The Photography of Yto Barrada

A Pervasive Sense of a People in Limbo

Yto Barrada's most recent exhibition "A Life Full of Holes – the Strait Project" explores life in her Moroccan home town, Tangier, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. Charlotte Collins met her in London

​​Yto Barrada is interested in barriers. Specifically, she is interested in how people respond to them, and to the knowledge that beyond the barrier is a place to which they are denied access.

Born in France of Moroccan parents in 1971, Barrada describes herself as "a privileged kid with dual citizenship. That's why I can move as I wish from one place to the other. You don't have many people in my situation."

Barrada studied History and Political Science at the Sorbonne, and spent two years in Jerusalem and the West Bank studying roadblocks and the strategies Palestinians use to negotiate with the Israeli military. It was during this time that she became interested in photography.

The political dimension of photography

"I started documenting my work with photographs," she explains, "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. I started to be interested in art and all the possibilities it gave me to introduce the political situation."

photo: &copy Yto Barrada 2005
"Ceuta Crossing" from the project "A Life Full of Holes - The Strait Project"

​​Barrada's keen political intelligence continues to inform her work, but she insists it's a coincidence that her first major exhibition, A Life Full of Holes – The Strait Project, also documents the effects of a physical and political border on a local population – that of her home town, Tangier.

Until the Schengen Agreement on travel within Europe was extended in 1991, Moroccans could travel freely back and forth across the Strait of Gibraltar.

"Fifteen kilometres is very close," Barrada points out, "like the other side of a lake. All day long all you see is the shores of Spain. Then all of a sudden, overnight, you can't cross. That space is 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."

Since 1991, Moroccans need a visa to travel to any European country. For most people this is effectively impossible to get. They have to provide proof that they have enough money in their bank account, a return ticket, a letter of invitation. Consequently, many try to cross illegally.

The border before the border

"There's a new vocabulary," says Barrada. "People who cross are called 'burners'. To cross is '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 get sent back right away."

Barrada speaks of "the pressure from Europe for us to be the border before the border." She is critical of the Moroccan government for failing to address the real issue of why people are so desperate to leave – high unemployment, and the poor economic situation at home.

"In the newspapers it's discussed with exactly the same vocabulary as in Europe – illegal immigration. It's only [from] a security point of view. Globally, the issue is never taken care of by the Moroccan authorities."

A city full of transients

Every year thousands of people from all over Africa, many of them children (who cannot, under European law, be sent back), come to try and cross the Strait of Gibraltar in small boats or as stowaways. No one knows how many have made it across – nor how many have died in the attempt. As a result, Tangier is a city full of transients.

photo: © Yto Barrada 2005
"Le Detroit - Avenue d'Espagne - Tangier 2000" from the project "A Life Full of Holes - The Strait Project"

​​"There's this obsession to get to the other side where the grass is greener that animates the streets of Tangier, that governs everything you do from morning to night," says Barrada. "People are standing there thinking all day how they're going to make enough money to pay their passage through. You just walk in the street and you see people waiting, walking, as if they're going nowhere."

Barrada set out to capture that pervasive sense of a people in limbo. Her exhibition works best if considered as a whole rather than as individual photographs. The associations between the images inform the images themselves; Barrada describes the way she works as being "closest to photomontage".

With her simple use of colour and imagery and a refusal to romanticise her subjects, she aims to "challenge the aesthetic fetishism that has long characterised representations of the Arab world". Walls are a recurring motif. A huge slab of concrete seems to have been unzipped to reveal a strip of shiny new apartments overlooking an empty plot. A whitewashed wall bears the faint prints of a football; the wall of a café is papered, ludicrously, with an Alpine landscape of lakes and mountains.

Nearly all of Barrada's subjects in A Life Full of Holes are facing away from the camera. A young girl playing jacks, a woman seated on the ferry, two men embracing on the Rue de la Liberté – all seem to have deliberately turned their backs on the viewer.

"That's exactly the metaphor," says Barrada. "When you spend your time on the edge, on the jumping-off place of Africa, trying to get on the other side, you're 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

© 2006

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