From 1950 through 1980, Lazhar Mansouri photographed the inhabitants of Aïn Beïda (Aurés), his home town in Algeria. Over the years, Mansouri created more than 100,000 portraits of the local townspeople in his own studio.
PORTRAITS OF A VILLAGE
Mansouri’s portraits are a commentary on the time, reflected through families, youth, tribes, and military. His photographs highlight custom, involuntary kitsch, fashion, and a familiar need for youth to be looked on as ‘cool.’ In his professional studio, young Algerian children pose in Sunday mini suits and sunglasses, uncomfortably standing near plastic plants, columns, and various patterned curtains; teenagers don leather jackets, dangling cigarettes from their mouths; and engaged couples lock with a kiss, replaying the moment of their engagements. In a particular photograph, a family stands rigid with three young daughters in the front row. Off to the side is the teenage son in a relaxed pose holding cutting-edge technology—a miniature transistor radio. Smiles are elusive; the individuals take the moment seriously—a treasured photo memory of their family.
In Mansouri’s early youth, he accompanied his grandmother to the local street market where he met a photographer with a studio hidden in the back of a grocery store. The photographer hired the boy and through apprenticeship, Mansouri learned the craft. Eventually, he left to open his own studio in the back of a barber shop, dedicated to portraiture. After years of documentation, Mansouri inadvertently created a photographic archive of everyday people in his region, some who would have rarely been captured. During this defining historical period, Algeria plunged into war as the country fought for their independence from France. However, the stability of Mansouri’s studio was evident in the thousands of people he captured.
PORTRAITS OF BERBER WOMEN
In addition to his family portraits, Mansouri archived hundreds of portraits of Berber women. These women never took off their veil for any men, except their husbands, so the photo archive Mansouri created is exceptional—even unearthing each wive’s facial tattoos. Upon Mansouri’s death, his family considered the necessity of burning all of these controversial negatives. Luckily, the collection of photographs was saved by another photographer who understood its value.
Mansouri describes the ritual of a seasoned professional who tries to be respectful of customs, but at the same time gets what he wants from the subject: “Women often come accompanied by a relative. They follow the man, veiled, not to be recognized in the street. When they come in the studio they submit to my rules. The only person that comes in is the one who wants the photograph. The person to be photographed has some space to fix her or his appearance, a small hand mirror, one on the wall, a hair brush and combs. Generally women come wearing makeup, well dressed with jewelry. A certain distance is imposed otherwise it would be a sign of disrespect for a man to be too close to a woman. The clients are very different and it is almost impossible to tell who has been in a studio before and knows the procedure and who has never seen a camera and needs instruction. The approach has to be very delicate in order to avoid shame, especially since for some of them it is the first time when they are without veil in front of a man they are not related to. Sometimes, I have to intervene if the hair covers the face, or jewelry is not placed where it should be. Then I try to arrange it, but I take all the precautions of language and discretion.”
© Lazhar Mansouri