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Fethi Sahraoui : A Conversation With Ryma Chikhoune

The world’s most well-known depictions of Algeria, whether it is in film, art, literature or photography, have often been shared through the eyes of an outsider. When it comes to the greats––even those who have been honored outside of Algeria, from M’hamed Issiakhem to Assia Djebar––their works are not nearly as recognized on the international stage.

“It’s up to this new generation to document the country away from the clichés of Westerners,” said photographer Fethi Sahraoui.

It is precisely what the 25-year-old is doing himself. Sahraoui’s photographs, which have been published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, displayed in New York City and Paris, are a reflection of the North African country as it is today. With his singular point of view, Sahraoui offers a look into contemporary Algeria arguably as it has never been seen before.

“Photography has given me the opportunity to travel all the time, which is really positive and good for me,” he said, over the phone from his hometown of Mascara. “But at the same time, I made the choice for Algeria to be my first field of work. I prefer to work in this vast and undocumented country.”

He has been dividing his time between Mascara­­––in Northwest Algeria––and Algiers, where he has been capturing the mass, youth-led protests centered in the country’s capital. “I’ve been pushing my body to its limits,” he said of the endless hours and days spent traveling and immersed in the movement. The shots, which capture an intimacy and electric energy often present in his work, are striking.

Now, following “The Cult of Souls,” his series on the Algerian festival known as Waada, and “Stadiumphilia,” which depicts the testosterone-fueled frenzy of soccer matches, Sahraoui presents “B as Bouchentouf,” his most personal series to date.

This latest project features your cousin as the subject. What made you want to tell this story?

What is interesting is that photography permitted me to know him more, to get closer to him and to spend more time with him. Before starting photography, we didn’t have this intimate relationship. But now, I feel like I know him more and more.

The series is shot at the family’s abandoned farm house. Had you visited it before?

Yes, I have a lot of memories visiting the farm. I would visit them during summer days, eating fresh fruits, all before it was completely abandoned.

What fruits did they produce?

They used to have high quality grape vines, pineapples and peaches. They also had almonds. It was like heaven on earth.

And you saw it slowly deteriorate because of the lack of water resource?

Absolutely. The whole region is suffering from this problem, because of the misuse of this resource.

They were forced to move?

Yes, they moved South.

In the information you share about the series, you mention that your cousin would visit the farm every day, wandering around its surroundings. Did you follow him during one of those days?

Yes, my cousin, whose name is Bouchentouf, would hitchhike or take a cab. He would even sometimes walk, because the farm is around 7 kilometers [4 miles] from the new family home. He would walk all the way to the farm to spend time there.

How old is Bouchentouf?

He was born in 1996. Now, he must be around 22 or 23.

You also touch on the fact that he has a mental disability.

It’s worth mentioning that he’s someone I’ve always photographed, but at the same time, I was so hesitant, because of his mental disability. And you know, as human beings, we all have doubts. It’s important to have doubts. I questioned myself, what I was trying to do. Am I mocking this human being? I’m a member of 220 Collective, a family of five photographers based in different parts of the country, and I discussed the project with them early on. They loved the pictures, and one of them said, “You are making him a hero. You are not mocking him.”

Have they diagnosed his disability?

It’s not perfectly diagnosed, but what he is suffering from can be defined as an advanced level of schizophrenia.

When was the series shot?

The project started 3 to 4 years ago.

Do you generally work in black and white?

Mostly, yes.

Why is that?

Sometimes, it can be a question of feeling. But at the same time, it can have a technical explanation. I do think that the light can be so harsh, and black and white can work really well with this.

Has the family seen the photographs?

Yes. Unfortunately, they don’t have a big knowledge of photography at all. But photography is a universal language, and most of the time, they do connect with the pictures. Sometimes, it makes them laugh. Sometimes it makes them sad.

What about Bouchentouf?

What is important for me, for the past 3 to 4 years, I feel now he’s more aware of my existence. He calls me Souar, which means photographer. A few months ago, one of his brothers called me and said that Bouchentouf wanted to talk to me, and that was one of the most moving things to me.

It’s a beautiful series.
Thank you.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been documenting the social landscape with a certain focus on the youth. I’ll soon be doing a month-long fellowship in New York. And since last summer, I’ve been working on my first photo book. To be brief, it’s a box which contains two books. Each book contains a different project, but the main link of each project is youth.

My publisher is going to be Youcef Krache, who is a member of my collective. Youcef had the idea of launching a new publishing house with his wife, Zohor. It’s dedicated to mainly fine art and photography books. I think that’s going to be special.

What’s the name of the publishing house?

It’s La Chambre Claire.

What do you see for yourself moving forward?

Photography has given me the opportunity to travel all the time, which is really positive and good for me. But at the same time, I made the choice for Algeria to be my first field of work. I prefer to work in this vast and undocumented country.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.