Morocco unbound: an interview with Yto Barrada

About the authors
Charlotte Collins is a freelance journalist currently based in London. Until recently she was a senior staff editor in the current affairs department of the English Service of Deutsche Welle Radio. She has also written and presented a number of features focusing on art, literature and theatre, including work by Amos Oz and Irina Brook. Her radio work (in both English and German) has also been heard on Bayerischer Rundfunk and WDR in Germany and on ABC National in Australia. She has written for the Independent, the Evening Standard, Qantara, and the Goethe Institute Journal Art&Thought.
Yto Barrada was born in Paris in 1971 and was educated in Tangier. She later studied history and political science at the Sorbonne, Paris and photography at the International Centre of Photography, New York. Work from the Strait Project has been exhibited at the FundaciÌ_ Antoni TÌÊpies (Barcelona), the Villa Medici (Rome), the Witte de With (Rotterdam), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), and the Photographer's Gallery (London). Yto Barrada is a founder and the director of programming of the CinÌ©math̬que de Tangier, Morocco's only venue for independent cinema and repertory programming. In 2006 the Strait Project was shortlisted for the Deutsche BÌ_rse Photography Prize. She now lives and works in Tangier and Paris.


Factory 1, Prawn processing plant in the Free Trade Zone, Tangier 1998 © Yto Barrada

Part 1: the background

Listen to part one (5.53mins)
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Charlotte Collins: How did you first become interested in photography?

Yto Barrada: I became interested in photography in an absolutely accidental way. I was studying political science; I was living in the West Bank working on roadblocks, and the strategies of people who tried to cross in negotiating with the Israeli police, military police, and I started documenting my work with photographs. And as my work evolved I started taking more photographs than notes, and then it completely shifted. The main part of my way of describing what I was interested in became through photographs, because I discovered that it was less restrictive than only my dissertation in political science. I started to be interested in art and all the possibilities it gave me to introduce the political situation.

Also on Morocco in openDemocracy:

Ivan Briscoe, "Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco" (May 2004)

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco and Spain: united by tragedy?" (March 2004)

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco: a journey in the space between monarchy and Islamism" (February 2003)

Rashi Khilnani, "How Morocco's free media is silenced" (April 2006)

Saeed Taji Farouky, ""Deserted in Western Sahara" (March 2006)

Yto Barrada "The Strait Project" – The small picture (October 2005)

Saeed Taji Farouky, "I See The Stars At Noon: filming Morocco's emigration hunger" (October 2005)

Charlotte Collins: Was it that way of coming to it, through photographing borders and barriers in the West Bank, that made you interested in this particular project – the Strait of Gibraltar?

Yto Barrada: No, no, not at all. I was just working on what was my dissertation and I felt a little frustrated because I couldn't use their stories, personal stories; there's personal experiences, there's coincidences, there's lots of material you can't use in a dissertation, so I was sort of overwhelmed by collecting stories, found things, objects people lost on the checkpoint. I started to have strange photographs of people – a series of people carrying television sets across the border … There were lots of things with humour, poetry – what do you do with that in a dissertation? You're supposed to get rid of it! I tried to mix all these, and then I went to study art. The fact that I'm working on another border today, which is the Strait of Gibraltar, is a coincidence. I just went home.

Charlotte Collins: So what exactly inspired you to do this body of work about the Strait of Gibraltar?

Yto Barrada: What inspired me is I looked through my window and that's what you see. You see a border, you see all these discussions about the Mediterranean Sea, the mother of all seas, the fact that we all come from the same place, all these discourses about love and sharing, and the actual situation is much more violent. That space is a border, it's a closed border; the announced goal for Morocco for 2010 is to have ten million tourists come to the country – that's a one-way street! Everyone's coming over – guess what? We can't move! Legally, nobody can get out of the country – "nobody" meaning a big, big majority.

I'm a privileged kid with dual citizenship and that's why I can move as I wish from one place to the other. And the biggest paradox for me was that with my Moroccan passport I can't go to any Arabic country without a visa. And when I use my French nationality – because I was born in France when my parents were students, so I have a French identity too – if I used my French passport I didn't need a visa. So I'm a very particular case; you don't have many people in my situation.

The actual situation of the border that I live on is that since 1991 and the developing of the Schengen agreements it's a closed border, and the coincidence is that when the border closed in 1991 the satellite dishes were all over the place with images from the West. Before we had only two channels, one channel – in Morocco there's only one channel, and you could sometimes see Gibraltar and one channel in Spain. All of a sudden you had forty, fifty, a hundred-and-fifty channels from all around the world, and that's when the border closed.

Charlotte Collins: And what effect do you see all these events, this situation, having on the people in Tangier?

