Majestic in its decrepitude, the Le Corbusier-influenced Aerohabitat rears up out of the side of the mountain that overlooks the bay of Algiers: a 22-floor obelisk, hundreds of apartments with panoramic views of the city, an enclosed shopping mall halfway up the tower, a four-lane road flowing through the basement–and a large community of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. In the striking photographs of Nassim Rouchiche’s Ca Va Waka, the Aerohabitat is haunted by the ghostly presences of its African inhabitants, people who are there and not-there, migrants many of whose migration has ended here, short by a wide sea, of what must have been their onetime European dream.
What exactly does the title of your show, “Ca va waka” mean?
It is an expression that I often heard among the community of people I was taking photos of – Black Africans in the process of migration, or of settling in Algeria. Waka comes from the English word “walk”, the three words “ca va waka” come together nicely to say: “it’s going to be alright”. I chose to name my series of pictures “Ca va waka” because it is an expression that says perfectly how hopeful these migrants are, and it tells of my personal hope that my work might trigger a public debate in Algeria around the status of African migrants in the country. My feeling is that this is a subject that is quite difficult to talk about in Algeria.
There is a single character who haunts this series; who is he?
His name is Henri, he is a thirty-year-old Cameroonian and to me he is the personification of courage. He had to cross six countries, and the largest desert in the world, to get to Algiers. This long journey swallowed all of his money and nearly cost him his life as well. He told me that it is impossible to find your way in the Sahara without the guidance of the smugglers, but at the first sight of the security forces, they do not hesitate to just abandon the migrants. Like many other migrants, Henri tried to settle in other cities in Algeria, five of them, before ending up in the capital.
When I started working on this photography project, I did not think of focusing on Henri uniquely; my approach was to document the conditions of living of a whole community, and so there were many other faces appearing on my pictures. Then a sad incident happened, one morning the police showed up and arrested two people from the community where I was living. All those who did not get arrested were spared simply because they were out looking for work, trying to make some money out of their day. Everybody got so scared after the police raid. The anxiousness among the community just kept on increasing and that emotion infiltrated and indeed dictated my artistic choices: the transparency of my subjects in the pictures but also the fact that only three people were able to overcome their fear of arrest and consent to pose for my camera.
In your pictures, Henri is a link – visible and invisible – between scenes of interiors and exteriors that appear to be very different. Are these really different places? Can you tell us a little bit more about the places where you shot your photos?
The whole series of pictures were taken at one site, it is called l’Aerohabitat. It is a legendary building in downtown Algiers which has the peculiarity of looking like a vertical village. The community of migrants I was with have chosen to bury themselves in the basements of the building. The peculiarity of its architecture – interior walkways, the entire tenth floor is an indoors market with shops only – provides the migrants with a space where they can live, work– and hide. They live inside the building in complete autonomy, without having to go out on the streets and risk police identity checks. The choices I made as a photographer are more about the framing of my pictures. I wanted my pictures to say more about what it means to be a migrant in Algeria than just a focus on the miserable living conditions of this particular community. It is the reason why I alternate photos of interiors and photos of exteriors in order to create a bit of balance of emotions, and to avoid the sadness that could have overwhelmed everything else because of the level of desolation in which these migrants live.
What about your choice of the time of the day: why the night?
This series was originally made as part of a workshop with other photographers: each one of us had to present the mentor of the workshop Bruno Boudjelal with 40 pictures every morning during two weeks. The best moment for me to take pictures was between dusk and very early morning. Which also gave me an advantage: that was a good time to hang out with the members of the community who were living in an old machine shop that had been transformed into a temporary housing. The night is the only moment of the day in which they can relax, meditate or entertain themselves, the day is too busy with going from one little job to the next.
You have chosen to make Henri a transparent presence, but at the same time you succeed in making him a real living presence who fills up the entire space. What exactly did you want to express through the choice of transparency?
Transparency is a way of underlying the vulnerability in which the migrants live. It tells about the ephemeral presence they have in Algeria because they all live under the threat of suddenly be expelled and deported out of the country. Also I wanted to use it as a metaphor of how invisible these people are to the rest of the society, a society that ignores them. I have to say that the primary metaphor I was thinking of when I decided to go with transparency was the idea of the migrants are similar to ghosts. Don’t we all think of ghosts as those who have not succeeded in passing into the other world, the after-life, as people who have gotten stuck between life and death? Unfortunately this is the case of the migrants who are caught, prisoners of their hope, though it becomes tinier and tinier throughout their journey, and the impossibility for them to put themselves in reverse… they wash up in spaces that they end up haunting.
Daikha Dridi Translated from French by International Boulevard
10 Dec 2015