In and Out of Algeria
Bruno Boudjelal's Documentary of Affect
An image taken by Bruno Boudjelal in Algeria in 2001 could easily be judged as a photographic failure. It depicts a window plastered with posters that show portrait pictures of different men, but the photograph's details are rendered indecipherable. Subsumed within a blur, facial features are barely visible; the camera lens refuses to focus on any aspect of its environment. This is an image that appears to obscure, rather than disclose, information. To know that the image was taken in Algeria during the civil war (1991–2002), might enable one to speculate on what is represented in the frame. Throughout the civil war, 7,000–20,000 people disappeared, a fact that was silenced by law in post-conflict Algeria. During this period, Algerians often presented portraits of their missing relatives to photographers so that they would re-photograph them: an attempt to both share information and express their grief. While Boudjelal's 2001 photograph resonates with these images, he does not fulfil the function expected of the camera. Instead of representing the people who populate his images, he obscures their faces.
The image comes from Jours Intranquilles (Disquiet Days) (1993–2003), a series that depicts the journeys Boudjelal has taken to Algeria since his first visit first in 1993, after learning that his father was an Algerian immigrant who arrived in France prior to the outbreak of the War of Independence (1954–1962). Driven by the wish to reunite with a family he never met, Boudjelal bought a camera and returned to the country repeatedly over the next decade. The result is a diversified project of encounters that includes family snapshots, images of sites marked by violence, a self-portrait, and undefined landscapes.
In this essay, I will investigate the affective charge of Boudjelal's photographs by considering him against the genre of the documentary itself. I will describe how Disquiet Days forms a 'documentary of affect' that counters the understanding of documentary photography as a medium that produces objective, legible and transparent images by approaching photography as a performative event, and not merely a static representation. Boudjelal's blurred photograph seems to benefit from such an approach, as it shifts the viewer's attention from attempting to identify what is represented to an inquiry into the nature of the encounter between the photographer and his surroundings. By registering the photographer's embodied perception and lived experience, Disquiet Days brings the focus of documentary photography from representation to relation. It is an inquiry into post-colonial French-Algerian memory as much as it tests the limits of the documentary itself.
Affect and Conflict Zone Photography
When Bruno Boudjelal first travelled to Algeria in 1993, the country was driven by a violent civil war that would claim 200,000 lives over the next decade. As opposed to the Vietnam War (1955–1975), which was widely documented by photojournalists, the events that shook Algeria at the end of the twentieth century remained largely unrepresented in the media. Between 1993 and 1997, 58 reporters were murdered and press freedom was greatly limited. The Swiss photographer Michael von Graffenried noted that photography was treated with great suspicion in war-driven Algeria. Yet, it was precisely at the moment that the civil war was rapidly unfolding that Boudjelal decided to travel to Algeria with his camera in hand. The photographs that form the Disquiet Days project are accompanied by short diary entries which provide a valuable resource for understanding the photographer's own position within the events recorded:
I'm disoriented, no idea where I am. I've never been so frightened. But I'm not dreaming. What I'm really hearing are gunshots. I've never been faced with such violence; everything seems chaotic. I've no idea what to do […] As for continuing to take pictures, I don't even dare get my camera out.
Within these conditions, a photograph taken by Algerian photojournalist Hocine Zaourar, which depicts a grieving woman being comforted by another, quickly became the emblematic image of an obscure war. Taken shortly after a massacre in the Algerian village of Bentalha, which unfolded on the 23 September 1997 and killed more than 400 people, the image was reproduced in over 700 publications worldwide.
Focusing on the anguish of the female figure, Zaourar's image carries a strong emotive charge, emphasized by the placement of the other woman's hand around the grieving figures' heart. With her eyes turned away from the photographer, the grieving woman epitomized an unspeakable despair and quickly became a symbol for the suffering of the Algerian people at the end of the twentieth century, as it was awarded the World Press Photo in 1997. By capturing a moment of extreme pain and making it accessible to an international audience, the photograph fulfilled the expectations placed upon photojournalistic work.
Photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have noted that the World Press Photo Awards submissions merely attest to our insatiable hunger for images of suffering. Artist and writer Martha Rosler has compared the field of the documentary to horror movies as they both transform fear into fantasy and imagery, concluding that images of pain and suffering can easily be dispensed with. Faced with such mechanisms of spectatorship, is conflict zone photography capable of escaping easy absorption within the global circulation of images and of provoking a greater engagement of viewers?
Like Zaourar, Boudjelal also visited Bentalha. However, he arrived in the village five years after the massacre had taken place. His photographs depict abandoned interiors, tainted pavements and snapshots of streets taken through windscreens. One image shows a photograph taken in an interior that is flooded with artificial yellow light. The room is empty apart from a television set placed in the corner and children's shoes left in disarray. A feeling of abandonment prevails: what appears to be a large gathering shown on television contrasts strikingly with the lack of human presence in the photograph. The shoes, left in the middle of the room as if in a hurry, form an ambiguous trace of human presence. Depicting a space once marked by violence, Boudjelal's image investigates the memories that reside within it as well as the long-lasting effects of a massacre that unfolded over one night. While Boudjelal considers his photographs as a form of conflict zone photography, he also offers a reinterpretation of the medium. By showing spectres of the past that still haunt the present, the photograph resists a quick representation of suffering in favour of a more affective encounter.
Comparing Boudjelal's and Zaourar's images of Bentalha, one notices that while the Madonna of Bentalha can quickly be identified as a representation of suffering, Boudjelal's photograph requires greater sensorial engagement by the viewer, as it shifts the focus of the image from an emotive representation of pain towards a space marked by traumatic memory. By allowing the viewer to inhabit the abandoned space and engage with the memories of its inhabitants, the image ultimately resists the phenomenon of what Susan Moeller called 'compassion fatigue', experienced when being constantly exposed to often sensationalized imagery of suffering. In its diversion from Zaourar's photojournalistic approach, Boudjelal's image facilitates encounters between viewers and spaces marked by violence, encounters that differ from what Jill Bennett described as 'generalized accounts of emotional identification'. By doing so, he redefines documentary photography as providing a springboard towards a more personal engagement with trauma, indicating the impossibility for representation to contain suffering. His photograph therefore follows what art historian Simon O'Sullivan saw as the defining characteristics of affect, namely it's extra-discursivity and extra-textuality.
Affect, according to O'Sullivan, cannot be accessed through cognitive knowledge but through experience itself. Therefore, it cannot be captured by representation but can rather reside within it, waiting for the viewer to unlock it. Boudjelal's photograph offers the space for such an engagement, as it does not attempt to represent trauma, ultimately unmasking what photojournalism fails to show: the 'unrepresentability' of suffering.
The Photograph as Distance between Photographer and Subject
In the larger context of conflict zone photography and photojournalism, Disquiet Days presents an unusual approach as demonstrated through the comparison of Boudjelal's photograph from Bentalha with Zaourar's iconic image. Facilitating an imaginative engagement of viewers with memories of violence and trauma, Boudjelal's images are also crucial for understanding his own relationship to Algeria, and this relationship is often negotiated through framing: many of Boudjelal's photographs were taken through hotel and car windows or gate bars, marking the distance between photographer and his subject. For instance, one photograph from 2001 was taken from the inside of a car.
With the camera's focus on the windscreen, its multiple cracks and a torn sticker attached to it, the landscape that unfolds in front of the car becomes blurred. The viewer can barely recognize the heavily colonnaded French colonial buildings on both sides of the road, forming a type of tunnel vision that directs the gaze towards a car driving in the far distance. On the right side, just above a figure that emerges from beneath the arcades, there are patches of white, green and red, indicative of the Algerian flag. The Arabic writing on the sticker reveals the political sentiments in Algeria in 2001, reading 'Vote for him! He has a heart'.
The unusual focus of the camera emphasizes the photograph's personal dimension: rather than conveying information about the Algerian landscape the image reveals the photographer's own position within the scene, shifting the focus from representation to the conditions in which the photograph was taken. Taken from a safe position behind the windscreen, it reflects Boudjelal's uneasiness and uncertainty about his own presence in Algeria and his relationship to the country. The image therefore visualizes what writer and cultural critic David Levi-Strauss considers to be photography's defining characteristics:
Photographs by themselves certainly cannot tell 'the whole truth' – they are always only instants. What they do most persistently is to register the relation of photographer to subject – the distance from one to another – and this understanding is a profoundly important political process.
This distance is marked by the camera's focus on the torn sticker bearing writing in Arabic – a language foreign to Boudjelal who only found out about his Algerian origins in early adulthood. Paradoxically, the sharpness of the sticker in the photograph emphasizes Boudjelal's isolation in Algeria and his inability to fully comprehend his surroundings.
Such a focusing of the camera suggests that, for Boudjelal, documentary photography is not capable of providing any fixed answers: instead, it can reflect the photographer's lived experience which, in this case, was defined by a feeling of confusion and lack of understanding – also, on a linguistic level. Art historian TJ Demos provides a useful framework for the study of contemporary documentary strategies developed at a time of increasing migrations, exiles and a broadly understood crisis of globalization. He discusses the work of artists such as Emily Jacir, who often uses blurs and blind spots in her documentary practice as a marker of the statelessness of Palestinian people and increasing migrations across the globe. For example, in Crossing Surda (A Record of Going to and from Work) (2003), she secretly shot the daily route walked by Palestinians whose movement is severely restricted by Israeli checkpoints. The documentary is defined by the artist's own bodily movement, similarly to Boudjelal's image. As anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards noted, photography forms 'a phenomenologically and sensorially integrated medium, embodied and experienced by both its makers and its users'.
The photograph, which reflects Boudjelal's own bodily and emotional presence within the space depicted, follows precisely such an understanding of the medium. It therefore also requires a phenomenological, rather than cognitive engagement, of the viewer, forming what philosopher Gilles Deleuze defined as an 'encountered sign'. For Deleuze, the encountered sign can only be sensed rather than understood which renders it superior to any clear and legible statement or representation as it engages the subject on an emotional, psychological and sensorial way.
The idea of photography as an expression of distance between photographer and subject represented within the image was also acknowledged by the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, who was deployed to Algeria between 1955–1956 and who later conducted ethnographic research in the country. As Bourdieu explained, photography was 'tightly interwoven with the relationship that I have had to my subject at any particular time'. However, since Bourdieu's photographs accompanied his research into the social and cultural life in Algeria, they served as aids in knowledge production about the country. Therefore, Bourdieu would aim at 'a complete photographic coverage of a given context', taking multiple photographs of objects from different angles. For example, he would photograph a marriage lamp or a grain mill in order to study how it had been made later on. Two photographs of a grain mill were taken from different viewing angles – from above and from the level of the object, and the mill was shown both open and closed. Centred within the images, the mill constitutes their sole focus. The austere look of the photographs successfully conceals the position of the photographer under a mask of objectivity and factuality. Similarly, Bourdieu's photographs of veiled women show his persistent interest in framing the same subject within different viewpoints, in an attempt to create an almost encyclopaedic collection of images that would document different aspects of life in Algeria.
At the same time that Bourdieu was taking images in Algeria, photography was also applied by the French colonial administration, producing what writer Malek Alloula called 'a pseudo knowledge of the colony'. For example, photographs of unveiled Amazigh women, taken by French army photographer Marc Garanger in the early 1960s for the purposes of issuing identity cards, frame these women within uniform viewpoints.
