeria’s independence) — is also heavily invested with the photographer’s own bodily position within the photographic event. Rather than present us with a detached and disembodied view, the photograph draws our attention to the conditions in which the image was taken rather than to what it attempts to frame. Taken in great haste, while peeking above the wall in the foreground, it points to the presence of a body that operates the camera. Boudjelal, who unexpectedly became affected by a history he never thought was his own, becomes a porte parole for the editors of the magazine who, by emphasising his own presence in Algeria in his photographs, suggests that the repressed memories of Algeria need to make their way from oblivion back into the French consciousness as they still affect the lives of some of the members of its society.

In order to emphasise Boudjelal’s complex relationships to the broader Algerian-French past, one historical photograph is reproduced, amidst sixty blurred and mostly colour photographs taken by Boudjelal since the early 1990s. It depicts the photographer’s uncle, Hamid, who, as we learn from the caption, was a “fellagha”, a militant in the anti-colonial movement who was captured, tortured and killed by the French army. Looking confidently into the camera lens, the man shares a gentle smile. One could mistake the image for a portrait photograph held in family albums but a longer examination reveals a small cardboard with the number ‘80’ written on it. The photograph was not taken by a family member, but by the French police who arrested Hamid under the suspicion that he supplied food to resistants camps – what we are looking at, is a mugshot. Readers, who flip through the issue looking at contemporary, mostly colour photographs, are confronted with the stern, though faded, look of a man who seems to occupy a different temporal realm from us. Both his uncompromising look and the fact that the photograph comes from a different time, ‘pierce’ the viewer, to use Roland Barthes’ terminology, in an unexpected way.

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Bruno Boudjelal, from the Algeria scrapbooks series (2009). The photograph of Hamid was originally taken to be included in police files. It then made its way into his family’s private archives, and was featured prominently in his wife’s apartment. It was then included by Boudjelal in his diary and subsequently reprinted in Manière de Voir. © Bruno Boudjelal/Agence VU

At the time of the magazine’s publication in February 2012, France had not officially recognised its use of torture during the war in Algeria; in fact, it was only ten months later that François Hollande admitted to the use of torture by the French army in Algeria. Thus the photograph voiced aspects of the French-Algerian history which were still not acknowledged at the State level and which find little evidence in State owned archives. Its inclusion in Boudjelal’s photo-essay in Manière de Voir forms a double testimony – one of a victim of the colonial regime who is long gone and thus cannot speak, and another of a descendant of an Algerian immigrant who is marked by that same history but who cannot yet speak as his memory is, in Henri Raczymow’s words, ‘shot through with holes’. Their silences nevertheless culminate in an affective portrayal of the repressed past which continues to haunt the present.

The past made present

When thinking about the ‘colonial archive’, it’s easy to slip into generalisations about imperial motivations and a one-to-one relationship between ideology and the photograph. However, by looking closely at specific images and analysing how they are mobilised within contemporary practices, both photographic and artistic, as well as in press, we begin to see the multiplicity of memories and responses they generate, even outside of the specific moment of their production. As such, they can aid in mobilising what Michael Rothberg termed a ‘multidirectional memory’ — a type of memory that engages with parallel memory strands. Such memory allows the emergence of a public sphere where groups do not simply articulate established positions but actually come into being through their dialogical interaction with others. Perhaps, this approach is too idealistic and utopian in the context of Algerian-French history which still remains conflicted — for example, in 2005 a short-lived law was passed in France which required schools to teach the positive effects of French colonialism; it was retracted a year later following protests by historians, teachers, and intellectuals. But given the currency of these debates both in Algeria and in France, an analysis of how documents from the past and especially historical photographs resurface in these, can shed light on the role of visual culture in ongoing memory work.

ALGERIA. July 1962.
Marc Riboud, Algiers. Women going to the voting stations for the Independence referendum. 1 July 1962. © Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos

Katarzyna Falęcka

Katarzyna Falęcka is a PhD student in the History of Art department at University College London. Her doctoral project concerning the afterlives of colonial photography in Algeria in contemporary visual culture is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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