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The Storyteller: A Few Words in Honour of Leila Alaoui

Selections remembers the brave and talented French-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui, killed by Al Qaeda in Burkina Faso in January while working on a human rights project with Amnesty International

Leila Alaoui was a storyteller. From behind the lens, the French-Moroccan photographer had a quiet yet sure-footed gift for offering her often marginalised subjects the chance to tell their own stories with a direct gaze that captured their dignity. It was clear she did not view them as victims, and that she believed deeply in the arts as a channel for empowerment.

Eliminating the typically lopsided power dynamic in which the photographer controls how the subject is represented to the viewer, Alaoui spent time in the communities in which she shot, taking care not to keep herself separate or even to retain an appearance of objectivity. Like an anthropologist, she described herself as a “participant observer” and often engaged in weeks of fieldwork before she even began to shoot.

This is perhaps most evident in The Moroccans, a series of portraits which Alaoui shot from a mobile studio while road tripping through the country of her roots. Rather than falling into the trap of Orientalising the colorfully dressed locals she encountered in rural places by shooting them photojournalist style, the life-size images place the viewer at the same height as the subject, looking directly into their eyes with great sensitivity.

It is impossible to view these portraits and not imagine the dialogue that took place between the photographer and the elderly man in traditional dress clutching a violin, or to ignore the strength in a woman’s prayerful hands and her open body language that shows her confident familiarity with Alaoui. The series was shown in Paris in 2015 at La Maison Européene de la Photographie in conjunction with the Biennial of Contemporary Arab World Photography.

Alaoui used her camera as a tool (or a weapon) for creating a tremendous social impact. Her work appeared in some of the world’s most prestigious and widely read publications, including Vogue and The New York Times. She was an activist photographer and took on projects directly related to furthering human rights — from Everyday Heroes of Syria, a project that brought awareness to the tough lives of individual Syrian refugees living in camps scattered through Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, to Crossings, a video work that documented and reenacted the physical and psychological damage experienced by Sub-Saharan African migrants who had attempted dangerous journeys to European shores.

Alaoui’s last assignment should have taken place when she was an old lady with wrinkled, shaking hands, stubbornly insistent on clicking the shutter to the last. Unfairly, she was just 33 years old and in Burkina Faso to shoot for My Body, My Rights, a campaign for human rights watchdog group Amnesty International when she was killed. Al Qaeda may have murdered both Alaoui and her driver Mahamadi Ouedraogo, but the photographer’s powerful body of work, and the messages of tolerance, diversity, dignity, and most of all love that it contained, are shining more brightly than ever.

“I met Leila Alaoui in the spring of 2003, when my team and I went to Marrakech to shoot one of my video installations called Mahdokht, a character from the magic realist novella, Women Without Men. The video required casting over 20 children. Leila Alaoui, who at the time was only 21 years old, became in charge of controlling and helping the children, most of whom were under seven years old. A few years later, I met Leila again in New York ,while she was finishing her studies at the New York City University.

In 2014, I visited Leila’s parents in their beautiful home in Marrakech. Her mother showed me Leila’s most recent portraits, which were hung on their walls. I was stunned by the maturity and the complexity of those photographs.

In December of 2015, I saw Leila’s latest body of work, the most arresting series of images called The Moroccans, which were exhibited at La Maison Europeene de la Photographie as part of the first Biennale of Photography of the Contemporary Arab World, in Paris.

The Moroccans are some of the most powerful portraits ever taken by Leila; and perhaps this series marks the most outstanding images ever produced about Morocco. The grace, beauty and humanity of these captivating faces penetrate deep in one’s soul, without any form of exoticism or sentimentality.

There are no words that I can use to describe the depth of my sorrow for the sudden and tragic loss of Leila. Certainly in my life time, I have experienced many deaths and passing of my loved ones; but few have ever hit me so hard, as there is no way to justify the pointless violence that took the life of a brilliant and innocent young woman artist such as Leila.” Shirin Neshat

Credits: A longer version of this tribute, ‘Remembering Leila Alaoui,’ was originally published in Guernica


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One-on-One Issue #35, on page 140-143.

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Danna Lorch is a Dubai-based writer focusing on art and pop culture from the Middle East. She blogs at ‘Danna Writes’ and serves as Contributor to ArtSlant. Recent publications include The National, Jadaliyya, Contemporary Practices, Canvas, and VOGUE (India). Danna holds a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University.

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