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‘West of life’: A Conversation with Photographer Zied Ben Romdhane
As a platform, we want to change the media industry to be representative of diverse talent from across the globe. As part of our activities to nurture and highlight under-reported visual stories and their storytellers, we want to set up a platform for local journalists, to report on issues that matter to them.
Episode 1. Zied Ben Romdhane (Tunisia).
The inaugural episode of the Native Speaker podcasts series, Laura Bogaerts talks with Zied about his latest photobook: West of Life. A visual testimony of the harshness of Gafsa, a phosphate mining region in the southwest of Tunisia marginalized by the government.
This podcast is in French. Translation to Arabic and English below.
ENG / In this interview, we present “West of Life”, a photographic documentary book by Tunisian photographer Zied Ben Romdhane. All images are presented in black and white, which Zied says enabled him to focus on the heart of the story, which centers around the mining region of Gafsa, located in southern Tunisia, and illustrates the lives of revolted people who represent the disharmony between humans and nature through the extraction of phosphate. Zied is with us to talk about the publication of his book.
LB — First off, tell us a little bit about yourself Zied.
ZBR — I was born in 1981 and discovered photography in my uncle’s studio based in northwestern Tunisia. It was a commercial studio that specialized in portraiture. During my studies at the business school, I joined the local photo club of Tunis, where I started making my first prints, and I also participated in their exhibition at the end of the year. In 2008, I opened my first commercial studio and then in 2011, after the Revolution, I became interested in documentary photography. I am mainly interested in topics that revolve around Tunisian society.
LB — Why “West of Life” as a title? What does it mean?
ZBR — In Tunisia, we have a problem of centralization, meaning everything happens in the capital of Tunis or in the touristic towns along the coast, such as Souss or Sfax where there is a relatively good development compared to the cities and villages in the western part of the country. The mining region I photographed, Gafsa, lies in western Tunisia and its inhabitants are suffering financially compared to more prosperous cities and feel marginalized by the rest of the country. It seems that life is evolving all around the coast [in the east], therefore the title of this book: “West of Life”.
LB — You say “West of Life” is a testimony of the harshness that reigns in the mining region of Gafsa, but also exemplifies the affection you have towards its inhabitants. How did you gain the trust of the people you photographed in Redayef, Mettlaoui and Oumm Laarayes and how did this trust impacted your story ?
ZBR — One of the things that really pushed me to do this story was the superficiality of the media covering this issue. The first few times I went there, the people asked me what media outlet or television channel I was working for. They told me that the media were always present whenever tensions would rise in the region, yet as soon as things calmed down, there was no one there to tell their story. Their impression of the media was that they only came for personal gain; to exploit the conflicts in order to increase their profit and ratings. From the beginning, I chose to not only photograph the moments of conflict but to photograph the daily life of the villagers. I decided to work long-term, travelling to Gafsa every weekend even during holidays, and slowly the people began believe and trust in me as they realized I wasn’t only there to cover breaking news. After 3–4 months, I started making friends who helped me by recommending other people I could talk to and places to stay.
LB — Who are the people creating the tensions you refer to?
ZBR — They mainly come from the population at large; from people asking for better developments. In those regions, the only place people can work is in the mines. There is a total absence of all other sectors.
LB — You mentioned in a previous interview that your political opinion influenced the “West of Life” project, empathizing with the mine workers. What type of story would we have seen had this project been commissioned by the government, which owns the mines?
ZBR — I think it would be a joke. I don’t think the current government capable of doing any kind of propaganda. But I would be ok with this if they would be able to do a good story with the aim of giving people hope or with the aim of thinking of a better future for the region of Gafsa.
LB — What was the main challenge you faced while covering this story?
ZBR — The main challenge for me was photographing the area and the people without further victimizing them. I wanted to show that they desire to be in control of their destiny and do not wish to be the subjects of a certain pity.
LB — As mentioned at the beginning of this interview, you decided to exclusively work in black and white to focus on the message you wanted to convey. What is it that you wanted to tell people through “West of Life”?
ZBR — The story of this region is quite complex with many political, social, and environmental issues at play. Therefore, I tried to simplify the message by minimizing the visual elements in the composition and made use of monochrome instead of colour. I made sure to use only one or two lenses. The message, or rather the conclusion, of this project is that this region has become the victim of policies that have exploited workers and nature without paying attention to any further developments of the region.
LB — How did this project impact your development as a photographer?
ZBR — I’ve learned that with photography, being a visual language, research is just as important as technical experimentation. I also learned different approaches to certain topics.
LB — Could you tell us on what you are working at the moment?
ZBR — I’m currently working on a project called “Under the Sand” that tells the story about a region in southern Tunisia facing desertification, where villages are located under the dunes of the Sahara.
LB — To conclude, I would like to talk about the closing photograph of your book. Could you tell us about the meaning of that image?
ZBR — In this image, you see the finished product of phosphate in the form of three tall pyramids. It resembles the three pyramids of Giza in Egypt as I found similarities between the ancient civilizations of Egypt and the inhabitants of Gafsa because both had to make many sacrifices to build their respective pyramids. In contrast, the pyramids of Gafsa are ephemeral, since they are made of phosphate and dust, and they will disappear with time and nothing will be left as a testimony to the people’s sacrifices, whereas the Egyptian pyramids remain as witness of a grand civilization.