Casablanca. The great Moroccan city, whose name reflects the pale shades of white but was originally Anfa, from the Berber language, has been portrayed by many – most famously on the screen by the Bogart-Bergman duo and the Marx brothers (in that movie) trio. Others have painted the city, graffitied it and written about its treasures. And photographed it – not least the tourists who come in millions to Morocco each year.
But few capture Casablanca the way street photographer Yoriyas Yassine Alaoui Ismaili does. A street dancer and choreographer, who began to take pictures a couple of years ago, Yoriyas catches rare moments in the city where he was born and grew up. We talked to him about his work – and why he asks himself “Would this make my mum smile or not?” when taking his photos.
How did you start photographing?
I come from the arena of dance: I’m a street dancer and a choreographer, so I’m used to being in the streets interacting with people. When I began to travel for dance projects, I also took the camera with me. The first time I met a street photographer was in Marseille: it was by coincidence, we were both following a group of people in the street, taking pictures, and started talking to each other. He introduced me to the history of street photography; when I came back to Morocco I continued studying the work of the new generation of street photographers.
Is it easy for you, with your dance background, to photograph in the streets?
I never felt afraid to take photos. Already from the start, I had ways to interact with people. When dancing in the streets, you always need to either speak to those who pass by, or ignore them and just continue with what you’re doing. You learn how to not be annoyed by people.
Photographing is like dance in many ways. You have to watch what’s around you and try to get the perfect momentum. To find balance in the composition. It’s a bit like being on stage with people but instead fitting them in your frame.
But with a camera, when you’re in the street you’re never sure. You know that you are moving, that people are moving. You have to catch that movement, to watch and follow people. It’s more about asking questions than giving answers.
That’s interesting, it relates to how you see yourself as a photographer. Are you an observer, do you want to be as invisible as possible, or do you actively take part in what you’re creating?
I think as a street photographer you must know how to disappear from the scene. To be there with your camera but act as if no one is watching. That takes a long time to learn, but if you do that you can make great pictures.
I remember one of the first times that I did a picture, before starting with street photography. I had worked early in the morning and then went to the seaside in Casablanca, near the mosque. I saw this scene there that was just magic. There were lots of people, and among all of them a group of modern young girls standing next to a traditional woman.
I had never thought that I could take photos just like that in the street, but I had my camera in my bag and asked myself, “Can I take this picture or not?” It was too good to just ignore and walk away. So I took my camera and photographed, but as if I was taking pictures of the sea. It became a photo about the women and the sea and what they were seeing. I later won a prize, Ma Ville Casablanca, for that photo.
Another time, when I wanted to photograph a traditional woman from the north of Morocco, I did something similar. She was standing in front of a graffiti of a ninja, and when I saw her she looked like a ninja too. I had a 35 millimetre lens so I had to come close to take the photo. I did that, but when she saw me she looked away at the background – and I wanted to catch her face. She looked at me again, but immediately turned around. She looked at me, turned around. So I aimed at the background and when she finally didn’t think I was taking a picture of her I could take the perfect photo of her experssion and the graffiti.
What would you say about Casablanca as a place to take photos?
I have travelled to many places – Brazil, France, Jordan, Korea, South Africa – and believe me Casa is one of the hardest places for photography! There’s always this idea that you’re not allowed to take pictures, the police will come and ask why you have your camera. You don’t have the freedom to photograph, you don’t have rights in the public space. People also think that only tourists take pictures. If you’re not European or Chinese it’s hard. In Essaouria, Fes or Marrakesh it’s easier – but the thing is if you look like a tourist they will ask you for money!
Yes, a lot of tourists who visit Morocco spend little time in Casablanca, if they go there at all. So how do you interact with people to get around this?
Each week, I collect photos and print to give to the people I’ve photographed. They get really happy and start trusting me so I can come back to their neighbourhoods and take photos again. I took this picture of kids playing football in the streets, in one of the poorest areas of Casablanca, Sidi Abdel Rahman. They’re taking down people’s houses there, forcing them to move to give way for new construction. For that photo I first had to play and take a lot of photos when the kids’ attention was on me; then, after a while, they got back to playing and I could take this picture when they were not aware. When I gave them printed copies they were really happy.
“Photographing is like dance in many ways. You have to watch what’s around you, try to get the perfect momentum.”
Casa in general is a really good place to photograph. There’s great light and the seaside is full of life. You have lots of contrasts. The economy of the country is there, so people come from all over Morocco. Imagine how full it is of people and energy.
Your photos capture Morocco in a way that differs from the prevailing image, which shows a country of deserts, old markets, colourful houses and people in the long hooded djellebas.
