The circulation of Algerian ID photos in North African homes and Western museums
In 1982, French photographer Mark Garanger published a book of photos entitled Femmes Algeriennes 1960 that consisted of ID images produced in 1960, when he was conscripted into the French army and dispatched to Algeria during the war of independence (1954-1962). A single-page introduction is the exception in this book of portraits of Algerian women that otherwise contains no words, in which Garanger describes techniques deployed to capture images:
The French army decided to impose ID cards on Algerian natives slated for the so-called regroupement or “resettlement camps”. I photographed approximately 2,000 people, 200 a day, mainly women ... It was the faces of the women that impressed me greatly. They had no choice. They were forced to unveil themselves and let themselves be photographed. They had to sit on a stool, outdoors, in front of the white wall of the hamlet. I received their gaze at close range, the first witness to their mute, violent protest. I want to bear witness [temoigner] on their behalf.35
I juxtapose the fruits of Garanger’s army work of the 1960s that continue to circulate widely in European and American museums with a second photograph - the 1924 official school picture of an all-girls school in Tlemcen, Algeria, one established by the Islamic reformist Nahda or “renaissance” movement to educate women in Arabic (Figure 7.5). The eleven-year-old child on the viewer’s left, second row from the end, is Yamina Ben Yelles, my mother-in-law, whom I never met. In a series of unpublished oral history interviews collected in the 1980s towards the end of her life by her daughter, Chafika Berber, my sister-inlaw, Yamina described the first time she was forced to go out in public without her veil. Her husband, Sid-Ahmed Berber, my father-in-law, had been expelled from Algeria to France for nationalist activities and, as she sat unveiled amid her bundles and young children on the pier in Marseilles in 1952, she recalled to her daughter the many ways that she felt naked, exposed, and miserable to the colonizer’s gaze. The area of the school photograph containing the face of Yamina Ben Yelles was reproduced and enlarged by her family, a visual excerpt, in order to create an individual portrait for her descendants.
I bring together Garanger’s ID images and my Algerian in-laws’ family photos to open up an inquiry into the nature of “indigenous photography”. Parallel to colonialist photography is the anthropological concept of “indigenous photography”, to describe the moment when photographic techniques are disseminated to the natives (indigenes). Owing its introduction in Algeria to primarily French photographers, the production of “indigenous photography” represents a historically rich resource and archive. However, is the concept of indigenous photography a recognition that, as in the Arab East, many minorities were trained in photography? Scholars have profiled Arab Christians or Armenians as the visual documenters for the urban Levantine elites. In Tlemcen, Algeria, a city that was one-third Jewish until independence in 1962, among the prominent photographers in the region were the Cohen family, Algerian Jews who maintained a large photography studio. Or is indigenous photography the deployment of the rich and violent heritage of colonialist photography by the native? Does my mother-in-law’s photo speak only to the formal properties of the well-known, French-imported practice of the annual school picture, or does it bring some knowledge about Algerian women’s education in 1924 and the unwritten history of local Arabic language education initiatives by a populist, urban, reformist Muslim movement? What happens when these photos are cropped, detached, and framed to decorate the homes of her children and grandchildren because the school photo and the ID card are what remain visually of a beloved mother and grandmother?36 Moreover, even in a pre-Photoshop but post-independent North Africa, there have been a variety of strategies to appropriate, repurpose, repatriate the endlessly circulating colonial images that produced and reduced categories of the Algerian to a minimum type, that evacuated any violence from the frame, and that demonstrably exhibited the empire’s control over the visual archive. How do we understand when aspects
Figure 7.5 Yamina Ben Yelles, Berber family photographs, Tlemcen. Author’s collection.
of the dominant colonial photographic practices, such as photocopying technologies and framing practices, are re-contextualized by the formerly colonized? How does one overcome, or avoid, seeing oneself as the French colonizers saw the Algerian natives? Activist visual anthropology came to one conventional solution by placing the subaltern and the colonized behind the camera, aiming to produce what the discipline of anthropology terms indigenous photography, an ambiguous multivalent term that no longer means photographs of the indigenous inhabitants but encompasses photography by the indigenous inhabitants. Indeed, what defines an image as indigenous?37 Or perhaps indigenous photography is reclaiming through re-captioning the Scenes et Types images re-circulating on websites, as, for example, a Moroccan website that posts colonial Scenes et Types postcards to pose the haunting question: “Can you find your ancestor, your grandparents?”38