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North African Stories: Then & Now 

February 20, 2014 
North African Stories: Then and Now juxtaposes two groups of Magnum photographs taken in North Africa over 50 years apart. In so doing we highlight two key activities for the contemporary agency: the recovery and reappraisal of its physical print archive and the development of a more open and experimental means of creative production, while exploring the shift in documentary practice, through looking at work made in a region new to the majority of these photographers.

Two groups of predominantly period, silver gelatin, press prints, made for physical distribution, are by one of the agency’s founders, George Rodger and feature work from trips to Algeria in 1957 & Tunis in 1958. Alongside of this sit a selection of works from a new commission by five Magnum photographers: Abbas, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Mark Power and Mikhael Subotzky, curated by Simon Njami and in collaboration with the Marrakech Museum of Photography and the Visual Arts (MMPVA). Here the diverse approaches to documentary practice and presentation, acknowledge a more complex relationship between author and subject and were conceived for a gallery wall.

Rodger’s work encapsulates Mid-20th Century photojournalistic practice, combining a spirit of adventure and ambition to objectively observe. In the 1940s and ‘50s Africa was still a continent relatively new to the medium of photography. Rodger first travelled there during the war following troop movements in Libya and Eritrea. In the foreword to his book, Desert Journey (1944), he writes: "the book is more a saga of travel than a chronicle of war. In it I make no pretence at analysis - no attempt to comment on the strategy of the various campaigns, to criticize the past or foretell the future. I write only of what I saw". His photographs share a similar ambition, to report accurately and without exaggeration what was happening in front of him.

After photographing the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, Rodger sought refuge in Africa’s people and landscape, becoming Magnum’s correspondent to the continent in 1947. The pictures of his trip through the Algerian desert in 1957 are as much about his personal experience, travelling with his wife Jinx Rodger, as they are of his surroundings. His encounters with the local Tuareg, recounted in his caption sheets which are included in the exhibition, are welcoming – the travellers were frequently invited into their homes, where Rodger appears to have been able to photograph freely. Even in his later work from Tunis and its environs, about which we have less written information, the camera is unchallenged.

Today the photographic act is no longer seen as neutral. New centres of economic and cultural production are emerging and in Africa, photography is one of the primary mediums in contemporary African art. Within this new landscape, and with cultural exchange at its heart, the Marrakech commission was conceived. Working in collaboration with a new Moroccan photography institution and with the input of Simon Njami, founder of La Revue Noir, curator of Africa Remix and a Board Member of the Marrakech Biennial, the challenge was set: how to engage a self-aware city, one with a burgeoning art scene, but also where successive waves of tourism have turned the majority of its residents against the prying photographic eye.

Each photographer employed distinct creative strategies, all shot digitally as the work was to be produced, edited, printed and exhibited within a two week period. The most traditional photojournalist amongst the group, Abbas, responded to his subjects’ reticence with beautiful black and white photographs exploring the city as “a theatre of shadows”. The portrait based component of Goldberg’s multi-media practice was challenged, something he addresses directly in a work refined since his trip. Composed of gridded prints on archival newsprint it features people with their back turned and incorporates the words “it doesn’t matter how close I get if they turn away from me”. A retort to Robert Capa’s famous phrase “if your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” made in the glory days of photojournalism. This heritage is also referenced in the delicate hand retouching he has applied to his evasive subjects silhouettes in chinograph, pastel or pencil. In 20 Dirhams or 1 Photo Meiselas devised a truely collaborative project, working with young Moroccan practitioners Laila Hida and Imane Barakat to set up a street studio photographing women in the Medina. In an exchange of money or a print, the choice to be a part of her work was put in her subjects’ hands. Finding anonymity under the blanket of his large format camera, Mark Power’s majestic panoramics are in fact two pictures, or two parallel realties stitched together. Subotzky composed a film from a six lensed Go-Pro camera creating a fractured narrative of the city with him at its heart.

Simon Njami, in his essay on the project The Shock of Being Seen writes “In Marrakech, we found ourselves lost in translation. But instead of avoiding the problems that were raised by this reality, we decided to embrace them, to confront them in a both visual and intellectual manner. We don’t know about the results, because we decided to give up any form of certainty outside of what we knew we could master: the production of images.”

The cultural, social and political contexts in which these two groups of photographs were produced are completely different. In North Africa each photographer encounters unfamiliar territory, they are the “other” as much as their subject and their photography is mediated through their own individual histories and experiences. The historic and contemporary photographic responses are quite different but they are united as members of Magnum in an effort to portray the world as they see it, documenting without physical manipulation, hoping to capture the essence of things in the lenses of their cameras.

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