They were very important writers, but I discovered later that there were also tremendous French writers from the former colonies who were not taught in the schools in France, even though in some areas the majority of children are from African countries.
I wanted to take this a step further and explore this eagerness to create your own consumer universe, so I created the Halal clothing brand. It was crazy. KA: No, nothing was for sale — it was a political statement. I did register the name, however, and later I received many offers from companies to buy it — but I never sold it. That was the idea of the project — it was a sort of a cynical action to get a response from journalists.
This was in — so that tells you that the current rhetoric about radicalisation and Islam is nothing new. RR: Before the Halal project you were mainly taking photographs. Did you start out taking pictures in and around the neighbourhood where you grew up? KA: Yes, I was always taking pictures there.
I grew up in a neighbourhood of concrete buildings — but behind these towers there was a huge area of forest and a farm. I remember how much time I spent there when I was a kid, looking at the landscape, drawing it. It was just a small piece of land, but in this very rough, poor, concrete place, it probably helped to create my desire for dreaming.
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I used to run alone in that forest, and I think my teenage years were made bearable because of the presence of nature. KA: I think my first photographs were of architecture, taken in Mexico when I was travelling. When you photograph people — whether the person is posing for you or not — there are so many things going on: your curiosity for other cultures, other generations, other types of people; you are also trying to understand how they think. When I was back in Paris after more than two years travelling, it happened that I was crossing the street one very sunny afternoon and I heard behind me, in the middle of this crowd in the street, two men talking like women in Arabic.
I turned around and discovered the two men were dressed as women, wearing skirts and stilettos.
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They were just so free and brave that I decided to follow them. KA: At that time — this was — Algeria was in the middle of a civil war between the Islamists and the army. And to be someone who looked different could mean death. Many of the transgender people that I met were in Paris to escape from the risk of being killed in Algeria. So that was how it came about that I started to photograph this group of transgender immigrants — completely by chance, but also through curiosity.
I think this notion of curiosity is very important in my practice, because I really like to share not only my experiences but also a non-objectified view of people who are unknown to the mainstream. When I was working on these photographs over a two-year period, my aim was to show the viewer something they had no idea about. RR: Were they comfortable with you taking pictures of them? I can imagine that if you are an illegal immigrant and working as a transgender prostitute, you are probably worried about getting the wrong kind of attention.
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KA: I think it was more difficult for me at first to gain their confidence because I was Algerian, and they were all worried I would send images to their families. It took about six months of building up trust before I could make the first pictures. I started out by trying to assist them with their legal efforts to stay in France, because they were all illegal immigrants. You can imagine the danger they faced: if they were arrested by the police and sent back to Algeria dressed as women, they might have been murdered on arrival.
These Algerian transgender people are very strong. Few of them have pimps. They also have different ways to enjoy life — one of them is to have a nice big party for their birthday, but the birthday is like a ritual, either for presenting a new boyfriend or to entertain the audience with the love story that they are living with the boyfriend.
As we became friends, they asked me to become the photographer of their parties and fake weddings. I know how to do wedding photographs, of course, with a flash and a nice camera. And for me it was a way to illustrate the good moments in their lives, because I was also shooting scenes of prostitution and their difficult day-to-day existence.
I wanted to represent the whole picture of their lives, to show that even illegal migrants working as transgender prostitutes have moments of joy, of happiness. For me, this is about being respectful. When we represent minority communities like this one, we need to include images that do not show them as victims.
RR: Many of your pictures portray very intimate scenes, and almost feel like they were taken by a member of the family. How did you manage to create this sense of closeness with your subjects? And I really do think that this empathy is often expressed in my work. Some of them have very tough stories. Especially in Muslim societies, they are often the perfect scapegoat. So when I talk about making humanist photographs, it means creating pictures that convey a certain respect for someone and trying to do as much as I can to retain the dignity of that person.
RR: You took approximately 2, photographs over this period. How did you finally decide that the project was finished? KA: With a project like that you do not decide. It was very much a life project, and I do not think it is finished even today because their struggle is ongoing. Last January, I helped to organise a symposium on the relationship between prostitution and colonialism, and some Algerian transgender prostitutes came.
RR: Did you identify with the way these illegal immigrants risked publically defying social norms to fashion their own identity?
KA: I completely identify myself as a rebel, and I think transgender people are rebels. For me, this rebel attitude is definitely what makes a man or a woman into a bigger person. If we do not resist society, we become its slaves. And what I have discovered so far is that both transgender people and people like me are alone when we first decide to struggle. Of course then you discover the communities that are also resisting.
During this period the transgender prostitutes became like my sisters. And if I was touched by them, it was partly because they were the incarnation of being alone and trying to establish a social group just to protect themselves. This will never happen. A transvestite? No way, darling. Finally, one day I decided that I would show them myself. KA: Yes, definitely. I transformed my small apartment in Belleville and painted it all black except for one section of white wall where I projected a slide show of these pictures. Then I covered the whole neighbourhood with advertisements for the show.
And all the outsiders of Paris came! I should have photographed all of them.
I did this every evening for three months and as word-of-mouth spread, activists and art-historians also came, and I met many incredible people. RR: Most of your later video projects also feature groups that find themselves apart from the mainstream of society in one way or another, including amputees and people with mental health issues. You seem deeply interested in the experience of people who are different and so are made to feel like outsiders in their own society.
KA: Yes, of course. We are surrounded by a continuum of humiliation in society and this produces monsters sometimes, like terrorists who feel they have nothing left to lose. From my perspective, our world today cannot be understood without taking into account the psychological and emotional aspects of society.