Photographer notebook: Zohra Bensemra
Born in Algiers in 1968, Zohra was recruited as a stringer photographer for Reuters by Mallory Langsdon in 1997 during the last years of the conflict in Algeria. In 2000, Zohra was sent on her first assignment abroad for Reuters to Macedonia where ethnic Albanians were taking refuge from Serbian forces. In 2003 she went to Iraq while Saddam was still on the run. In Najaf, Iraq, in 2004 Zohra was made staff photographer from Reuters. Zohra won the European Union prize for the best African press photographer in 2005. Still based in Algiers she continues to cover some African and Middle East countries. Last year she documented Sudan’s referendum, Tunisia’s uprising and Libya’s revolution. In the following showcase, Zohra recounts her experience as an Arab woman photographer.
Image 1 of 75:
"When I was about 6 years old, I watched one of my six brothers who was an amateur photographer. He played with colors at home and I would watch him for hours. I started to imitate him. When he was out of the house I would take his cameras. When he discovered it, of course he shouted at me and then he offered me a small camera, a medium format 120 camera. I started to take pictures of my classmates at school. My love for photography grew up with me. I didn’t know when I was young that one day I would be a photographer. "
Caption: Three women cool off on the beach at Algiers, June 4, 2006.
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"I didn’t go to Egypt but I went to Libya and Tunisia. I am really happy for Tunisia but I have a bad feeling about Libya. For me, the picture of the soldier was really a great moment because the army in Arab countries is always on the government’s side. I had just arrived from Sudan when I saw this man screaming at the police to stop. He stood in between the police and the protesters. It was amazing. I was expecting the soldiers to beat people so this was really new for me. You can’t see this in Arab countries.
I think Tunisia will provide a good lesson to all Arab countries because they reached freedom without a lot of violence. The same day at a mall not far from the soldier, a small group went and tried to break windows. A crowd ran toward them saying “Don’t do it!” In Algeria you can’t see anything like that. If one person starts to break something, many people will help him."
Caption: A Tunisian soldier screams as he tries to calm down rioters during clashes with the police in downtown of the capital Tunis January 14, 2011.
Image 3 of 75:
"Arab countries are not like Europe or America, when you are a woman and you are in the middle of men, the men start to touch you. But in Tunisia, it never happened. I was in the middle of hundreds of men and not one touched me - no one - not like in Egypt or Libya."
Caption: A boy jumps from the ledge along a beach near the courthouse in Benghazi May 18, 2011.
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"On October 5, 1988 we, Algeria, had our revolution. Before that we had one political party and no freedom. I saw police beating men. I wasn’t a press photographer at the time. I don’t know why but I wanted to take pictures. My friends asked me what I was doing as press photographers couldn’t even take pictures, it was like a dictatorship. Of course, I didn’t take any photos. It’s like I was discovering myself. It was the first time I had this desire to take pictures. My parents were against the idea but I continued to go to school and take photography courses. A small training centre opened that provided basic courses when I was 18. I had two years of really basic training. We would take pictures on the street and in the old city.
In 1990, I was photographing for a museum where I worked for six months. Before the October 5 revolution we had just one state newspaper. From the early ‘90’s, it was freer with multiple political parties and the press was more open. I left the museum because I wanted to try working for a newspaper. For two years I worked as a stringer. The owners of the newspapers didn’t trust me because I was really new. I worked at several newspapers; going from one to the other. In 1992, I started as a professional photographer at El Watan, an Algerian French language newspaper. For seven years I covered all the bloody things in Algeria. For nearly ten years we had massacres and bomb explosions everywhere. Journalists were targeted and it was hard to stay safe. Sometimes when you saw your shadow, you were afraid."
Caption: Algerian policemen stand guard at the damaged customer service office of mobile telephone company Djeezy, part of Egyptian telecommunications group Orascom, in Algiers November 16, 2009.
Image 5 of 75:
"Several of my friends left the country but I didn’t want to leave because of my career. All the journalists who left Algeria didn’t do their job - they left their job. But I stayed here to do mine and I’m proud of that. It’s difficult because now I need a visa to go anywhere. "
Caption: Burqa-clad Afghan women travel in a taxi in Kabul, December 31, 2009.
Image 7 of 75:
"I don’t want to be cliché. In all Arab countries you can find both of these types of women. Some photographers think that a certain type of picture will be published more than others. To be honest, some newspapers don’t like to show certain types of things, models for example. It’s like because you are Arab, you have to put a hijab on. To be veiled you have to be submissive. But no, I want to show that there are both types of women. This is the reality."
Caption: Models prepare for a hairdressing competition at a beauty fair in Algiers March 5, 2007.
Image 8 of 75:
"When I was in some Arab countries, they wouldn’t believe I am Arab because there are a lot of European and American women who speak Arabic. They would say – “No, no, no. You are European and you learned Arabic”. I would reply “No, I’m Arab”. “No, you live in Europe” they insisted. “No, I live in Algeria, an Arab country”. When I arrived in Misrata, Libya, they would start talking to me in English and I responded in Arabic. They kept saying that I was not Arabic but then they became my friends. Every morning when I would go to the front lines, when people saw me in the car everyone would call out “Zohra, Zohra”. "
Caption: A Tunisian woman holds her child as she crosses the border into Tunisia at the border crossing of Ras Jdir after fleeing unrest in Libya February 23, 2011.
Image 9 of 75:
Caption: Libyan rebel fighters keep watch as smoke rises from an explosion at Misrata's western front line June 11, 2011.
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Caption: A U.S army soldier from Task Force Denali 1-40 CAV prays during a Christian worship service at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Clark in Khowst province, Afghanistan, December 13, 2009.
