“Downtown Memories” by Ali Chraïbi: Streaks Of Light, Reminiscent Memories

Photographer Ali Chraïbi was born in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 1965. In the following interview, he offers a fine analysis of “Downtown Memories”, the work presented here, in which his motivations, intuitions and desires meet the overarching preoccupation behind his photography: the attempt to bring out beauty there where it is least expected.

Q; Ali, when did you get into photography and how has your path developed?

A: I came to photography relatively late, when I was 30. I was never so presumptuous as to want to be an artist, nor even to devote myself to photography. I quite simply bought a camera, a second-hand SLR, but didn’t know how to use it. I then went on a course run by the French Institute in Marrakesh, where we learnt to use a camera, with, as a bonus, a brief initiation into black and white developing. They gave us two rolls of black and white film and asked us to take pictures. It just so happens that I still today exhibit one of the photos taken with those very first films!

I immediately caught the bug; it became a passion, a need. A real need: I felt good as soon as I was out wandering about with my camera. Two years later, I took part in my first collective show in Marrakesh with three other local photographers. My work was soon noticed, notably by a Spanish woman who proposed – or rather imposed – that I work on the famous Jemaa El Fna square. This got me exhibited at the first edition of PhotoEspaña, and then, with the same series, in Madrid where Queen Sofia of Spain was the guest of honour at the inauguration. One thing led rapidly to the next, and I was invited to show my work all over the place.

Q: “Downtown Memories”, the series presented here, is an invitation to reverie, to escape even within one’s own imagination. At the same time, it also demands that the images be carefully scrutinized. It is as if they create a kind of double movement that à priori seems opposed. These images show something whilst at the same time protecting it from our eyes, as it were. In what conditions did your work take forms here? And where are we for that matter?

A: I took this series in my home town, Marrakesh, an extremely touristy town. At the time, the photos that the media and other opinion-makers considered artistic and promoted necessarily had to highlight local stereotypes; for example the Medina, Marrakesh’s old quarter with its clay walls and labyrinthine streets. All the so-called art photographers jumped on the bandwagon: we thus had our dose of images that I would qualify as exotic (or worse even, colonialist), of old men in djellabas, women in hayeks, etc. Allow me to explain what I mean by this term, “colonialist”: I mean the kind of image of Morocco that the colonialists of the past used to favour. Whereas an old man in a djellaba is nothing special to me: he is my neighbour, my father, my quotidian, and I can see strictly no point in showing him as if he were a rarity.

I fought against that through a whole range of means (interviews, publications, etc.), but I soon realized that the only way to achieve a concrete result was to produce different images and of quality. I wanted to prove, in images, that the photographic space was not limited to this kind of reductive and stereotypical image.

Given that all these artists were limiting themselves to presenting photos of our dear town that only showed its noble (and thus touristy) side, I focused on the town’s least considered, most spurned neighbourhoods. I let myself go; I took pictures as I felt them, with no constraints, and without ever trying to obtain a specific result. I allowed my emotions, my sensibility to guide me.

Some art critics describe me as humanist, as a “poor people’s photographer”. Rightly or wrongly, no matter, it’s not for me to judge. But it is true that I like to bring to the limelight parts that are overlooked or castigated by the self-righteous, the political decision-makers, and the media and, more insidiously, every Joe Schmoe to show all the beauty that the day-to-day around us can harbour. I’m talking about people, but also the spaces in which these people live. It’s impossible, in my mind, to dissociate them.

What I defend in my images is a form of recognition of what we don’t see, of what for the majority of people doesn’t exist, the overlooked. My sole and unique arm – via my camera – is to show how much what is overlooked can be precious, by highlighting all the poetry and grandeur it embodies, to show that our real patrimony is the day-to-day. I strive to present it as a source of hidden virtues. And, being faithful to myself, to what I love, when I was working on “Downtown Memories”, I strove to show all the beauty I felt as I wandered these anonymous neighbourhoods.

Coming back to your question, you asked me “where are we, in fact?” Physically, we’re in the city, in Marrakesh, in the “downtown” neighbourhoods. New districts are springing up any old how, and where no one is bothered about building properly. But we might have been anywhere. There is no specificity in these images, no trace of belonging to one city or another.

Where are we? The more I look at these pictures, the more I become aware that I am in something that belongs to me. By that, I mean something that is in me. I almost want to say that I am in me, or in my home. Perhaps, even in a part of my memory, in a reminiscent memory.

