Photographer strives to keep Berber culture alive

Touda with her daughter. She is visiting her daughter for several days.Tinfgam, Atlas Mountains, 2016.
Touda with her daughter. She is visiting her daughter for several days.Tinfgam, Atlas Mountains, 2016. Ferhat Bouda/Agence VU/Visa pourl'Image press dossier

As well as images of the capture of Mosul, protests in Venezuela, pollution in China and the Philippines' bloody war on drugs, a French photography festival this month showcases a record of North Africa's Berber people - a culture the photographer fears is in danger of disappearing.


Queues were already forming under a hot sun on Saturday afternoon outside venues like the Dominican Church or the Minimes Convent, centuries-old buildings no longer used as places of worship, in Perpignan, near France's border with Spain.

In the next two weeks thousands more people, including professional press photographers from many parts of the world, will visit the annual Visa Pour l'Image festival to see photos from our dailies, weeklies and monthlies in large format, hung in historic buildings turned into exhibition spaces around the city for the occasion.

Headline wars or conflicts of the past year or so feature strongly, as always. This year no less than three different shows out of the total 25 are works on the fight for Mosul from the Islamic State armed group and the loss of their self-styled "caliphate".

Philippines and Venezuela

While festival director Jean-François Leroy said that sometimes there is too much focus on one particular story or war, in the case of Iraq there were plenty to choose from this year.

A major part of the attraction of Visa Pour L'image is the variety of subjects covered.

Among the news stories, Daniel Berehulak's reports for The New York Times on Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drug traffickers or photographer Meridith Kohut's commission for the same US daily on the devastating crisis in Venezuela, featuring pictures of demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro and illegal mining as well as shocking photos of environmental damage in China by Lu Guang.

Mohamed preparing tea before leaving his cave.  “We are born to work, live and die.” Tinfgam, Atlas Mountains, 2016.
Mohamed preparing tea before leaving his cave. “We are born to work, live and die.” Tinfgam, Atlas Mountains, 2016. © Ferhat Bouda/Agence VU’

North Africa's Berbers

Frankfurt-based Ferhat Bouda is working on feature photography. For years he has focused on the nomads from North Africa's Berber or Amazigh community, as a way of preserving their culture and traditions.

He began by photographing his own grandmother and then his parents in Algeria and eventually dropped all his other activities to concentrate his efforts on what he calls "a sort of combat".

Seven years ago he turned pro. Like other nomadic or mountain peoples, the Berbers, who still speak their own language, Tamazight, are in danger of disappearing, he says.

This is the first time Bouda has shown his work, after winning a grant for this project at Visa Pour l’Image last year, and he's quite excited about it.

His effectively contrasted, black-and-white photos are shown in a solo exhibition in the Chapelle du Tiers Ordre, a chapel that was built by a Dominican order at the end of the 18th century.

The photos feature the sharply carved landscapes of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, captured in such detail you can feel the rough ground, and portraits of men, women, children and groups, composed like classical paintings, precious documents which tell many political and personal stories.

Women preserve culture

The show ends with a dramatic and haunting photo of a woman, in the centre of the frame, her back to the camera, walking away into one of their mountain caves. Bouda says it embodies the danger facing the Berbers.

“When I was there I didn’t think of it but afterwards, when I saw all those photos, to me this photo was a bit sad, even somehow violent ... although there are no kalachnikovs in the picture," he told RFI. "But she’s walking off into total darkness."

It is all the more poignant because of the key role of women in the Berber community, he feels.

"Women are the representatives of the Berber culture. It’s thanks to them we are still here. It's like in Egypt, where the great civilisation of the Pharoahs and their language died out. We still have our language but in that country and others, we are starting to disappear. What bothers me … what I saw … is that they are gradually going out. Like a dying flame."

Encouraged by the exposure at Visa pour l'Image, and no doubt by the constant flow of visitors of all ages filing into the chapel to see his work, Bouda has hopes of publishing a book of his photos in the Atlas Mountains and elsewhere to take the story of the Berber people to a different, wider audience.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning