In the white city

A web documentary by Zara Samiry


Zara Samiry is as reserved about herself as she is about the people revealed in her photos. At 29, this young Casablancan prefers to be described as a “sound photographer” or “social photographer” rather than an artist. She believes that photography and sounds cannot be divorced from one another, that only together are they able to reflect the truth in all its complexity.

Casablanca: its people are its wealth

In the White City, the first web documentary of its kind in Morocco, paints a portrait of the Casablancan lambda, ouled shaab (children of the people) as we call them here. The car park security man, the pastry chef or the cleaning lady… They are all people we meet every day. At best ignored and at worst despised by the local bourgeoisie, they populate the city of Casablanca and represent the majority of its inhabitants. They are the forgotten masses and yet the lifeblood of this great city.

Samiry’s colour photographs come as close to reality as is possible. Artificial decor or careful staging would adulterate the final result. We are plunged directly into the interiors, living spaces or workplaces of individuals selected entirely by chance. The results are striking. We are held captive by the unfamiliar intimacy of sharing the daily environment of these authentic characters.

To put her subjects at ease and overcome their distrust, Samiry creates a dialogue with them, speaking about herself as well. In this way the encounter becomes a real exchange. “It needs to be spontaneous. I allow them to lead the conversation, without my losing control, but sometimes I try to make them talk about difficult things,” she says.

Editing is a long and painstaking process involving selecting the most evocative passages without altering the overall discourse. It is not always easy. For example, with the portrait of the pastry chef she judged it respectful to cut certain scenes because they left him too exposed. In the end she chose to name the subjects “not with their first names, because that would be too simplistic, but with whatever stands out the most in their portrait.” We are therefore left with terms reflecting a particular situation or character trait: “the uncertain,” “the mother of the family,” “the trader”… Generic names to reflect the course of lives that, while unique, we imagine to be the lives of thousands of other Moroccans.

Zara Samiry, a photographer fascinated by other people’s stories

An introverted and discrete young woman, Samiry is revealed in her art — even if she does not like to be called an artist, preferring the term social photographer. It is humans who are the source of her art and her inspiration. They are often those who have been battered and bruised by life and carry their pain with them — like the migrants who are at the heart of her projects, such as “Exiles”, her first documentary series, which mixes photos and sound clips.

The young photographer confesses that she has always felt out of touch with her native society. She does not recognise Moroccan social codes or feel part of the common Moroccan identity. Her solution for escaping from this straightjacket was to flee to France and continue her studies. Once there she experienced a rebirth. “By caesarean,” she says, with a smile.

Her self-imposed exile to Paris was far from easy, and Samiry struggled with feelings of loneliness. However, during these years she built up confidence and learnt to live as a free woman. She readily admits having advanced only through “electric shocks.” The doubts they induced nourished her creative spirit. After her time in Paris she set out to travel alone to Rajasthan.

Profoundly reserved, it must have taken great courage for Samiry to set out towards the unknown. She decided on a whim to travel to India in 2009, taking with her only 100 euros in cash and her camera. In the course of two weeks, which seemed to her to last an eternity, she experienced hunger and witnessed extreme poverty, but succeeded in overcoming her fear. Her confrontation with the harsh reality of lives stripped of everything but the essentials is crucial to understanding her work. This process of initiation allowed her to develop a profound empathy, an essential quality when it comes to the art of photography.

Going beyond appearances in the White City

Samiry’s desire to speak for the voiceless is the result of her sensitivity. She is greatly affected by these forgotten destinies and seeks to re-transcribe lives that garner no attention in a society where if you have nothing, you are nothing.

Collecting these unique testimonies is a way for the photographer to finally feel part of the city, playing the role of a transmitter of memories. Coming together with these anonymous people to share “their experiences, their stories, their sorrows, their sufferings, their joys and hopes” has enabled her to reconcile with her hometown and move beyond the stereotypes and prejudices that once weighed so heavily on her.

Thanks to “In the White City”, a documentary marked by its poetic beauty, the young photographer has succeeded in changing her view of Casablanca and getting to know her own country, which she admits to having abandoned rashly, with a sense of unfinished business.” Casablanca is a city rich in human material that offers, along with its broken pavements and traffic jams, the crazy energy of its ordinary men and women and their struggle to survive.

Samiry has succeeded in creating a poignant homage to these ordinary people, without resorting to voyeurism or sordid detail. A profound dignity and modesty emerge from these portraits of those spared little by life, but who have nothing to prove.

This article was written by Marianne Roux-Bouzidi and published with the courtesy of Babelmed, partner of Mashallah News. Translation and editing: India Stoughton and Helen Southcott.

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