That’s the incredible magic, the supreme magic of the lens: gluing your eye to the viewfinder, forgetting the world around you, like a candle that goes out. The only thing that becomes reality, because it triggers an emotion in you, is the image that you see through your lens. I have always considered this lens a privileged channel, in which I no longer control what happens, in which the expression of profound, interior, even unconscious things becomes possible. The light in one direction, my emotion in the other?!

It reminds me of the film, Jonathan Livingstone’s Seagull.  It’s maybe old-fashioned and no longer is a reference for readers, sadly, but it translates exactly what I am saying in my images.

Q: Technically speaking, how did you take this series?

A: I took these images through my car windscreen, which was always smeared with marks, creating a haziness and spots of light. A haziness that is akin to memory, which obscures visual clarity and which ultimately, only retains the essential: the emotion, and maybe a streak of light.

I imagine that when adolescents grow up in these unspeakable places, in this disorderly jumble of streets, it forges their memories here; their emotions will be rooted in this place.

When you pass by a wall in your neighbourhood every day of your life, a wall that is so ordinary that no one notices it, it is part of the daily backdrop. A few years later, when you find yourself face to face with the same wall again, all your childhood emotion can come flooding back.

Q: In other series – for example the “La Joconda”, which is a series of portraits of Moroccan women that you took in 6×6, or in “Modern Times”, taken in a factory in Morocco – you seem to situate yourself more in the realm of documentary photography. In what kind of practice do you feel most at home?

A: It is true that this type of photography is generally more of a constraint, for the simple reason that you are face to face with an individual and, that being, there is an interaction, a kind of game, an exchange between the photographer and the person being photographed. This interaction is complex, and all the more so in Morocco where, in general, people are extremely reticent about photography.

I didn’t face many constraints with “Modern Times”. It was a series commissioned by a local company. So in this case, the terrain was mapped out. With “La Joconda”, things were much more complex. In this series, I was photographing women in their homes, in their domestic space, and it’s true that I had great difficulty in finding women who agreed to pose.

To answer your question, I do not differentiate between one subject and another. I like to experiment and explore new realms. And as long as I like what I do, as long as I feel at one with myself, I consider that this work is simply the prolongation of earlier works.

I personally find it hard to conceive of an artist limiting him/herself to always doing the same thing, to always dealing with the same subjects (and consequently, always producing the same kinds of works). For me, there is no point in it. Once you’ve fully explored a subject or a series, you feel the need to move onto something else, to discover a new field of action. Repeating your earlier works brings strictly no satisfaction. It was a great pleasure for me doing “Downtown Memories”, but the same photographic act would give me strictly nothing today.

Even if one frequently witnesses the opposite; in my opinion and that’s personal to me, artists who reiterate their works do so because they’ve found a formula that works. They’ve met with success and change becomes a risk.  I much rather take risks. I almost want to say that without that exploration, art doesn’t exist. It grows away from a form of personal expression and becomes a day-to-day gesture, a recipe people apply. I call that craftsmanship.

With “La Joconda”, I forced myself to give back all the grandeur and noble spirit to these women who experience a slow, daily sacrifice: they have given everything in the name of their families, their children, without ever thinking of themselves. In taking these more documentary series, I remain faithful to my perspective, that of bringing out the beauty there where people don’t see it. It’s the same undertaking that led me to highlight the poetry generated by anodyne spaces, in ill-reputed, anonymous districts.

The subject changes, not the profound motivation. No matter whether the series is called “La Joconda”, “The Day After”, “Modern Times” or “Downtown Memories”, for me, the real underlying question that runs through all these works is “who are you?”

Q: What are your projects to come?

A: Exhibitions of my work are planned in the months to come in Paris, Marseilles, Rabat and Casablanca.  Also, and what’s taking me the most time, I am working on a publication project for the “Modern Times” series. For that, I am making a video to send to publishers. It’s really an uphill struggle, but I am hopeful!

In the future, I also plan to produce a book on the “La Joconda” series, given that these images have clear documentary interest: Morocco is modernizing and the Jocondas I immortalized are tending to disappear. This book will thus be witness to our memory. I am also embarking on a new series on the Casablanca Medina.

Having said that, if I knew how to write well, I don’t think I would have ever produced images, which is the single and only means through which I know how to express myself fully.

Thank you for your time, Ali!

-Leica Internet Team

To read Ali’s interview in the original French version, click here.