Kader Attia discusses his photographic series The Landing Strip (2000–02) with Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery Director. A special publication devoted to the series will be launched at Hayward Gallery on Wednesday 20 March.
Ralph Rugoff: Did you start out taking pictures in and around the neighbourhood where you grew up?
Kader Attia: Yes, I was always taking pictures there. I grew up in a neighbourhood of concrete buildings – but behind these towers there was a huge area of forest and a farm. I remember how much time I spent there when I was a kid, looking at the landscape, drawing it. It was just a small piece of land, but in this very rough, poor, concrete place, it probably helped to create my desire for dreaming. I used to run alone in that forest, and I think my teenage years were made bearable because of the presence of nature. I don’t know if I would have been the same if I had grown up totally surrounded by concrete architecture.
When did you realise that making pictures was something you wanted to pursue more seriously?
I think my first photographs were of architecture, taken in Mexico when I was travelling. I was 19 or 20 at the time and I was fascinated by the Spanish colonial architecture there. But I have to say that even though I was interested in the texture of walls and the shapes of buildings, I’ve always been taking pictures of people. I’m definitely a humanist photographer. When you photograph people – whether the person is posing for you or not – there are so many things going on: your curiosity for other cultures, other generations, other types of people; you are also trying to understand how they think.
After Mexico I went to Algeria many times, and also to the Congo, where I took portraits of people in Brazzaville. When I was back in Paris after more than two years travelling, it happened that I was crossing the street one very sunny afternoon and I heard behind me, in the middle of this crowd in the street, two men talking like women in Arabic. I turned around and discovered the two men were dressed as women, wearing skirts and stilettos. People were staring at them but they didn’t care. They were just so free and brave that I decided to follow them. After walking for half an hour we ended up in a small, very bizarre cafe, full of transgender people from Algeria, which was for me, like, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t know that this world existed.
You had never noticed any transgender people when you visited Algeria?
At that time – this was 1998 – Algeria was in the middle of a civil war between the Islamists and the army. And to be someone who looked different could mean death. Many of the transgender people that I met were in Paris to escape from the risk of being killed in Algeria. So that was how it came about that I started to photograph this group of transgender immigrants – completely by chance, but also through curiosity. In addition, I felt there was something important to do, and that I needed to do something because I was lucky enough to be there.
I think this notion of curiosity is very important in my practice, because I really like to share not only my experiences but also a non-objectified view of people who are unknown to the mainstream. When I was working on these photographs over a two-year period, my aim was to show the viewer something they had no idea about.
Why did you call this series of photographs The Landing Strip?
‘The landing strip’ is the slang way that they referred to where they were working as prostitutes in the outskirts of Paris, along these avenues that are so big and so flat that they look like landing strips. They used to say, ‘I arrived here directly.’ It was a very tough area.
Were they comfortable with you taking pictures of them? I can imagine that if you are an illegal immigrant and working as a transgender prostitute, you are probably worried about getting the wrong kind of attention.
I think it was more difficult for me at first to gain their confidence because I was Algerian, and they were all worried I would send images to their families. It took about six months of building up trust before I could make the first pictures. I started out by trying to assist them with their legal efforts to stay in France, because they were all illegal immigrants. You can imagine the danger they faced: if they were arrested by the police and sent back to Algeria dressed as women, they might have been murdered on arrival. These Algerian transgender people are very strong. Few of them have pimps.
They also have different ways to enjoy life – one of them is to have a nice big party for their birthday, but the birthday is like a ritual, either for presenting a new boyfriend or to entertain the audience with the love story that they are living with the boyfriend. As we became friends, they asked me to become the photographer of their parties and fake weddings. I know how to do wedding photographs, of course, with a flash and a nice camera. I did this because it helped me become part of the whole family. And for me it was a way to illustrate the good moments in their lives, because I was also shooting scenes of prostitution and their difficult day-to-day existence.
I wanted to represent the whole picture of their lives, to show that even illegal migrants working as transgender prostitutes have moments of joy, of happiness. For me, this is about being respectful. When we represent minority communities like this one, we need to include images that do not show them as victims.
Many of your pictures portray very intimate scenes, and almost feel like they were taken by a member of the family. How did you manage to create this sense of closeness with your subjects?
Since I was a kid I’ve always had a sort of empathy with the pain of others. It’s in my nature. And I really do think that this empathy is often expressed in my work. With The Landing Strip photographs, it’s the only explanation for why I was so interested: I was never intrigued by the glamour – though they are glamorous of course – but to be honest, they really touched me. Some of them have very tough stories. Especially in Muslim societies, they are often the perfect scapegoat. So when I talk about making humanist photographs, it means creating pictures that convey a certain respect for someone and trying to do as much as I can to retain the dignity of that person.
The full-length interview between Kader Attia and Ralph Rugoff can be found in Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion, the catalogue accompanying the Hayward Gallery exhibition.
A new publication devoted to The Landing Strip, featuring over 140 images and an essay by Tarek el-Ariss, Associate Professor and Chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, will be launched at an event at Hayward Gallery on Wednesday 20 March.