Bruno Boudjelal: Algeria, Troubling Proximities

Born in 1961, the Franco-Algerian photographer Bruno Boudjelal is a member of the VU agency. After a ten-year photographic project in Algeria that led to the publication of the book, Disquiet Days / Jours intranquilles, which traces his personal journey and links his quest for family to the wider Algerian context. In 2009, he decided to return to the country. In this interview, Bruno Boudjelal discusses the series he produced there, his questionings, and how he carries out his photographic projects.

Q: You worked in Algeria for a long period, from 1993 to 2003, and published a highly personal book on this country, which, in a sense, completes a period of your life and your career as a photographer. What made you go back there and how did you conceive of this new work in Algeria? What continuity do you detect between these two projects?

A: When I went to Algeria for the first time in 1993, it was to go looking for my family and to discover the country. I intended to travel the country from east to west, but at the time, the level of violence and insecurity was such that it wasn’t possible. I nonetheless kept this project to travel in mind, and in 2003 the security situation was much better. I was able to travel the country for five weeks, from the Tunisian to the Moroccan border. It was a very important trip for me because I experienced two things: firstly that my work was done, and secondly, a truly unsettling feeling of familiarity with places I’d never been, proximity with landscapes I’d never seen before. The ten years that had gone by had thus enabled me to reconnect and live with my Algerian family again, but was it also possible that I belonged to a country, a land? At the time, too exhausted by all this work, I didn’t have the energy to explore these new questions. It was at the start of 2009 that I decided to go back to work in Algeria to question and explore this feeling of belonging.

Q: If the – troubling – relation to the question of landscapes and territory was among the elements that you set out from to tackle this new series in Algeria, an extract of which is shown here, how did you “resolve” this, photographically speaking?

A lot of these images also feature people walking or even running. That seems to echo your own photographic practice, as you often take photos while walking. In an interview published in 2010, you said that “photography also concerns the way in which you move your body in space. For me, photography is a matter of fluidity.” As these highly personal images “speak” as much about Algeria as they do about you, we might see them as a self-portrait in reverse, or a portrait of your complex relationship to this country…Do you think this is so?

A: I simply decided to tackle this question of landscape and territory, to travel and move about the whole country. That made all the more sense to me as for years (the dark decade); it was really hard to travel round Algeria. For the previous series, apart from crossing the country in 2003, all my work was focused on my family, the Setif region, and on a few friends’ places in Algiers.

I don’t know whether the fact that some images evoke certain fluidity makes my relationships with the country any clearer! What is for sure is that this latest work has caused me to ask numerous questions about the nature of my ties with Algeria. I must admit that I am very perplexed at the moment, but that’s possibly the object of another discussion…

Q: In Algeria, you also worked on the question of emigration.

A: Yes, I worked on the “Harragas.” It’s a term in North African Arabic that means “he who burns” (miles, identity papers). Young and not so young people, and also migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, take those makeshift boats we have all seen images of. Many embark in the Annaba region to try to reach Sardinia or Sicily, or in Oran to try to reach Spain.

You have to realize that before leaving Algeria, the “Harragas” ask Algerians living in Spain or Italy to send them Sim cards from these countries, which they put in their phones before setting sail, and that’s how they navigate.

Q: How exactly?

A: They pick up a network, lose the network. It’s a highly empirical method. If they can pick up a network, they’re nearing the Spanish or Italian coasts. If they can’t pick up a network, then they are probably heading in the wrong direction. That’s how they navigate. And as they have these mobile phones, they shoot little films and take photos of their journey. To my great surprise, I was able to get hold of some in Algeria.

Q: What do you think they make these films for?

A: Some see this gesture as a way of testifying… But I’m not sure it’s as clear as that. I think that they take these photos and shoot these little videos with no specific aim in mind, other than conserving a trace of their journey.

Q: And how do these videos and pictures circulate?

A: Informally.

Q: How did you get hold of these films?

A: Through the intermediary of a very active youth group in Algeria. These films are of different lengths and quality. I collated them into a wall of images. That constituted the first part of the work I carried out on the “Harragas.” Then I photographed a series of landscapes in the Oran and Annaba regions. This series is called “Les paysages du départ” (“Departure Landscapes”), they are the places the “Harragas” set out from.

Q: How did you make the aesthetic choices for this series of landscapes that disappear from sight?

A: For me, it evokes an evanescence, a disappearance. These departure landscapes are an evocation of the last tangible image the person leaving his/her homeland sees and remembers.

