Les grands ensembles, a visual history of social housing in Algiers  | Isabelle Mayault
Les grands ensembles, a visual history of social housing in Algiers
Isabelle Mayault   
Karim Kal is a French-Algerian photographer who graduated in 2003 from the Vevey school of photography (Switzerland). His main inspiration is Algiers, its relation to theworld and its recent history. This Visual Sunday is dedicated to two of Kal’s series: Images of Algiers , a four-picture allegory of the capital’s open nature and Cités d’urgence (“Housing estate emergency”) which questions the origins of Algiers’ tower blocks.

Les grands ensembles, a visual history of social housing in Algiers  | Isabelle Mayault
Images of Algiers
What did you start working on as a beginner in photography?

Images of Algiers was one of my very first projects. I started to work on it during my studies. In 1997, I started to go regularly to Algiers, at least twice a year. My relationship to Algeria was a private one, linked to my family, but also to a process of learning, of becoming an adult. I was nineteen years old in 1997, so I was a young adult then. And, even though it can seem paradoxical, I was discovering for the first time the freedom inherent to the life of a young adult while being caught in a civil war. My family lived in a working-class area, Bab el Oued, where we were directly confronted to the reality of the war. My experience there was extremely remote from my initial ideas and representations of Algeria. In Europe, all you could hear about Algeria was linked to security issues and sometimes, although exceptionally, to social issues. I wanted to give my version of this story, to offer some sort of counterpoint.

Images of Algiers is an extremely peaceful work. This is what you intended to convey?
What stroke me the most was how brave the inhabitants of Algiers were. That’s what I wanted to convey, their braveness. Between 1997 and 2002, I constantly asked myself which representation of Algeria I wanted to give, which images would convey fairly and accurately my experience there and my daily confrontation to the inhabitants’ extremely courageous attitude. I had no desire to erase from my work the daily obstacles, to erase how dramatic the situation could be, but I was surrounded by people whose life was going forward. From France, you are confronted to the misery of the rest of the world through the prism of TV and magazines and, in the best case scenario, through newspapers. You realize only when you travel and, in my case, when I reached Algeria, that people continue to breathe and to have so-called normal activities.
The other side of my relationship to Algeria, which is even more intimate than my family ties, is the discrepancy I discovered between how I was imagining life in Algeria from France and how my cousins and relatives were imagining my life in France from Algeria. My vision of Algeria was entirely stereotypical, I knew only Algeria through what was said about the political events. My cousins, on the contrary, knew with great accuracy about my life in France, its reality, its complexity. This is also why Images of Algiers is dedicated to the point of view of an inhabitant of Algiers on the rest of the world, its open nature. At that time, I realized that, if you want to become aware and curious about the rest of the world, it’s better to grow in a third-world country than in Europe.

Les grands ensembles, a visual history of social housing in Algiers  | Isabelle Mayault
Les Palmiers
From this five-year work period, we only know of Images of Algiers. But surely you took more than four pictures in five years?

At that time, my practice of image production was extremely radical. In the end, I only kept these four images because these four only convey exactly what my relationship to Algeria was, and what I wanted to say about it. In 1997-1998, I started to shoot very quickly and a lot, but after a while, I stopped, feeling that my angle was wrong. I waited, I let the images come to me, and eventually, they did.

You mentioned the braveness of the inhabitants of Algiers. Did you take any portrait?
No. I did portraits for myself. But I never wanted to display them.

You went back to Algeria in 2006 for Cités d’urgence .
Actually, I never stopped going to Algeria, but indeed, I went there in 2006 specifically for this new project. Again, I aimed at working on the relation between Algeria and the rest of the world, but this time, through its colonial history. It was three months after the riots in suburban Paris, which occurred in 2005, during the autumn. At that time, I was stricken to see that pictures of these neighborhoods in flames were everywhere in the press, French and international. Time magazine, for instance, did a few covers with such pictures. I realized then that these images were very similar to those of the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, when Bagdad was under the bombs. All of a sudden came to my mind an Algerian element which combined both the idea of a suburban tower block and the idea of war. I thought of these five housing projects which were built by the colonial administration during the civil war at the beginning of the 50s. These were buildings of propaganda destined to Muslim families. Diar el Kef, Diar el Mahssoul, Djennan el Hassan, Climats de France (“French climates”) et Les Palmiers (“Palm-trees”).

Les grands ensembles, a visual history of social housing in Algiers  | Isabelle Mayault
Djennan el Hassan
Climats de France
is one frightening name, isn’t it?
Yes, indeed, with the historical hindsight we benefit from today, it sounds extremely cynical. But actually, this building was equipped with a cooling system of circulating air. It was supposed to be a building where temperatures were lower than in the nearby houses. I agree though that today, this name takes a very different meaning.

Let’s go back to the work project.
The idea was to work on how to represent war through social housing architecture. It was a way to question the circumstances during which these buildings emerged. These tower blocks have a historical paternity, the decision to build them in Algeria at that time wasn’t random: only years later, in the sixties, the same tower blocks started to blossom in suburban areas in France and they were aimed to house freshly arrived immigrants. At the time of my project, these areas around Paris were rebelling. For me, the link between all these elements was both visual and historical and I wanted to question it.

Visually, it’s very relevant: these tower blocks, caught in a hybrid evening light, look as if they were in flames.
Yes, exactly. It wasn’t night photography. There was only a small window of opportunity at the end of the day during which I could take these pictures with this kind of light. Light was my esthetic angle. Against the light, the background appears to be very geometrical, according to the shape of tower blocks. I wanted to emphasize the crenellated esthetic of the tower blocks, I wanted to make it look like castles of the Middle-Ages.

Isabelle Mayault
This article is published with the courtesy of Mashallah News, Babelmed’s Partner.