Leila Alaoui, the French-Moroccan photographer and video artist known for her poetic and unsentimental images of daily life in the Mediterranean and Middle East, died last night from injuries sustained during last week’s terrorist attack in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso. She was 33.
Alaoui had been in Burkina Faso for less than a week, on assignment for Amnesty International, working on a series of photographs about women’s rights. The human rights organization had chosen the photographer for her unique ability to make “faces talk.”
Alaoui was shot twice, in the leg and thorax, when gunmen from the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda opened fire at the Hotel Splendid and the nearby Cappuccino Cafe. She was initially in stable condition following an operation, but suffered a fatal heart attack as a medical evacuation was being prepared. The French Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin, confirmed Alaoui’s death on Twitter. Her driver, Mahamadi Ouédraogo, was also killed in the brutal attack, along with dozens of other people of various nationalities and faiths.
“She was an artist who shined,” Jean-Luc Monterosso, director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, and Jack Lang, a former French minister of culture who is now president of the Institut du Monde Arabe, said in a joint statement. “She was fighting to give life to those forgotten by society, to homeless people, to migrants, deploying one weapon: photography.”
Born in Paris and raised in Marrakesh, Alaoui studied photography at City University of New York before traveling throughout northern Africa and the Middle East, documenting social realities with a keen journalistic eye. She was an artist enamored with color and the nuances of cultural identity, focusing on themes of migration and the struggles of usually voiceless populations.
For her ongoing series The Moroccans, Alaoui took dozens of road trips to the most remote rural villages of Morocco, traveling through the Atlas Mountains, the Rif Mountains, and the Sahara. At markets and other public places, she first got to know the locals, then set up her portable portrait studio, photographing any willing passersby against a black backdrop. Inspired by Robert Frank’s The Americans and Richard Avedon’s In the American West, her unposed portraits capture the striking faces and distinctive dress of her countrymen, both Arab and Berber. They document diverse traditions endangered by cultural globalization — for example, the face tattoos given to Berber baby girls — and explore the evolution of cultural and individual identities without ever exoticizing or objectifying their subjects.
“I saw her before she left for Burkina Faso, and she said, ‘Don’t worry, I have been to more dangerous places,’” Aida Alami, a journalist and childhood friend of Alaoui’s, told the New York Times. “She was so optimistic, she thought that nothing bad could ever happen to her.”
Alaoui’s celebrated work was shown in major exhibitions, including at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Art Dubai, the 2012 and 2014 Marrakech Biennials, and last year’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York. An exhibition of her The Moroccans series at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie closed on Sunday.
“There was an internal light that illuminated both her and her work,” Monterosso said. “There is a documentary rigor in her work, but also a rare artistic sensibility.”