All of this work, the series of colour pictures taken throughout Algeria, and the extracts of correspondence between me and writer friend Sid Ahmed Semiane, plus a series on Frantz Fanon (psychiatrist and activist in the Algerian independence movement as well as essayist including the famous Black Skin, White Mask), have just been exhibited at the Musée Nicéphore-Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône, France.

Q: Let’s talk “technique,” about your way of working and your equipment. The landscape series, for example, was taken with a Leica MP.

A: Yes, but the Fanon series were taken with a Holga… But it’s a bit more complicated than that; in this work, there are photos that were taken with a Leica that I then worked on, reframing them to turn them into a square format. Like the square black and white image published in the French magazine, Mouvement, which was originally taken with a Leica, in colour, and in 24×36. It’s a Leica image, but it doesn’t show… Leica lovers will be up in arms!

Take another example: the Fanon series, most of the pictures of which were taken in Algeria, but which include a picture taken in Ghana.

That for me was a way of evoking the relationship between Frantz Fanon, the Algerian provisional government’s ambassador to Ghana, and Kwame N’krumah, who was a fervent pan-Africanist and Ghana’s first President after it gained independence in March, 1957.

Q: So when you are out there, about to take a picture, how do you choose which camera to use?

A : It depends. With the Leica, in 24×36 format, I sometimes take a lot of pictures. Only I might not have a specific project in mind at that point. It’s only much later, when I get back to France and look at the images I took that I see echoes and correspondences (necessarily highly subjective) between the images taken with different cameras, at different times. So I always have the two cameras on me.

I recently spoke at the ETPA, the Toulouse Photography School, in front of one hundred and fifty students. I showed them my work in Algeria, and the series on Bentalha, where I went back five years after the September 1997 massacre. This series ends with a self-portrait. People said to me: “Ah, we can really see how moved you were to be there in this self-portrait…” Yet, this self-portrait wasn’t taken in Bentalha, it was taken in France. It was seeing it one day that I had the idea to include it in the “Bentalha” series.

So suddenly, they were shocked; they saw it as a falsification, but personally, I didn’t consider it a problem. In his book The Bees and the Wasp, François Maspero says: “What’s the point of writing books if one doesn’t invent reality.” I think he’s right and that that can be applied to photography too.

Q: So for you, the editing stage is essential.

A: Yes, I have the habit, once I’ve taken pictures, of not doing anything with them when I first get back. I let them rest. At the moment, for example, I am working on the Seine-Saint-Denis department, a department in the Ile-de-France region that also comprises Paris. I’ve been walking the department for eight months now, and I’ve taken fifty reels that I haven’t developed yet. So I work over quite long periods of time. My work collecting the “Haragas” videos, for example, goes back to the end of 2010. There can be quite a long lapse between the moment I take the images and the moment I show them.

Q: We might say, then, that your projects are also in movement…

A: Yes, absolutely, everything is in movement! This means that when people ask me what I’m working on at the moment, it’s not always easy for me to answer! (laughs).

Q: It’s as if you follow several threads at the same time?

A: Yes. The perfect example is the travel diary that opens the first twenty pages of my book on Algeria. Everyone thinks it was compiled when I went back to Algeria. Not at all! I started working on it four years after my last trip, in 2007. The idea for this diary came to me much later. It was only when I bought three notebooks in Ghana that I decided to do these Algerian logs. So I went back to my notes, my photos, and things started to come together… For me, there is always a moment during in which I let things settle. A piece of work may thus not be used, or might take different directions.

I have been working on Algeria again for two years now, and what’s quite amazing, is that I was certain that the travel logs would find a continuum; only I haven’t managed to put it in place yet. Producing these logs is becoming difficult, because they involve delving back into the work and also into my own story. It’s more than about having been in a place at a given time and having taken photos there; it involves something more ample and more global.

The director of the VU agency reminded me recently that I haven’t given them any new pictures for four years. The projects I’m working on are always the result of a long process: at the moment I have a series on the family which, clearly, isn’t finished – far from it! This new work on Algeria, the work on Seine-Saint-Denis, and finally my crossing of Africa, which I am going to continue… That’s four major projects.

I think I might be able to stop after that. The idea of going silent, of stopping, may just be a fantasy… The problem is I don’t know how to do much else (laughs) and I can in fact be pretty talkative at the end of the day! The main idea that’s going round and round my head is the desire to make films.

Thank you for your time, Bruno!

- Leica Internet Team

Original French Interview Bruno Boudjelal