We don’t have a culture of street photography in Morocco: we have a lot of people taking photos but mostly touristic photographs. I want to show the perspective of a Moroccan, how someone from here sees the country. Tourists when they visit see only the difference between here and their own countries. I have a relationship to Casa, this is where I grew up and it is the place I want to document most of all. But I also have an outsider’s perspective. After travelling I don’t see the same things. It’s a bit of a shock to come back and then photograph your hometown, you see things you never noticed.
Do you reflect sometimes on the question of compassion and respect for strangers? When to shoot and when not to; which moments you can capture and which are too private.
I always have limits, there’s no meaning to take photos where people look bad. I want to take photos that look artistically good and mean something. I see so many people in the street: homeless people, people with illnesses – sometimes people who are naked and exposed. I wouldn’t photograph that. When I see a moment I want to capture I think, “If my mum saw this, would she be happy?”
There’s a photo I took of a woman and her daughter, in Mohammedia just north of Casablanca. The woman is fully covered and the daughter is tiny, beautiful and blonde. In that same scene, next to them, believe it or not but there was a woman who was totally naked! But I didn’t include her in the frame. She was obviously having some problems and I didn’t want to photograph that. I felt that the mother and her child was a really nice story in itself, why bring something naked into it also.
“We don’t have a culture of street photography in Morocco: we have a lot of people taking photos but mostly touristic photographs.”
You have a great photo of two ladies eating pink candy floss. What kind of a moment was that?
That’s in Chefchaouen. Actually, I had wanted to photograph that city for a long time, but not like the tourists and Moroccans who go and take photos of “the blue city” in very typical ways. When I went it was Eid and they had put up a small amusement park in a part of the city. Lots of people came from the mountains and surrounding villages, and it was really nice to just walk around and watch people. I had spent maybe two hours but still didn’t have a perfect photo when I saw these two ladies with pink stuff on their heads. I thought, wow, this is a really cool moment. But it’s not so easy to take photos like this, especially not of ladies you don’t know. Often someone, a stranger or whatever, wants to interfere and say “Don’t take this picture”. So I was careful and took photos with the camera next to my chest, not looking in its direction. When I walked away to look at them it turned out I had captured one that I liked.
Another photo is from the hood where I live in Casablanca, with a lady in a pink cap that says “Jesus is my homeboy”. I had just stepped out on the street to meet my neighbour when she walked by. I always look around to see if there’s anything to photograph – I saw her and I was like, WHAT! But she had already passed me so I told my friend, “Did you see that!” and then ran ahead so I could walk back and pass just next to the lady and take a picture like I first saw it.
“When I see a moment I want to capture I think, If my mum saw this, would she be happy?”
There’s also a nice picture of a boys playing outside in the sun, moving in a way that looks almost like they are dancing.
It’s actually a game with sand, they put it in bottles and throw it up in the air. When I saw them playing I stopped and took maybe 50 or 60 pictures, each time trying to capture something different. The dust they threw made interesting patterns, hid their faces sometimes and their bodies. It’s interesting that you thought they were dancing: I didn’t see it like that. That’s why I don’t like to explain my photos to people. When I share them I always say something very short, often just where they were taken. Everyone sees something different, and I want it to be that way. I’m asking everyone to see what they see, I don’t want to impose my way of understanding.
Finally, without asking you to do that, could you say something about the photo you took during Ramadan, with a perspective from above?
Yes, it has a fun story. It was Eid el Fitr and I had woken up early for the Eid prayer, the one you do together outdoors in a big, open space. I went there and put down my carpet and as always, I had my camera with me. It was maybe 15 minutes before it would start, so I started looking around me. I was really surprised because this Ramadan was right in the middle of summer holidays and the place was full: it seemed that all Moroccans living abroad had come home and the place that would normally fit those coming to pray was now too small. People started using the street as well and it was soon blocked. I wanted to photograph this, so I began taking pictures but couldn’t capture it well from where I was.
So I looked around and saw this big building nearby. I went there and climbed up to the roof, but when I got up there was a lady hanging her clothes to dry, who began yelling “Thief, thief!” when she saw me. I was like, “No, no, I’m just a friend of …Said’s!” – I just picked a name – and she said, “Okay, do you mean Said who lives in this house?” Yes, I said, and then she let me up. I started taking photos, it was great from above and I took a couple of nice ones. But then when I wanted to go down it was impossible to get out: a row of women had laid out their mats completely closing off the door. Another man tried to get out as well but he couldn’t either, so I said, “Let’s go upstairs instead and pray from up there.” We did, and when the prayer began and everyone stood up, the view completely changed. All the mats and their colours and patterns could be seen, and I got a totally new picture. It was beautiful. I took some photos, then put down the camera and prayed next to the other guy.
Yoriyas’ Eid prayer photo is nominated for the Maroc Web Awards. Here’s the link!