When faced with Bourdieu's use of photography as a means of gathering 'facts' about the country, devoid of a more personal reflection upon his own implications within the photographic event and within Algeria in general, it is striking that photography allowed Bourdieu, in his own words, to 'accept' himself. The events of the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962) marked an end to the existing power structure and saw the introduction of torture, executions and internment camps. Bourdieu therefore located his documentary photography at the crossing between an objective recording device, adhering to a seemingly factual visual language, and a more personal tool that helped him develop a relationship with Algeria. However, Boudjelal's photography, which bears indications of the photographer's own presence within the scene, presents a more radical approach to documentary, inscribing it aesthetically with a constant negotiation of the distance between photographer and a country both familiar and foreign.
Images Taken in Motion
Looking at Boudjelal's photographs, it is possible to learn about the photographer's affective encounters with Algeria through specific framing techniques as much as through their blurred quality. For example, a snapshot taken in Algeria in 2003 registers a brief meeting of gazes between Boudjelal and two figures sat outside of a house.
While the woman looks up to the camera, the eyes of the man sat next to her are obscured by a shadow, suggesting that he is either about to look up or has already looked away. The figures remain immobile yet the photograph is blurred, suggesting that Boudjelal pressed the camera's shutter while walking past them. As Boudjelal explained, 'photography also concerns the way in which you move your body in space. For me, photography is a matter of fluidity'. As a result, he often takes photographs while walking or driving, linking the photographic image to his own movements through Algeria.
At first, Boudjelal's choice not to frame his pictures but shoot them 'on the go' was motivated by the violent context of the civil war rather than by a deliberate aesthetic choice. However, it soon became his signature style, reflecting the larger scope of the photographic project, which 'was driven by the idea of movement'. Therefore, Boudjelal's camera does not function as a static witness to a scene but immerses itself in the world, rendering the photographic image an active component of being in space. His approach differs largely from Bourdieu's, who treated the camera as a passive observer: in a sequence of almost 20 photographs depicting crossroads in the Algerian city of Blida people walk past Bourdieu's camera, with all photographs taken from a uniform, fixed viewpoint. Instead, Boudjelal's blurred snapshot registers the photographer's movement through space, rendering the photographic image contingent to processes that remain outside of the photographer's control.
The photographic blur as a sign of contingency is also found in the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter who, after having meticulously painted a scene, subsequently effaces it by scraping the canvas with wide spatulas. Richter said that by obscuring representation, he can 'let something come into being rather than to create', eventually arriving at 'something that is beyond my understanding'. Playing with painterly failure, Richter applies the blur in order to abdicate some of his artistic control and allow for his paintings to emerge in front of the viewer who struggles to identify shapes within the painting. The blur in Boudjelal's photographs permits a similar process to take place, allowing external factors to shape the photograph: as the photographer remains in motion, both his position in space and his perspective shift. The blur captures these moments of transition. The photographic image emerges, therefore, at the same moment as the photographer's own experience of space. This simultaneous 'becoming' echoes O'Sullivan's understanding of affect which is 'less involved in making sense of the world and more involved in exploring the possibilities of being, of becoming in the world'.
Contrary to Bourdieu's static and seemingly factual representations of Algeria, Boudjelal's photographs remain in flux; the blur suggests that the photographer does not hold full control over the image, nor over his environment. The use of the blur by Boudjelal presents a different approach to exploring Algeria – one which does not attempt to control space but which shows Boudjelal's own idea of Algeria and his relationship to it in a state of emergence.
By tying the photographic image to his own experience of space, Boudjelal demonstrates a lack of interest in firmly framing Algeria within static representations. Instead, the country remains out of focus in Disquiet Days: a record of missed or incomplete encounters with people and landscapes. Such encounters allowed Boudjelal's relationship with Algeria to develop. The fluidity inscribed within the project reflects Boudjelal's openness to let the environment influence him and his photographs rather than attempting to frame Algeria within preconceived shots. According to O'Sullivan, affective encounters take place once one engages with the world without 'spectacles of subjectivity'. By rendering photography as an integral part of his own emerging sense of space, Boudjelal does not hold on to any fixed identity. Instead, by relentlessly moving through the country with camera in hand he follows Moroccan sociologist Hassan Rachik's views on identity:
Identity is not a simple line linking an individual to a group. It is for you to construct your own identity multiplying endlessly your circles of belonging [...] Identity is the actual connection that a biography has with other biographies and other groups.
