Anything Can Happen Any Time
A conversation between Michket Krifa and Zohra Bensemra

Zohra Bensemra has worked as a press photographer since 1990. Initially, she devoted herself to political events in her home country of Algeria. But now her focus has expanded. She photographs in crisis areas all over the world: Afghanistan, Chechnya, Sudan. Her haunting photos combine a feeling for the “decisive moment” with a formal view of pictorial composition and color.
A selection of works by Bemsemra, to whom a whole floor of the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt is devoted, is currently on view in the exhibition Time Present. Contemporary Photography from the Deutsche Bank Collection at the Singapore Art Museum. Curator Michket Krifa, who specializes in photography from the Middle East and Africa, talked with Zohra Bensemra about her dangerous work in crisis regions and about her view of Arab women.

Michket Krifa: Zohra Bensemra, you began your career as a press photographer in the early 1990s, with the appearance of an independent press in Algeria—one of the first steps in the democratization process and the move from a one-party to a multi-party system. Unfortunately this initial period of euphoria was very brief, with Algeria subsequently plunged into terrorism and civil war. What was that like for a young photographer like you?

Zohra Bensemra: I still remember that day in 1995. I was at El Watan, the French-language paper I was working for at the time. We’d heard an explosion and all gone to see what was going on. There were three photographers, two men and me: they went off towards the fire, I headed for the smoke. When I got there I found three corpses, one bigger than the others. There was a woman’s bag there, and a pair of shoes, and I realized it was a woman’s body. I went into shock: it was the first time in my life that I’d seen a burnt corpse.

Before I took the photo I had my head clutched in my hands, asking myself over and over, how could they do something like this? I was quite young then and terribly upset. I was shaking and crying. I didn’t know what to do, but—I don’t know how—I really felt I had to take photos and testify to what I was seeing. Back at the office I was scared to develop the film. Not because of the terrible things on it, but because I was afraid I’d made a mess of the photos. For me the whole world had to see the horrors these terrorists had inflicted on us. I even said to my workmate, if I’ve messed up this film I’m giving up photography. I really put my career on the line the day I saw a burnt body for the first time.

Right then I realized how important my profession was. It was absolutely vital to do the job right through to the end. And that’s how the photo of the corpse got onto the front page of my paper. I cried for twentyfour hours after that; it was something completely new to me. When I woke up the next morning, though, something had changed in me, and I was ready to face anything to do my job well.

Can you be a witness and a participant at the same time? At times like that is it possible to stay neutral and objective?

It was very hard for me to stay neutral given the terror that was destroying my country; I was in a state of chronic inner turmoil. And you can’t be neutral when you’re at the funeral of a workmate who’s been shot by terrorists. At those funerals each of us thought we’d be the next to go. How can you stay neutral when you know you’re a target? Journalists were targets and everybody who opposed the fanatics had to be killed. As a photographer you had to be very cunning and take all sorts of precautions for going out to work—and going home too. Never take the same route twice the same day, or the next day at the same time. We were scared of our own shadows. Sometimes we had to give up living at home and hide out in a hotel. Our workmates and colleagues became our families.

Back then everything was a mix, there was no professional side and no personal side; the two went together, there was no separating them.

When I met you in 2001 you had already taken an incredible number of powerful photos. We worked together on a tribute exhibition for the Algerian photographers who had covered the civil war years. The exhibition was called Algérie, les Faits et les Effets (Algeria: The Facts, the Effects). It was shown in the FNAC galleries in France in 2003, then at the Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie in Bamako in 2005, where you were awarded the European Union Prize for the best African press photographer. This was the first exhibition there featuring images from the Algerian press. How did the public and other professionals react?

I think apart from you everybody was astonished by the fact that I was a woman photographer in Algeria. And the question everybody asked me—“What’s it like being a female photographer in Algeria?”— really started to get on my nerves. In Algeria nobody was astonished.

Press photography is something very new in the Arab world. Until the 1990s most of the conflicts there were covered by Western photographers for Western media and press outlets. Do the two points of view complement each other, or are there cultural codes that distinguish them?

It’s true that in the past conflicts were covered exclusively by Westerners, and it was obvious why: our countries were on lockdown, the governments ran the press, and there weren’t enough outlets. The situation has changed, as the Algerian example shows: a photo by a (male) Algerian photographer got a World Press Photo award in the nineties, and in the same decade I was recruited by Reuters. When I started out, I learned from Algerian photographers from the old days. They taught me how to approach people and take photos of them living their everyday lives. And I’m still using that approach today.

