They were firing at me with their eyes

The thick charcoal around the woman’s eyes does little to mask the contempt she seems to feel for the photographer.

She stares directly at the camera, defiant, with a subtle scowl etched into her symmetrically-tattooed face.

The featureless white wall behind her forces your gaze to her dark complexion – there’s no escaping her scrutiny.

Jennifer Evans wrote in her article entitled “Seeing Subjectivity: Erotic Photography and the Optics of Desire”, about homoerotic photography in 1950s West Germany, how certain images force an “interpretive encounter”.

Garanger’s images certainly make such an encounter unavoidable, encouraging a visual intimacy that bridges the 50-year divide between observer and observed.

But when and where was this photo taken? There are no captions on the image. If she’s clearly so unhappy about having her photograph taken, why is she sitting for the portrait?

This is just one out of 2,000 photographs Marc Garanger shot over ten days in 1960.

Garanger was a photographer for the French army during the war for independence in Algeria (1954-1962). He was commanded to take photographs of Algerians, primarily women, living in internment camps for ID cards.

This is one of those women.

“This was war and they were forced to be photographed, so there was no communication,” said Garanger years later. “This had to happen – I had to take the picture, and they had no choice in being photographed.”

After seeing the first day’s photos his commandant ordered – foreshadowing the banning of the burqa in France in 2011 – that the women be photographed without the veils they always wore in public.

“They had to sit on a stool, outdoors, before a white wall. I was struck by their pointblank stares, first witness to their mute, violent protest,” recalled Garanger. “They were firing at me with their eyes.”

The photographer felt this was yet another form of colonization from the French army, reminiscent of the tone of Edward Curtis’ famed images of Native Americans.

And yet Lucy Lippard, in her article “Partial Recall”, argued that Curtis’ work was not completely pernicious. His photographs were certainly staged and he did have them dress up in traditional clothes he carried around with him.

But Lippard noted that at the time Native Americans felt they had to publicly adopt a political position against so-called ‘noble savage’ photography, and yet they themselves wanted to capture their traditions on film – albeit for their eyes only. Perhaps more interestingly, a recent documentary underlined how in fact Curtis’ photos retroactively serve as historical artifacts of a culture that is nearly extinct.

But Garanger’s comments regarding Curtis reinforce those of Malek Alloula in his 1986 work, ‘Colonial Harem’. Alloula argued that the pornographic postcards of topless Algerian women (popular between 1900-1930) was a misrepresentation of their womenfolk and served to visually, as well as physically, colonize them.

“Wanting to possess the Algerian land, French colonists first claimed the bodies of its women, using sex as a surrogate for an extension of another larger usurpation of culture,” wrote Alloula.

Apparently upon seeing his portraits, Garanger’s captain suddenly stood up screaming: “Come see, come see how ugly they are. They look like monkeys.” At that moment Garanger swore he would spend the rest of his life proving his captain wrong.

In 1961 Garanger left his detachment without permission and crossed over to Switzerland to try and publish some of the images. Six of the images were published by L’Illustré Suisse, his images won the Prix Niece in 1966.

Garanger’s actions did what Alloula arguably failed to do in his writing – namely his desire to “send back the postcard” – or rather resist and defy the colonialists. Garanger’s images not only became icons or symbols of resistance, but permanently recorded the humiliation of these Algerian women.

By keeping these images, Garanger vindicated W.J.T. Mitchell’s argument that to destroy historical evidence won’t necessarily delete the events themselves. Somewhat contradictorily, by publishing these photographs he invalidated his role as a visual colonialist, and ensured that the actions of the French in Algeria would be forever immortalized in black and white.

“I wanted to try and give them back their humanity and their dignity through my portrait,” Garanger said. “To express myself with my eye, I took up my camera. To shout my disagreement I didn’t stop for 24 months, sure that one day I would be able to testify.”