Visitors of the exhibition 'Leila Alaoui' in front of a photograph

Activist Behind a Lens

When the young photographer Leila Alaoui was shot in a terrorist attack in 2016, her activism against racism received revitalised attention. At the ifa Gallery Stuttgart her mother Christine Alaoui talks about Leila’s connection to the people she photographed and how her legacy shall be continued.


ifa: Until 5 April 2020 visitors can visit the exhibition 'Leila Alaoui' at the ifa Gallery Stuttgart. This retrospective shows your daughter's photographs from various series. How would you like to see Leila's legacy carry on in the future?

Christine Alaoui: As a way of continuing her engagement, a way of continuing what she fought for her whole life. Resistance to violence and better understanding of people – that was her message that can now be seen worldwide, not only in Morocco. Leila has become a prominent figure, especially for young Moroccans. They have never had an icon like her before.

ifa: Leila was always moving between the topics of migration, identity and minorities. What impact did her photographs have on the particular fields she was working in?

Alaoui: In Morocco Leila really set things in motion. After people saw her photos, new laws were passed against racism. Her work resonated especially with young people who had never questioned their own racism. Being confronted with that, seeing an artist with her background, from her milieu challenging their world view started to make them think.

With a new project for the US market her influence began to increase. In France there was the so-called 'Calais Jungle', a refugee and migrant encampment where people from Africa and Morocco lived in horrible conditions while waiting for passage to England. A friend working for the New York Times commissioned Leila to take pictures there. With this, her message started to gain attention in the States as well.

'She never spoke negatively about people and had infinite respect for the people she photographed.'

ifa: Let us take a look behind the camera for a moment. What did Leila's work look like behind the lens?

Alaoui: Leila often worked under difficult conditions which isn't apparent when you look at the pictures. For one image she had to go to an abandoned beach. The men she wanted to photograph were trying to get to Spain and they needed to leave Morocco from a place where nobody could find them. Those are very wary and desperate people with nothing to lose. If something had happened to her, nobody would have found her for days.

When she did projects like 'Crossings', Leila was on her own for the whole process. For her photo series 'Les Marocains' she travelled through Morocco's rural areas and had to transport a lot of heavy equipment to set up a mobile studio. In that case, she needed a driver to help her.

ifa: With her work, Leila often criticised the politics of countries she was working in by openly addressing racism and the marginalisation of migrants. How did that influence people's reactions towards her? What difficulties did she face regarding her work?

Alaoui: She once did a film against racism in Morocco that was never shown on TV because the local government didn't agree with her work. They didn't accept the message she was sending: 'Moroccans are racist'. When Leila worked on her project 'Crossings' in the sub-Saharan regions, she went to a couple of very poor places. There is a lot of racism in those parts of the country. When the Moroccans there saw her, they spat on and insulted her. But she never talked much about the things she experienced.

Leila was a courageous artist. Most people are still afraid of the government and politics. In her eyes, a lot of artists censor themselves out of fear. You can say a lot of things in Morocco as long as you don't touch the monarchy or political matters. But she did so regardless of the consequences. And it was even more extraordinary coming from a young woman.

ifa: Leila's unique style of photographing people can trigger strong reactions from people viewing her work. Some visitors even cry when looking at the images. What makes her work so outstanding that it evokes such responses?

Alaoui: People who have never met Leila are stunned by her work because there is something special about her that can also be seen in her photographs. Many people cry when they look at them. Leila made the people in the photos look incredibly beautiful and she was really good at enhancing their beauty. She never spoke negatively about people and had infinite respect for the people she photographed. That's what made these pictures possible in the first place. She was such an easy-going, carefree person who was also very discreet. She was sweet to everybody, simply human. That's why people were so moved by her. She never put herself first.

'Leila was always pushing me to show my work.'

ifa: You yourself are a photographer. Leila incorporated some of your pictures from the 1970s in one of her exhibitions. How did Leila influence your work?

Alaoui: The last time I saw Leila I brought a lot of my old negatives to be scanned in her studio. After the lab told her they were ready, she picked them up. She selected sixteen of my photos, sent them to me, and said, 'We'll need a few more'. She wanted to incorporate them in one of her own exhibitions.

Leila was always pushing me to show my work, which I had never done. She asked for more pictures on a Tuesday. On Friday she was shot and died the next morning. It felt like it was a message from her, telling me to show the world. So I decided to show my photographs in the exhibition she had organised shortly before her death.

ifa: With two photographers in the same family, what was the difference in the way you both worked?

Alaoui: I have been taking pictures ever since I was little – since I was ten years old. Later, Leila came with me to my photo lab where I developed the images. In this way, she was always doing photography with me. Still, I tend to say, 'Leila was not a normal photographer'. She used photography for a cause, not just to take pictures. I always had a camera with me so in this sense I am the 'normal photographer'.

ifa: You are chairwoman of the Fondation Leila Alaoui. What would you like to achieve with the foundation?

Alaoui: The goal is to uphold her values. We are currently looking for a place to base the foundation where we can show her work in a permanent exhibition. Leila was very prolific: she was young and worked a lot. As a reporter and photographer she had a lot of projects. We even had to hire an art historian to classify all of her material. Once a location is set, we can invite photographers involved in the same kind of work and activism that she was involved in. I also want to help young artists. I already do this on my own when I meet someone interesting, but with the Fondation Leila Alaoui we can start to raise money for meaningful projects, organising exhibitions worldwide, and moving things forward.

Interview by Svenja Schlicht

About Christine Alaoui

Christine Alaoui is a French photographer based in Morocco. After the death of her daughter Leila Alaoui in 2016 she founded the Fondation Leila Alaoui with which she intends to continue her daughter's work and support young artists. Touring exhibitions of her own work as well as work by Leila can be seen in galleries worldwide.

About the ifa Gallery Stuttgart

The exhibition 'Leila Alaoui' shows in a retrospective the photographs of four groups of works by the artist and can be visited 5 April 2020 in the ifa Gallery Stuttgart. Since 1971, the ifa Gallery Stuttgart has been presenting changing exhibitions on current cultural and socio-political developments from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Find out more