Madonna of Bentalha

In 1997, Hocine Zaourar was working for AFP in Algeria, covering the brutal conflict there which is now saddly forgotten. The military government’s cancellation of 1992 elections led to a civil conflict and massacres of villagers by Islamic fractions that climaxed in 1997. The day after the massacre of Bentalha, on 23 September 1997, Hocine was prevented by the authorities to photograph the victims in hospitals. On exiting a hospital, he took three photos of a woman suffering from severe pain. Hiding this film in his bag. he sent it to AFP.

The photo was featured on the front pages of many newspapers around the world. It showed, according to the captions, a mother who lost her eight children. The woman, with exposed cleft palate and teeth, her mouth twisted in pain, was reminiscent of screaming mouths depicted on Picasso’s Guernica. It was quickly dubbed the “Bentalha Madonna”, and controversy ensued. It was revealed that the woman, Umm Saad did not lose her children, but three members of his family. She also showed her displeasure at the name of the picture since she was a Muslim and didn’t want to be identified with Chrisitian Madonna, and tried to sue the AFP for defamation and exploitation of human suffering.

The controversy did not stop there; after Hocine Zaourar won the World Press Photography Award, he was accused of taking a staged photo that was decidedly pro-government. Whether the photo was anti-guerillas or not, the Algerian government didn’t enjoy the publicity. The Algerian army had previously tried to ban, or worse, neutralize the journalists who reported the civil disorder in the country. For this and other violent photos, Hocine Zaourar was eventually forbidden from working in Algeria.

For further details, see Our Lady of Bentalha, a film by Pascal Convert — who also sculpted a homage to the photo.

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