You have a taste for literature, film and photography: why have you given preference to the latter as a means of expression?
In truth, I have hesitated between the three forms. I once went on a shoot in India, and took pictures there. It occurred to me more clearly that photography was forcing me to be fully in the present moment, completely there, whereas in film it’s always possible to rearrange and reorganise, as it is with writing. What I found interesting is the urgency of being present in photography: if you are not open to everything happening, you’re finished. I therefore chose photography for the enjoyment as well as to fulfil an inner necessity.
Which doesn’t mean I have completely given up the other two media: as well as shooting, I have also made many recordings of music and voices. I have also made two documentary films to reflect a broader dimension. And I write all the time: I have suitcases full of little notebooks, filled with bits of sentences, which are like pictures.
All of your work is deeply anchored in the Mediterranean. Why are you so fond of it?
What guides me is essentially a quest of the intimate, the soul. From my childhood’s Algerian flavour – inherited from my father and grandmother - I have kept a yearning for the South. It’s my own Proust’s madeleine. My Mediterranean odyssey began in Andalusia, in the mid-1980s, then across North Africa, especially Morocco, and Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Lebanon, Libya, and now Southern Italy. I even went to Portugal; although not geographically Mediterranean, I was happy to include it – more important than borders, my key interest is the soul of the South. I focus on what is essential, what I can find from one country to the other, with different energies.
How would you describe the Mediterranean soul? And how do you give it a face?
It’s a blend of many things: light and dark, glints of harsh light that hit you hard, that can kill certain things, dry them out; it’s also the shade in which people find shelter, and in which many details are played out. What I constantly seek - this dawned on me over time - is strangeness and magic, the mystery that can arise in the most banal everyday scenes. Anyone should be able to travel through the image without me forcing anything upon them. What I show is not a truth: it’s something broader, which flourishes over time, in life.
When shooting in these locations, I seek out tensions: light/shadow and sensuality/rigor. The Mediterranean is full of such contrasts. There are multiple colours, scents, fragrances, materials, and at the same time, there is a kind of rigor resulting from both religion and the aridness of life. There’s no other choice but to fight it out and live. All the places I have loved and photographed are places steeped in history, miscegenation, places which have experienced a rise and fall.
I’m not trying to document these cities, just taking photographs in these cities. I photograph people and settings, like a theatre in which all these passions are played out - emotions which ultimately become my own, which I remember from my childhood, which make me who I am. It’s like an imaginary, poetic echo ringing between them and me.
How do you work in these surroundings? Posed or stolen shots?
I walk and walk and walk, I seek out, and all of a sudden I’m struck by a movement, a gaze, a head of hair. The space appears to me like a stage set: I see lines, people stooping, about to move, about to express something that appeals to me… which is when I move closer. I set up, I reveal myself as a photographer. Sometimes, people wonder why I camp out there for a whole hour although nothing’s happening. I instantly feel when I’m not welcome, and if so, I leave. If I’m accepted, I stay, and my presence causes things; people sometimes start to “act” for me. I love the mix of spontaneity and staged, provoked situations: it means that even though I stay behind the lens, I too can exist in the image.Your images always have a very assertive, very present composition. Do you constantly have these dynamics in mind?
I love framing my shots, I truly enjoy it. I am constantly looking for something very specific: to find it, I move around a lot, I almost dance, it’s almost a trance. There’s no reasoning, no censorship: I am free, free to do anything. I can frame an eye, or just an arm. I love to play: photography makes life fun. I like to play with depth of field and motion blur, to focus on secondary characters hidden in the background. I like to look for and find details in the shadows; I use the light as a revealer, a beacon, a torch.
At the same time, I also have a form of ambivalence in me, which I believe characterizes the Mediterranean. My images reflect these contrasts: rigor and gentleness, darkness and light, love and death. In them, as in the Mediterranean, there is a sense of the tragic which somehow does not restrain life’s fullness: openness, a manner of loving with arms outstretched.
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