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Caption: Protesters try to roll over a burnt bus during a protest against an overnight police crackdown on people living in Nairobi's Mathare slum, February 20, 2008.
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Caption: An Egyptian man fleeing the unrest in Libya receives help from his compatriots after he fainted as they wait at the Libyan and Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jdir March 1, 2011.
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Caption: Supporters of Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi show pieces of shrapnel from what the government said was a western missile attack on a building inside Bab Al-Aziziyah, Gaddafi's heavily fortified Tripoli compound March 21, 2011. The sign reads, "Long live the leader!"
Image 14 of 75:
"In these places, when you are a woman, whether you are Arab or European it doesn’t matter. You are a woman. For this, it is the same everywhere. "
Caption: Hadda Lacherrab, 42, a visually impaired Shawia woman, shows her work at her home in Belkitane on the outskirts eastern city of Khenchela, some 600 km (373 miles) from Algiers, May 31, 2010. Lacherrab, who was blinded by a disease at the age of 18, learned to mold clay and sew sheepskin from her mother, and recently held an exhibition as part of a cultural week in Algiers.
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Caption: A girl stands in the doorway of a home destroyed in battles between rebel fighters and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi on Tripoli street in central Misrata May 29, 2011.
Image 16 of 75:
"I want to talk about my first picture - when I saw bodies for the first time in my life and in my career. In 1995 there was a car bombing in the centre of the Algerian capital close to the police station. The station wasn’t far from the newspaper where I was working. We heard the explosion. Of course, when you hear an explosion and you live in a country like mine, you take your equipment and you go outside and try to find the place. When I arrived, there was fire on the right and smoke on the left. I went inside the smoke and saw the body of a woman lying on the ground. She was completely burnt. I started crying because it was the first time I had seen a body. I cried and asked myself how can they do that? I started taking pictures and I cried while taking them. I didn’t stop crying. I think I cried for 24 hours. When I went back to my newspaper, I was afraid to develop my film. I told my colleague and he said, ‘Come on – you’ve been doing this for a long time.” It was like I’d never done it before. I felt that if I lost this film, my career would stop there. He said, “You are crazy. Give me your film and I will develop it.” The film was in the fixer for 10 minutes. When he opened the film he called me “ZaZa”. I said I didn’t want to see and he told me it was ok – my film was ok. I was still crying. This is why I remember this day because I cried like a child. The next day I woke up like another person. I was ready to face everything. From this day, I changed. I became a photographer.
I went to the newspaper’s chief editor and I said “I want this picture on the front page. I want the world to see what happened today. I want them to see what happened to me today.” I didn’t leave the building until I saw that the front page had gone to print like I wanted. I was only four years into my career; it wasn’t like I had been 20 years in the business."
Caption: The body of a woman lies at the bomb blast site in front of a police station in the Algerian capital Algiers January 30, 1995.
Image 17 of 75:
"I like strong women. When you are Arab, you start your battle when you are young because it’s not easy. When you are a woman, it’s the same for many things everywhere but especially in Arab countries. You have to fight all the time – all your life – to get something. Sometimes it’s really small but you have to fight too. In the end, that’s why I like strong women. I don’t like it when women start crying. I like to be close to strong women. I want to transmit the message to other women – you have to be like this to get what you want. Don’t cry. Don’t stay in your place and say you are a woman without power. You have power – you just have to go and do what you want to do. Nobody will give it to you – you have to take it. "
Caption: A woman carries a piece of furniture after a fresh fight between Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes at Mao Summit in the outskirts of Molo, 180 km (110 miles) west of Nairobi February 28, 2008.
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Caption: Somali evacuees walk by their tents at a refugee camp near the Libyan and Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jdir, after fleeing unrest in Libya, March 10, 2011.
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Caption: Tuareg women clap their hands during the official visit of Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the southern city of Tamanrasset January 7, 2008.
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". I went with her to her house. I followed her as she prepared for her show. And I thought, “Wow, it’s happening in Baghdad”. She was strong. At that time, and still now, there were tribal problems between Shi’ites and Sunnis. She had to protect herself as it’s not easy to be a belly dancer in an Arab country."
Caption: Milad Siri, 27, an Iraqi belly dancer checks her hand gun before leaving her Baghdad home, May 27, 2003.
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Caption: A woman, who has recently given birth, sits next to her baby at a hospital in south Sudan's capital Juba September 4, 2007.
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"Libya has big problems with its tribes, it has hundreds and each has its own mind. The situation for women in Libya is really tough - we didn’t see many during the conflict. Even during Gaddafi’s time, you couldn’t see women in bikinis on the beach. If you are a smoker, men think that they can come to your hotel and knock on your door at night. To them, you look free for everything and if you are free, that means you are easy too. This is the problem; they think it’s easy to play with you. It’s like in the Stone Age.
I’m a foreigner. I’m not Libyan so they have to respect me. But for women inside Libya, they are not free like in Tunisia or Algeria."
Caption: A Libyan rebel fighter walks during a reconnaissance patrol near Zlitan after Dafniyah's western front line, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the city center of Misrata May 24, 2011.
Image 25 of 75:
"How freely can we work now? Let’s say around 60 percent. This is why I don’t shoot much in Algeria these days. When you go on the streets people don’t like to be photographed. They don’t let you take pictures easily. You have to bargain with them but if you bargain, the picture is gone. When you have to talk to them you lose the moment. I prefer to take their picture first and then talk to them to analyze their mentality – to see if they are open enough or not to tell them that I took their photograph."
Caption: An unemployed man stands at the old city of la Casbah in Tunis December 31, 2011.