Yto Barrada: The fact that the border is closed creates this situation of longing, desire to cross, and the violence of that desire is that it's confronted to a wall. What I try to describe in my images is that state, that situation. The imaginary place that the Strait of Gibraltar becomes, because since the border is closed many people, all the time – more than 30,000 over the last ten years – these are the figures of people who were caught, you don't know how many people made it on the other side. People try to cross illegally, on little boats.

There's a whole new vocabulary that's invented around this – "to cross" is called "to burn" because you burn your past, your identity, your papers, because if you're caught on the other side if you're from Algeria you may get permission to stay, because of the political situation; if you're from Morocco you're sent back right away. So there's this obsession to get on the other side where the grass is greener that animates the streets of the city of Tangier, that governs everything you do from the morning to the night.

People are standing there thinking all day how you're going to make enough money to be able to cross, to pay your passage through, if you're an adult; if you're a child ... and sometimes very small children can smuggle themselves in trucks that go on ferry boats to the other side, container boats, or trucks, a merchandise truck – where the wheels are there's a place they can hide. That state that I've described in my body of work creates a sort of floating figure, and these are the portraits that I'm making, of people you see in the streets who are just waiting for their turn.


Girl in red playing jacks, Tangier 1999, A Life Full of Holes: the Strait Project © Yto Barrada

Part 2: the photographs

Listen to part two (4.16mins)
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Charlotte Collins: You have quite a lot of people in the photographs who've got their backs turned towards the observer or who are just standing there staring into space, for example the lavatory attendants in one photo, two men embracing in another, you don't see their faces at all – is that because they're turning away, or is that because you didn't want to confront them?

Yto Barrada: That's exactly what the metaphor is: since when you spend your time on the edge, on the jumping-off place of Africa, trying to get on the other side, you're as a consequence turning your back on whatever's happening where you are, so you're not invested in what you're doing for your own country.

Charlotte Collins: You've also said that you make use of the juxtaposition of images. Can you explain exactly what you mean by that?

Yto Barrada: The way I work is that I start by digging around, under, above a subject, so if I'm describing a situation or territory, I'm going to shoot lots of images without having a sort of a discipline of what I'm going to decide is the representation of the idea that I'm working on. So that's the first part, there's a lot of images that I'm taking.

Once I start deciding what works, they're going to work as motifs, the motif of the back, the motif of the German wallpaper you often find in cafés in Tangier with exotic Alp mountains or forests in Montana. You can find – this is a very funny situation – there's a repetition in these motifs: the idea of smuggling … Once I have these situation and photographs I'm going to work with putting them together. And the articulation … there's many positions possible; it depends [on] the space where you show it.

I can show five images to describe the body of work I'm working on, it can be twenty, it can be forty. The whole body of work is today about fifty images. And then I work on associations that are new every time with the images I have. It's not a narrative work, that's what I mean by juxtaposition. It's more like a sort of montage or like a collage. What's closest to what I'm trying to do is "photomontage".

Charlotte Collins: So would you say we are intended to see the exhibition as a whole rather than the photographs individually?

Yto Barrada: Ideally I think both are important: the experience of the image without all the information that I can give you if you read the detailed captions, the conversations around the book, the political context. That's one way of reading the image.

No – the work is good if they stand as individual images too, as associated images the way I show them in one place, in another place they'll be shown in a different way … There's an experience of a place every time that's different. They should be working alone: you have partial information, you'd have just a portrait. A girl playing jacks turning her back to you is only a girl playing jacks.

Charlotte Collins: I did rather wonder whether, for example with the girl playing jacks, or with the boys climbing under the wire to get out of – or into – the football pitch, whether the photograph would have the same resonance if we weren't seeing it in the context of this exhibition which is about borders – if we didn't know where it was shot, and if we didn't have the notes that went with it about why you were doing this project?

Yto Barrada: Well, no, it's not just about borders, it's about Tangier too, it's about describing the situation of this changing city, it's about my experience of being from that city … I think these two layers are very important, that's why the captions are small, and that's why these photos are mine. You can take any photo of any photographer and if you weave it with another photograph you can reinvent projects … But the situation is that it's me, Yto Barrada, from Tangier, describing from – there's a date, too, there's a place, there's a date, there's a story. They could be used as a cover of a novel. You could take one image and they could be used for illustration. That's not what they're meant to be. They could be. But that's not what they're meant to be. There's one way of experiencing them that is the way I show them; you can take one or two out of context too and appreciate them for their sole description.


Le Detroit, Avenue d'Espagne, Tangier 2000, A Life Full of Holes: the Strait Project © Yto Barrada