'Newspapers should value our work'

Algerian photojournalist Louiza Ammi has traveled the world through the pages of the prestigious magazines she regularly collaborates with. APN spoke with Ammi and with 25-year old Fadéla Ouamrane, who is part of Algeria's next generation of photographers.
A series of potraits by Louiza Ammi © Louiza Ammi

APN: How did you come to photojournalism?

LOUIZA AMMI: "I became interested in photography when my brother, who had studied in the United States, came home with all this photography equipment. I was fascinated by it. That's where my desire was born. After my senior year exams, I was looking for a career that would keep me on the go, but also one that would allow me to express myself.

So I started apprenticing with my brother, learning the basics of photographic theory and practice. He saw that I was interested in photojournalism and put me in contact with one of his photographer friends, Medjkane Nasser. I enrolled in a two-year programme at the Centre National de Documentation, de Presse et d'Information (National Centre for Research and Communications) and started out as an intern at Le Quotidien d'Algérie. After that I worked for La Tribune and today I'm with Liberté."

FADELA OUAMRANE: "I dreamt of being a photographer from the time I was a young girl. My mother encouraged me, taking me to photo exhibits. That's how I met Louiza. She was already well known at the time but I talked to her and that meeting turned out to be a pivotal one for me. I would never have imagined at the time that we would end up as peers - and friends. I studied photojournalism and did a six-month internship at Le Matin. After that, I went to work for Alger Républicain and today I'm with the APS (Algérie Presse Service)."

APN: What have been the most powerful moments in your career?

L.A.: "There have been many powerful moments... and sad ones. I'm thinking in particular of the Bentalha, Sidi Elkebir and Relizane massacres [Algerian villages targeted by armed Islamist groups in the 90's]."

F.O.: "The story that most affected me was the one I did on the Polisario Front [rebel movement working for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco]. The subject really touched me because it was new for me. I discovered another culture, another way of life. I was impressed by the courage of the people I met in the face of all the difficulties they were forced to confront on a daily basis. That said, my favourite photo is still one I took of an Algerian woman in traditional veil rummaging through garbage bins for food surrounded by cats and piles of garbage. It's shocking but it depicts a sad truth."

APN: What changes would you like to see happen to improve conditions for your profession in Algeria?

L.A.:"There is still a real shortage of good educational programmes. But employers also need to provide photographers with the opportunity to upgrade their skills because the technology is changing so rapidly. I urge publishers to invest in this noble profession because it is invaluable to news reporting. They should look at what is happening in the foreign press!

There were not many photographers around during the terrorism years. In the early 90's, many journalists and photographers fled the country, leaving the field open to newcomers like myself. Times were very tough, not only politically and in terms of safety, but also professionally: low wages, equipment shortages, chaotic working conditions. The worst was probably the lack of training. I knew nothing about war reporting; I had to learn on my own as I went. I would like to be able to share my experience with other young photographers."

F.O.: "I would like to see a greater respect for the role of photography in the print media. That importance is not really recognised. A photo is seen as secondary to the story. The photographer is treated like a mere technician. But a photo can touch people around the world. It can sum up in its one image pages and pages of words."

APN: What obstacles do you face in your profession?

L.A.: Out in the field, obviously we run up against police and security agents, but also against people who don't want their photos taken. Sometimes I feel like I'm carrying a gun when I see such hostile reactions. Another ongoing problem is what happens to photos in the layout phase.

F.O.: "Our relationship with the people we photograph is often strained. Certain events are also more difficult for women to cover. I'm thinking specifically of armed attacks, or riots or even soccer games. When I have to push my way through a crowd, for instance, I often hear, 'If you were a girl from a good family, you wouldn't be elbowing your way through a crowd of men like that.'

Remarks like those I just ignore. I chose this profession and I love it. On the other hand, for women photographers like us, it's less difficult to gain access to women's homes or meeting places. As for my male colleagues, I had to prove to them that I was as competent as they were. My bosses were especially nervous. But I have since persuaded them and now they assign me the stories generally reserved for men."

APN: What do you think of the place given photography in the Algerian press?

L.A.: "It doesn't really have its proper place. It all depends on the story. Photos are often cropped or cut out completely to free up space for advertising. We need to hire photo editors in our newspapers. Sadly, a photographer is seen very much like a photocopier, a sort of two-legged printer."

F.O.: "Algerians don't really understand the value of photographs."

APN: What photo would you like to take?

L.A.: "
I would like to do a photo essay on women and children, to speak out against all the violations of their rights."

F.O.: "I wish I had the time to cover more remote areas in the country, but also abroad, to discover new colours, new expressions..."

APN: What's next for you?

L.A.: "I'm working on a book. It's a series of portraits all tied to the national tragedy [the civil war that ravaged Algeria in the 90's] so that we never forget what happened. And I'm still looking for financial backing to start my own photo agency."

F.O.: "A book, a show, and a few other things..."

(This article was republished with permission from The Arab Press Network, a web portal by the World Association of Newspapers.)