Such an understanding of identity shifts the focus from one's roots to their routes, the journeys that can generate further circles of belonging. The crossing of gazes between Boudjelal and the figures sat outside of a house, and the moment of their brief encounter, can act as an attempt to multiply one's circles of belonging. At the same time, as Catherine Zuromskis noted, snapshots carrying a deep affective quality can ultimately provide 'a powerful space for creating fantasy social relations and imagining alternate realities'. The ability to imagine such alternative realities echoes O'Sullivan's idea of affect's 'deterritorializing' function, whereby an image can displace viewers from their everyday experiences into a space where the imagining of other worlds becomes possible. Boudjelal's photographs can therefore serve as portals that allow for an imaginary realization of these circles of belonging.
Disquiet Days is a project that both records and facilitates Boudjelal's encounters with Algeria. The blurred photograph of posters featuring portrait photographs of young men with which this essay opened, thematizes both the opacity of the violent civil war as well as Boudjelal's own undefined relationship with Algeria. At the same time, the photograph's out of focus quality echoes the lack of knowledge about the fates of those depicted. Journalist Salim Ghezali wrote in 2009:
After the declaration of the state of siege in June 1991, the world became blurred again. As it was before Independence. Irretrievably blurred […] a blur, an awareness of being immersed in a blur, is currently the highest level of lucidity to which we can claim.
Ghezali's observations certainly resonate with Boudjelal's own lack of certainty when faced with a country that evokes feelings of both familiarity and estrangement. Disquiet Days locates itself at a meeting point between conflict zone photography, travel photography and autobiographical photographs. Shifting the focus of documentary photography from external subjects to the photographer's own relationship to them, what the project really documents are encounters between Boudjelal and his long lost homeland.
The simultaneous emergence of the photograph and the photographer's own sense of self within his environment demonstrate that Boudjelal allows for moments of intense encounter to shape his photographs, dissolving fixed representations and mapping out alternative modes of knowledge production in the process. As a result, Boudjelal's Algeria appears in flux, continuously changing, and difficult to define: ultimately – and essentially – ungraspable. Therefore, Disquiet Days offers an alternative way of framing a country that, throughout the colonial period, remained 'one of the most familiar and prominent forms of alterity in relation to which modern France defined herself'. Over 30 years after the end of French colonialism in Algeria, Disquiet Days documents a search for an unknown cultural identity through images that transcend representation so as to seek out affective encounters.
Rooting his documentary style in movement, contingency and sensorial engagement, Boudjelal moves away from the photographic image as a fixed representation towards an understanding of photography as an integral component of one's own emerging sense of space. His documents are a response: 'I thought I was coming to Algeria for answers,' he once noted: 'but all my certainties have been smashed to pieces'.
 L. Kennedy and C. Patrick, eds., The Violence of The Image: Photography and International Conflict (London: IB Tauris, 2013), p. 86.
 See: M. von Graffenried, Inside Algeria: 1991–1998 (New York: Aperture, 1998).
 B. Boudjelal, Disquiet Days (London: Autograph ABP, 2009), unpaginated diary entry from 18 May 1993.
 Boudjelal's unawareness of his own double heritage, both French and Algerian, reflected a wider phenomenon: similar to Boudjelal's father other Algerians who emigrated at the time of decolonial struggles in the 1950s and early 1960s would also often hide their origins once they arrived in Europe. See: L. Lucassen et al., eds., Paths of Integration: Migrants in Western Europe 1880-2004 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), p. 53.
 Kennedy and Patrick, op cit., p. 79.
 A. Collings, Words of Fire: Independent Journalists who Challenge Dictators, Druglords and Other Enemies of Free Press (New York: New York University Press, 2001), p. 89.
