- Published on Thursday, 10 May 2012 19:00
- Category: Art
This photograph nearly got me arrested. Yeah, yeah—I’m being hyperbolic here, but I’m also not joking. What is this image, exactly? It is a few pieces of bread wrapped in a plastic sack—resting against a wall in Algiers, it’s a small still life in a public park on a cloudy afternoon. It’s also a rapid-fire introduction to the politics of power, public space and images in contemporary Algeria.
I moved to Algiers for a brief term of comparative research for my doctoral dissertation, which primarily concentrates on Morocco. However much I’d like to pretend otherwise, I arrived with latent, pre-determined notions of a culturally-unified “Maghreb”— the kind of ideas a good cultural theorist (or non-blind observer) will quickly destroy.
In essence, I had that god-awful, “intro-to-the-Middle-East-and-North-Africa-course” mentality. I expected to find the shared traditional complexes provided by a common religion, geographical proximity, Amazigh (Berber) / Arab cultural amalgamation and the experience of French colonial occupation and exploitation.
Stupid me—I forgot about a little thing called “the political.”
In Morocco, images of public buildings such as Parliament are understood to be off-limits; I was told similar things concerning Algeria. Due to an exhausting history of political conflict within the capital city in particular, heightened concern for security often translates to a paranoia surrounding photography (coupled with suspicion for journalists). Of course, police stations, military installations, seaport buildings and the People’s Palace never struck me as appropriate or allowable photographic objects—bread, however, was a different story—or so I thought. I chose to photograph this innocuous picture, as it does illustrate part of an extant, shared cultural complex—the belief that bread should never be placed in the trash, but left outside instead. Banal, right? Apparently not.
Like many public places in the capital city, Liberty Park has phenomenal architecture, beautiful gardens and interesting multi-lingual graffiti, young couples huddled together, stealing a moment of solitude, businessmen reading the paper and unemployed teens lounging around. This is the allegedly public space where I’ve witnessed tourists and Algerians snapping away at the intricately tiled mosaic and the finely engraved plaque at the entrance to the park.
I crouched down, took the picture, stood back up, dusted myself off and turned to leave. An older man dressed in everyday attire appeared out of nowhere yelling at me in Arabic—he didn’t look like a policeman or an undercover security agent or even a park attendant. “Why are you taking pictures?” he barked at me. “What are you doing?”
Immediately, I was taken aback. Because he approached me in Arabic, I answered immediately in Arabic. It would have been better to respond in French, but I’m quicker on my feet in Arabic, and using English didn’t even come to mind. I assumed that I should leave out “I’m here for research,” or the fact that I write for a media outlet—if not exactly a “journalist.” I couldn’t exactly claim tourism, since I had a cultural visa for studies instead. All of the sudden, I had eight more men surrounding me. I don’t know where they were standing before; I hadn’t seen any of them in the half hour I’d been walking through the park. They circled me, blocked the stairs exiting the park, and the following is a brief account of the cacophony that ensued:
--“What, the picture I just took?”
--“Yes—WHY did you take that?!”
--“The picture of the bread? By the wall?!”
--“Yes! That picture—why?”
--“Because…it’s a beautiful image?”
--No, no, no, absolutely not.”
--“Calm down, brother, it’s just a piece of bread—I don’t see the problem.”
--“You tell me to calm down?! No, that’s absolutely forbidden. NO PICTURES. What do you do with these images? Why are you taking pictures?”
--“I’m a photographer, I’m an artist—it’s what I do.”
--“Where do you send them? Who sees them later?”
--“No one, it’s for my art. Is that a problem?”
--“Yes, it’s a problem—that’s illegal here!”
--“Wait, this is a public park. It’s not a government building—why not? I can’t take pictures anywhere?”
--“No, it’s totally forbidden here. Don’t do it. No images, no pictures. Understand?”
--“Alright, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again—no problem, I understand.”
I ducked between two of the men and bolted up the steps. They followed me, shouting, “No, it IS a problem! It’s a problem because it’s forbidden! You cannot take pictures here!”
Afterwards, I recounted the story to several friends: Algerians, Americans, Moroccans and French alike. A few of my Algerian friends told me I was most likely followed for a while, due to my nationality, but when questioned as to why I would be addressed in Arabic, and not French I was told, “because you look Arab,” or “they know you speak Arabic.” I heard several similar stories, but the most revealing conversation came from a longtime American resident of Algeria. He told me that the men who approached me were clearly not undercover police, and were most likely park attendants or everyday citizens who have internalized political mechanisms of social control—in short, access to the cultural capital of knowledge. Control over the image is part of this—while “official” buildings are, in fact, off-limits—informal photography may not be legally forbidden, but interactions like I had in the park are far from uncommon.
It isn’t that Algeria doesn’t have a tradition of art in the public space—rather, quite the reverse. In marked contrast to Morocco, the walls of Algiers’ streets are covered in murals and mosaics that embody local heritage, record historical events (ranging from pre-history to sub-Saharan African solidarity to the struggle against colonial occupation) and the roots of civil identity construction. I should reiterate: even when trying to take pictures of these murals, I was approached, chastised and told to put away the camera. It seems that art in the public space is meant to be viewed and experienced, memorialized through sight, but not carried away—and yet, the roots run deeper.
I never photograph without personal knowledge, and I generally try to avoid images that might include people, even accidentally. This is due in no small part to sensitivities concerning the role of images in post-colonial history—where documentation of “natives” was used not only as a tool for delineating difference, but also as a contribution to racist colonial anthropological studies of “human types.” This is to say nothing of the invasion of privacy that often went hand in hand with Orientalist photography and the commodification of North African culture for tourism in later eras. Yet, in Algeria—unlike Morocco, where I can’t recall this happening on a regular basis—I was approached by Algerians asking me to take their pictures, such as the group of children pictured above. Several times, trying to sneak a picture here and there—a cathedral in Oran, of a palm tree in Algiers—young kids would approach me and yell “Ukhti! (Sister) Take a picture of me! Take a picture with me!” In one instance, a boy about eight years old with a remarkably macho swagger told me, “Great work, my dear! Now put it on Facebook—I’m FAMOUS!”
People have the capacity to speak, to request images—and forbid them. Spaces cannot speak, and remain regulated by the powers that be—even to an, internalized, sensitive degree. Algerian regulation of the public image is a manifestation of specific forms of political power that, to be truthful—I have yet to figure out.By Amanda Rogers, Aslan Media Contributing Writer