After years in the trade I finally realized that it’s not your cultural background that makes a powerful photo, it’s your heart and your head. You have to be a human being, receptive to the world and to cultural diversity—and someone with a critical spirit.

In the series we included in the group exhibition "Women by Women" at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Frankfurt, you showed photos of very different Algerian women in very different professions and situations. This is a far cry from the stereotypes of the veil and poverty and exploitation. Is it a major concern for you to offer the world another angle on Arab women?

Being an Arab woman myself, I want to look at Arab women in a real, a realistic way. As I mentioned, it annoyed me being pestered about what it was like to be a female photographer in “my society”. I’ve always thought that in some respects “my society” was more open than the West. Arab women are made of flesh and blood, and just like in every other society there are women who stand up and women who submit. There are women who have opted for the veil and others who haven’t, and we have to respect those individual choices. I come from a country where women took an active part in the war of liberation in the 1950s, and those women handed on their spirit of daring to me.

Apart from the Islamist demonstrations of the early nineties, where all women had to be veiled, I have personally never had a major problem as a female photographer. I’ve never felt ill at ease—I even had the impression that people trusted me more because I was a woman.

In the Arab world the culture of the image is very new. For a long time images were controlled by successive regimes and people didn’t like having their picture taken. What’s changed? And how do you go about, firstly, getting people’s confidence and secondly, taking photographs in public places—especially in the street, where it is often not permitted?

At the beginning I used to hide my camera under my jacket so as to go unnoticed. When I wanted a shot I had to move very fast so that whoever I was photographing didn’t see me. Sometimes I would pretend to be photographing someone who was with me, placing him or her near the person I was getting ready to photograph. It was almost like stealing a photo. You had to be smart.

People were against photography out of modesty. Arab society was and still is very conservative, but I think that since the revolutions and the wars there is more receptivity for images. In Algeria, for example, with the move to democracy and the advent of the private press, there have been hundreds of new publications, and hundreds of photographers have been recruited. The coverage of the conflict in Algeria during the nineties helped open people up to new ideas: they let themselves be photographed to express their suffering. They wanted to show the world what the Islamist terrorists were putting them through. On the other hand, it’s still hard to take pictures of everyday life; Arabs are very reserved and even in Pakistan I’ve met with the same obstacles. I don’t hide my camera under my jacket anymore, but I tread carefully; I introduce myself and chat with people before I start. I reassure them so that I’m not seen as threatening, then I wait for the moment when they hardly even see me anymore.

In the field your emphasis is often on photos which not only outline a situation but also pack a real emotional punch. For instance those powerful pictures from Darfur.

Despite life’s difficulties human beings have incredible resilience, and I feel I have to show that: in a way I see it as a sign of hope and optimism—even tears mean that person is still alive.

Even in the most dramatic situations you highlight moments when life comes out on top. A poetry of the everyday. What’s the message you’re trying to get across?

The Algerian experience taught me a lot. Some people had the guts not to knuckle under to the Islamist dictatorship and keep on living despite the danger: they went out to restaurants and stayed in the discos until the curfew was over. That was another way of fighting back. For an outside observer it often looked as if there was no life there at all, but as an eyewitness I felt I had to show this side, and share it, because that was part of the conflict too. One thing is for sure, nothing stops life from going on and even getting the upper hand. I always come back very moved after I’ve spent several hours in a slum in Pakistan, where I see people living in the direst poverty but still smiling and not giving in. They’re the people who taught me that life goes on in spite of everything.

What’s the ideal moment for taking a photograph—the decisive moment? And what do you see as the ideal press photo?

As a beginner I went strictly for the “hard-hitting picture”, but with time I’ve realized they have a short life span. The next day another “hard-hitting picture” comes along and takes its place. There are shock images everywhere and they’re so easy to capture that they end up focusing not on a conflict that’s destroying a whole people, but purely on the most sensational aspects. Fortunately my point of view has changed. For me the ideal press photo is one that can use a detail to tell a whole story. The kind of image that really gets to people and sticks in their memory. Even now we remember Cartier-Bresson’s images.

So, a photo that relate a specific moment. When I’m starting on a story, I take my first pictures, which as a rule I don’t use. But these let me come to grips with the subject and approach the person concerned. They also let that person get used to the camera going off, and they are also a way of getting to know each other. It’s important to gain people’s acceptance: that way they’re at ease, my presence stops bothering them and they trust me enough to share a moment of their life with me.

