French-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui's work show posthumously in the UK for the first time
The late photojournalist captured cultural diversity and refugees' plight
Leila Alaoui was on assignment in Burkina Faso in January 2016 when her car was gunned down by militants attached to extremist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. At the time, the French-Moroccan photographer was shooting images for a feature by Amnesty International on women’s rights. She survived the attack, but died three days later of heart failure, at the age of 33. Moroccan king Mohammed VI helped support the repatriation of her remains.
Alaoui’s images are now on show in the UK for the first time, for Leila Alaoui: Rite of Passage, at Somerset House in London until February 28. The show’s four bodies of work sketch out the breadth of her style, which sits in the productive intersection between photojournalism and art photography.
“In all her works, she was looking to build a connection between the viewer and the subject, people that she met,” says the show’s curator Grace Perrett, who worked with Alaoui’s gallery and foundation to set up the show. “You might have very different lives to them and be in very different places, but she wanted you to build a kind of intimacy and an empathy with the people she pictured.”
The black-and-white series No Pasara (“No Passage”, 2008) and Natreen (“We Wait”, 2013), the earliest works in the exhibition, picture refugees waiting to cross the Mediterranean. Alaoui photographed North Africans in north Moroccan port cites, heading to Spain, for No Pasara, and in Natreen, Syrians in refugee camps in Lebanon, documenting the combination of home life and transit stations for families in states of limbo.
As in her later series, Alaoui excelled at capturing stories within the lines and expressions of subjects’ faces. In Natreen, a young woman looks to the side as she waits, arms crossed over a steel barrier, appearing both disappointed and resigned. Another shows a man in a black jacket holding a young child, in an oversize sweater. On one side of the couple is a water tank on cinderblocks; on the other, a woman exits a tent and a boy smiles sweetly through gapped teeth.
While Natreen and No Pasara focused on the plight of migrants, Alaoui turned to those within her native country for The Moroccans (2010-2014). The series was inspired by Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958), in which the photographer took a road trip across the US, documenting ordinary people as they danced, shopped, ate and worked. In her version of this famous work, Alaoui – who was born to a French mother and Moroccan father – similarly demonstrates the range of the country’s people, from those in the coastal regions to Berbers in the Atlas Mountains and tribes at the edges of the Sahara. But she swaps Frank’s informal style for depictions that deliberately add dignity and gravitas in their composition.
She travelled around the country with a mobile photography studio, taking pictures of each figure against a black backdrop. The standardisation of their context adds to the idea of individuality: each meets the camera’s gaze not as a representative of a region or tribe, but as a person from a particular context.
“Moroccans have the most complicated relationship to photography among Arabs because they are very apprehensive due to superstition,” Alaoui told writer Olivia Snaije in November 2015. “They are also tired of tourism, so there is a sort of rejection of the camera. My hope was to show traditional Moroccans without the folklore.”
Alaoui, who was born in France and raised in Morocco, studied anthropology in the US. She reportedly always wanted to be a photographer, and began shooting work at the age of 22.
Her pieces were always marked by the sophistication of her choices, as in her staging decisions for The Moroccans, and the arc of her career seemed to bend towards giving visibility to North African and Arab migrants, and towards different media and styles.
The exhibition finishes with her 2015 video L’ile du Diable (Devil’s Island), in which Alaoui met the migrants on the other side of their journey: the French factories that employed North African migrants in the post-war era, where they met opportunity and hostility.
Devil’s Island refers to Seguin Island in the Seine in Paris, which housed a Renault car factory, and the video sets voices from striking workers from the factory alongside excerpts of speeches by former presidents Francois Mitterrand and Charles de Gaulle – which display a breathtaking level of discrimination.
Alaoui had envisioned a second part to the project, following the children of this first generation of migrants and confronting the radicalisation that many fell into. But, in an irony almost too gross to bear, she died before she could write this chapter in the history of contemporary migration.
Leila Alaoui: Rite of Passage is at Somerset House in London until Sunday, February 28
Updated: October 25, 2020 02:18 PM