Text to Moroccan in Rotterdam's Old North - 6 portraits
Samuli Schielke

"Moroccans are one of the largest immigrant groups in the Netherlands and probably the most stigmatized. Despite the presence of successful politicians, artists, sportsmen and others of Moroccan origin, Moroccans also have alarmingly high crime and unemployment rates, and to make things worse, they have been heavily affected by the current fear of and confrontation with Islam. Not surprisingly, most Moroccans do not recognize themselves in the negative image of crime, religious extremism and anti-integration obscurantism that is often drawn of them, but would prefer to be shown and seen as the decent people they are.

This photo series was commissioned and curated by Daniela Swarowsky/ ZiM (Zwaanshals in Motion) for an exhibition on the history of labor migration to the neighborhood of het Oude Noorden in Rotterdam (Van Gastarbeider tot Allochtoon, 22 April - 30 June 2006). It is an experiment in finding a balance between the image people want to show of themselves, and the objectifying glance that public representations always are bound to have. Rather than representing people according to preconceived expectations, it was designed to give the people who appear in the pictures the power of self-representation: They should decide where and in what setting they want to be photographed, and they should give a short statement of their own choice, telling about themselves and things that are important for them. As always, realizing the project was more difficult than conceiving it. I had very little time available, and the original design of the project turned out to be difficult to realize. First, I found out that only certain people were willing to stand in front of a camera for a picture that would be exhibited in their own neighborhood. Especially for women this presented a kind of exposure they were not willing to subject themselves to. Contrary to my original plans which included a wider cross-cut of different social groups, the people who appear in the photos - students, political and social activists, businessmen, one worker; none unemployed, and no housewives - are almost all in the some way publicly active. Secondly, the self-representative aspect of my concept did not quite work out, since most people had never thought about how they want to be shown in public.

In practice, I myself suggested the people where and how they could be photographed, and in the beginning of the photo session made a Polaroid to give them an impression how the final picture would look like. They were, in the end, my pictures of them, and represented them in my visual language, albeit with their collaboration. Working with a middle format camera and a tripod, the photo shootings would usually take approximately half an hour and require some patience from the people. This contributed to the mostly rather formal and at times confrontational character of the pictures, where the presence of the camera is always felt, and hopefully something of the dialogical moment of making - rather than taking - the pictures is conveyed.

If my attempt to collaborate with this group of people in making photographic self-representations was in many ways troubled by the actual process of making the pictures, their exhibition turned out to be very successful - perhaps partly for the same reasons that had meanwhile made me question its success. The final series of six photographs was mounted in light boxes that were hung in an empty shop in a way that made them resemble advertisements. People would regularly stop in front of the display, looking and commenting at the pictures. They were largely very happy about the positive image they gave of immigrants (not only Moroccans, thus) as decent people rather than criminals and terrorists. The difficulty of finding people to stand in front of a camera had led me to photograph those people who were least shy of exposure: decent, successful people with experience and interest in some degree of public presence. Thus the very limitations of the project led to a representation of Moroccans as a group that most of them were happy to identify with: upwardly mobile, hardworking, motivated and socially engaged."


Copyright 2006 by Samuli Schielke