What I set out to do in my photos now is relate the event as it’s taking place in front of me, while at the same time I try to get the viewers to believe they are right there with me. Each time this involves a moment of intense concentration when everything— heart, head, eyes—has to function together, in unison. But I also set great store in my instincts.

The decisive moment is when all this falls harmoniously into place.

A lot of today’s press photographers have given up agencies in favor of galleries and the art market. How come you’re still so keen on working for an agency?

Being with an agency simplifies a lot. For a start my pictures get picked up straight away: the pace is hellish, for sure, and you’re under pressure the whole time. You always have to work fast. But that doesn’t stop me from taking pictures that can be shown in galleries as well. The agency is also a great backup. I’ve talked about this a lot with freelance photographer friends who have terrific trouble financing their assignments and take a lot more risks in the field than agency photographers. They have to carry out their contracts at all costs. And what’s more, conflicts are very different these days: the photographer’s a target now—you only have to look at the Arab Spring and especially the hostilities in Syria to see that.

The question is, is it worth taking so many chances when everybody and anybody can take photos? Sometimes I have the impression that we’re in competition with “phonography”: some papers have fired photographers and given their journalists iPhones. The press is providing less and less space for photos, so why leave an agency that still has clients? Reuters has launched "The Wider Image", an iPad application that lets you do practically the same work as photographers working for art galleries; you can create in-depth stories which the media often take up, and which can be exhibited as well.

What do you think of the kind of press photo that combines dramatic content with highly glamorized presentation?

These days you have to stick to certain rules. In lots of countries, especially in Europe, the papers avoid running photos that shock. But since you can’t ignore the horrors of reality or pretend they’re not happening, people working in the field have to find a way of getting the message across. If you can dress some scenes up using ambient light, why not, but I’m against tampering with images or using Photoshop to change the whole context.

Over the last three years you’ve reported on the Arab uprisings: Tunisia, Libya, Syria. What has it been like covering these historic moments?

In Tunisia it was like being on my home ground. Algerians and Tunisians have a shared history, culture, and traditions, but we mustn’t forget that the Tunisian revolution wasn’t a war like in Libya or Syria. Covering Tunisia was easy; I didn’t have to change my way of approaching the subject at all and I enjoyed taking pictures in a country where, oddly, I felt at home. In Libya and Syria, though, things were more complicated: this was war, with heavy artillery, countries split along factional lines, and danger everywhere; you were looking over your shoulder the whole time. In Libya you had no access to the civilian population. The Libyan mindset doesn’t include photographing families and you had to go along with that, so it was hard to show people’s suffering. And in both these countries you had to take care not to be manipulated: everyone has their own version of a given conflict. In Syria I would rather have worked with the refugees: as different as their perspectives were, there was a real humanitarian drama to reveal, a whole people being displaced.

For more than ten years now you’ve been working in countries in a state of conflict or crisis. How do you cope with the risks involved and how do you prepare for that?

Even if I’m often in top news countries, I do what any other journalist does before setting off: I do my research on the country and on the conflict. I also have to find a trustworthy “fixer” who’ll be waiting for me when I get there. It is also vital to know what the dangers are before you leave, both as a journalist, and as a woman. I also need a minimum of other information: how to approach the locals, what the taboos are, what you can do easily. Taking care not to shock people, or rub them the wrong way, most of all, make them angry.

When you go somewhere to cover a conflict, you have to be ready for anything; no one can afford to believe they’re in control. Anything can happen anytime, and no one can protect you from an incoming shell. First and foremost you have to make sure you’re with local people you can trust, who can at least stop you from being kidnapped. As I’ve already said, the journalist has become a target in today’s conflicts. There are political issues that elude a photographer and I don’t think there are any particular protective measures that can be taken; it’s up to the photographer to stay on the alert, not jump at the first offer of help that comes along, have a good grasp of the circumstances, and not take sides politically.

You’re currently based in Pakistan and travel a lot in Afghanistan. A whole new world?

You’re not kidding. It’s very complicated for women here; whether you’re a local or a foreigner makes no difference. I’ve even changed the way I dress.

After more than twenty years in the profession, what do you think has changed in your approach?

I feel much more mature—I don’t get instantly carried away the way I used to when I was starting out. I’ve become much more demanding of myself. I’m more attentive to matters of detail and I do all I can not to lapse into sensationalism.