 M. von Graffenried, op cit., p. 15.
 Boudjelal, op cit., diary entry from 4 May 1993.
 Kennedy and Patrick, op cit., pp. 80–81.
 Ibid., p.79.
 Ibid., p.80.
 A. Broomberg and O. Chanarin, 'Unconcerned But Not Indifferent' (2008), in Documentary: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Julian Stallabrass (London: Whitechapel Gallery, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), pp. 98–103, p. 100.
 M. Rosler, 'In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)' (1981), in Stallabrass, op cit., p. 124.
 'I did not have any photographic style but for me, photography was tied to the tradition of conflict zone photography. At that time, accidentally or not, Algeria was driven by war'. Bruno Boudjelal quoted in 'Photographe sensible. Bruno Boudjelal: Portrait et interview,' Le Magazine de la Cité, 11 September 2006, http://www.histoire-immigration.fr/magazine/2006/9/photographe-sensible-bruno-boudjelal-portrait-et-interview. Translation author's own.
 The grieving woman was named the 'Madonna of Bentalha by European and American press. Kennedy and Patrick, op cit., p. 80.
 S. Moeller, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 2.
 J. Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 10.
 S. O'Sullivan, 'The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art Beyond Representation,' Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 6.3 (2001), p. 126
 Ibid., p.127.
 Bennet, op cit., p. 102.
 The torn sticker might refer to the presidential elections of 1999 and the great hopes associated with the army-backed ex-independence fighter, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
 D. Levi-Strauss, Between The Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (New York: Aperture, 2005), p. 10.
 In the diary entries, Boudjelal emphasizes his inability to understand his family's conversations in Arabic. See: Boudjelal, op cit., diary entry from 16 May 1993.
 T.J. Demos, The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2013), pp. 103–123.
 E. Edwards, 'Objects of Affect: Photography Beyond The Image,' Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): p. 228.
 G. Delleuze, Proust and Signs (New York: George Braziller, 1972).
 Bennett, op cit., p. 36.
 Bourdieu quoted in: F. Schultheis, 'Pierre Bourdieu and Algeria: An Elective Affinity,' in P. Bourdieu, Picturing Algeria (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 1.
 C. Frisinghelli, 'Comments on the Photographic Documentations of Pierre Bourdieu,' in Bourdieu, op cit., p. 212.
 Bourdieu in: Schultheis, op cit., p. 12.
 M. Alloula, The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 4.
 M. Garanger, Femmes Algériennes 1960 (Biarritz: Atlantica, 2002).
 Bourdieu in: Schultheis, op cit., p. 32.
 J. McCormack, Collective Memory: France and the Algerian War 1954–1962 (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2007), p. 15.
 'Bruno Boudjelal: De La Photographie en Mouvement... Entretien de Marian Nur Goni avec Bruno Boudjelal,' Africultures, 6 July 2010, http://www.africultures.com/php/index.php?nav=article&no=9578.
 Gerhard Richter quoted in: J. Stallabrass, 'Gerhard Richter and Mass Media', https://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/essays/RICHTER.pdf.
 O'Sullivan, ibid., p. 130.
 O'Sullivan, ibid., p. 128.
 H. Rachik, 'Nom Relatif et Nom Fixe', Mediterraneans 11 (1999–2000), pp. 227–228.
 C. Zuromskis, Snapshot Photography: The Lives of Images (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), p. 13.
 O'Sullivan, ibid., p. 130.
 S. Ghezali, 'Algeria: Act 2,' in Boudjelal, op cit., unpaginated.
 'Bruno Boudjelal: Algeria, Troubling Proximities,' Leica Camera Blog, 27 February 2013, http://blog.leica-camera.com/photographers/interviews/bruno-boudjelal-algeria-troubling-proximities/
 Jean Robert Henry, French and Algerian Identities from Colonial Times to the Present: A Century of Interaction, ed. A. Hargreaves and M. Heffernan (Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1993), p. 3.
 Boudjelal, op cit., unpaginated, diary entry from 8 June 1993.