Image © Marc Garanger.
There are 200 images, taken out of the 2000 Marc Garanger shot over ten days in 1960. Garanger, at the time a soldier and a photographer for the French army, would install a stool in the shadow cast by the mud houses of Algeria. One by one, villagers, predominantly women, were forced to pose for Garanger, whose task was to produce the images needed for new mandatory ID cards. Less than a year later, Garanger's images of shamed and angry Algerian women would become a symbol of French oppression over its Northern African colony.
Garanger, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the New York Photo Festival, almost didn't make it to the “war” - at the time, “it wasn't called a war, it was an action to secure French regions,” says Garanger. In 1955, he was called for duty, but succeeded, at the last minute in gaining a five-year respite while he went to university. “I thought that by then the war would be over.” It wasn't.
“In the first days, I was assigned to a desk and decided to put some photographs on it. Seeing these images, the commander asked what they were. I told him I had been a photographer for three years and he then named me the official photographer for the division. That's exactly what I wanted them to do.” During his military service, Garanger took more than 20,000 photos.
When the army forced villagers to abandon their homes and to build new ones around the French army's barracks, Garanger's commander asked the photographer to catalog all villagers to produce mandatory ID cards. “In 10 days I took 2000 images,” Garanger tells BJP. “The first days the portraits I took showed the women with their veils on. When I showed the image to the commander, he asked for the veils to be removed.” It was, for the photographer, yet another colonising move from the French army, echoing, he says, Edward Curtis' images of Native Americans. “I felt it was a similar story. Curtis took images of a people being massacred by another. I wanted to show the violence of this war, not physical violence, but the violence imposed on these women.”
Upon seeing the final images, Garanger's captain suddenly stood up screaming: “Come see, come see how ugly they are. They look like monkeys.” Upon hearing this, Garanger swore he would spend the rest of his life proving his captain wrong. And he would do so less than a year after shooting the Femmes Algériennes.
Image © Marc Garanger.
In 1961, the French press would only published state-approved images. Defying regulations that forbade serving officers and soldiers from leaving France without permission, Garanger crossed over to Switzerland. The photographer's goal was to have the images published by L'Illustré Suisse, the Swiss equivalent of Paris Match. “I put civilian clothes and went illegally across the borders with my images under the arm.” Six of the images were published. “If the captain had found a copy of the magazine, I would have been in deep trouble.”
The images won Garanger the Prix Niece in 1966. They were also the subject of a special screening evening at the Rencontres d'Arles in July 1981. “The night started with my images. By the end of it, everyone was clapping. I was seating next Claude Nori, director of the Contrejour publishing house. We both knew a book had to be made.”
The book has been reprinted three times now, he says. The images are also the subject of multiple exhibitions in France and Europe, as well as of many studies on colonisation and identity in universities in the US and the UK. And while Garanger has been a prolific photographer in his 50-year career, the Femmes Algériennes images continued to haunt him over the years.
In 2004, Garanger, under assignment with Le Monde, went back to Algeria, looking to find some of the women he had photographed more than 40 years before. “I didn't think I would find them, but when I would show the book to young men, a lot of them would look at the images and tell me 'I know her, she lives there' or 'this is my mother!' It was surreal. One young man, for example, recognised his mother and when I asked him where she was, he just opened the door to his home and there she was.”
The women didn't recognise the photographer, at first. But, says Garanger, they would recognise themselves in the images and remembered that young army photographer. “I think this has allowed them to take control of their images once again, to affirm the powers that were taken from them. I also think it has allowed these women to tell their kids and grand-kids about the war, something the younger generations haven't witnessed and that was slowly disappearing from the country's consciousness.”
Now, and for the first time in New York, the images form the central point of Fred Ritchin's exhibition at the New York Photo Festival. “His extraordinary photographs of Algerian women unveiled are much more than the identity photos which the French army required of him fifty years ago; they show the women's defiance, sense of betrayal, vulnerability, and enormous strength,” says Ritchin. “As such they become a revealing marker in the clash of civilizations that continues, and even intensifies, today.”
Garanger received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Kathy Ryan, picture editor with the New York Times Magazine. But, he says, the most important for him – and ultimately for the women he photographed 50 years ago – is that his images continue to have an impact. “I want people to remember.”
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