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.

Cherid Barkaoun

“Portrait de Cherid Barkaoun” was one of Marc Garanger’s pictures of Algerian women taken during in the early 1960s. The image of Barkaoun, “mournful but proud, large eyes kohl-rimmed, hair braided, absently clutching a scarf to her chest as if to keep hold of some sliver of privacy”, as the New York Times put it, reaches across half a century and remains a poignant symbol of oppression by the French and her tribal elders alike.

During the early 1960s, the French authorities required Algerians to have identity cards and a conscript in the French Army, Marc Garanger, was ordered to shoot their portraits. He photographed some 2,000 Algerian women, many of whom had been veiled throughout their adult lives until they uncovered themselves for Granger’s camera. If taking these images was a violation to these women and their cultural beliefs, their cultural beliefs themselves were also violation of their individual rights. It turned Mr. Garanger against French rule and through the humanity of his subjects, he conveyed their anger, oppression and resistance.

“In 1960, I was doing my military service in Algeria. The French army had decided that the indigenous peoples were to have a French identity card. I was asked to photograph all the people in the surrounding villages. I took photographs of nearly two thousand persons, the majority of whom were women, at a rate of about two hundred a day. The faces of the women moved me greatly. They had no choice. They were required to unveil themselves and let themselves be photographed. They had to sit on a stool, outdoors, before a white wall. I was struck by their pointblank stares, first witness to their mute, violent protest.

To express myself with my eye, I took up my camera. To shout my disagreement. For twenty-four months I never stopped, sure that one day I would be able to testify. To tell stories with these images… all of this I did with more force than the dominant military ideology of the era that surrounded me with hatred and violence. My spirits revolt was proportionate to the horrors that I witnessed,” later recalled Garanger. Equally memorable and haunting are Garanger’s later photographs of the Algerian War collected in the 1984 album La Guerre d’Algérie vue par un appelé du contingent. Garanger viewed the publications as a riposte to France’s collective amnesia about the Occupation of North Africa.

Garanger later worked as a freelance photographer in all the republics of the Soviet Union. In 1966 he received the Prix Niepce, one of the most important photography awards in France.