During the civil war in Algeria, Nadia Benchallal roamed the streets photographing women going about their daily activities. When war broke out in Bosnia, Benchallal captured the images of women and children fleeing the Srebrenician massacre. During the tumultuous years in Myanmar, Benchallal forged friendships with the women there and recorded their everyday lives. France, Palestine, Iran, Burma, Malaysia, the list of places Benchallal has documented over the last two decades is extensive and continues to expand each year. But what is Benchallal searching for? Why is she taking these photographs?
What started out as a personal journey for the Franco-Algerian photojournalist wanting to discover and understand her homeland soon morphed into a far-reaching long-term project. It is a project that involves photographing Muslim women all over the world, portraying the different identities in order to “go beyond the stereotypes” and to “build a bridge between cultures and within the Muslim world itself”. Nadia Benchallal joined Professor Shamoon Zamir at New York University Abu Dhabi on the 27th of September 2012, for an interview-style presentation about her black and white photo-essay, entitled “Sisters,” which is currently on display at the Downtown Campus.
Of Algerian descent, but born and raised in France, Benchallal had always considered herself French. Other than a few family holidays back to Algeria scattered throughout her childhood, she had not much exposure to her origins while growing up. In 1992, while Benchallal was studying photography at ICT in New York, Algeria was undergoing a massive shift following the coup d’état and outbreak of civil war. It was at this point that Nadia developed an acute interest about her homeland and began to ask herself, “What is Algeria, what is this country?” Twenty years after her first visit to Algeria, Benchallal packed her camera bag and boarded a boat from Marseilles, heading into the heart of a society in turmoil to discover an answer to her questions.
From the start, Benchallal’s focus has always been on women; old women, mothers, teenage girls and children dominate her photographs. After her presentation, a man in the largely female-dominated audience jokingly asked Benchallal if she would ever do a project on ‘brothers’. As Benchallal herself said, however, she is “completely fascinated by women” because they often are the ones with the untold stories. “We don’t hear them,” Benchallal stated, “They are silent.”
“You see women in the front of these revolutions, but they don’t want to take the power. They [just] want to be equal,” Benchallal continued. One of the photographs on display illustrates this idea: a lone woman holding a sign, protesting by herself in the streets. Without photographic evidence, how many courageous moments like this go unnoticed and untold? The search for these hidden stories steered Benchallal from woman to woman, and she found she was constantly uncovering more with each photograph she snapped. “I was pushed to enter the houses of these women and I discovered a world that I didn’t know at all.”
Benchallal’s curiosity and fascination about the world of these women convinced her to expand her project from the streets in Algeria to the frontlines of the war in Bosnia and, later, into documenting other regions in periods of unrest. As Benchallal explained during the presentation, she had first heard about the war over the news but had grown to mistrust how the media portrayed events. While in Algeria, she explained, “What I was seeing in the media was not what I was experiencing in the houses” and so Benchallal decided to take on the task of documenting for herself the consequences of war on women.
What is the most striking about Benchallal ‘s photographs of these women dealing with war is the glimmer of hope and determination that shines through amidst the destruction and chaos of the setting. Women smile, children run around playing and families gather together. Many of the photographs seem to show normal life progressing as usual with little hint to the external circumstances. Benchallal doesn’t look for anything in particular in her photographs, she said, she simply documents what is there. “I’m looking for the life, what it is. Sometimes it’s joyful, sometimes it’s melancholic, sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it’s dangerous…” With a click of the shutter, Nadia Benchallal captures the essence of the women; the fleeting expressions that epitomize courage and faith, and tell a revealing story.