Interview with Pierre Bourdieu on Picturing Algeria

“Algeria is what allowed me to accept myself.”—Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu, Picturing AlgeriaWe continue our week-long focus on Picturing Algeria with an excerpt from an interview with Pierre Bourdieu included in the book. In the interview with Franz Schultheis, Pierre Bourdieu discusses his time in Algeria and his interest in photography. You can read the full interview with Pierre Bourdieu with photographs here.

Pierre Bourdieu: It is perfectly natural to link the content of my research and my photos. One of the things that interested me most in Algeria, for example, is what I called the “economy of poverty” or the “economy of slums.” Normally, the slums were perceived (not only by racist, but also by naive observers) as something dirty, ugly, disorderly, thrown together, etc., whereas, in truth, it is a place for a very complex life, for a real economy with an inherent logic, where you see a great deal of resourcefulness, an economy that at least offers a lot of people a minimum with which to survive and, above all, for social survival—i.e., to escape the shame for a self-respecting man of doing nothing and contributing nothing to his family’s livelihood. I took a lot of photos on this subject, photos of all the hawkers and street vendors, and I was really amazed at the resourcefulness and energy in these unusual buildings, that were reminiscent of shop windows or a shop; or this motley collection of displays on the ground (which also interested me from an aesthetic point of view, as it was a very baroque scene); the pharmacists I interviewed, who were selling almost all sources of traditional magic, whose names I wrote down, aphrodisiacs, etc.

There were also very picturesque butcher’s shops (those three big, triangular wooden stands with cuts of meat hanging on them)—a typical subject for a photographer in search of picturesque, exotic scenes. I myself always had hypotheses about the organization of space on my mind: There is a layout plan of the village with a certain structure, a structure of a house; and I also discovered that the distribution of graves in the cemetery corresponded roughly to the layout of the village based on clans. And I wondered, “Will I
find the same structure in the markets?” That reminds me of a photo I took in a cemetery: a Cassoulet tin filled with water on an anonymous grave. On the seventh day after someone has died, you have to bring water to their grave in order to capture the female soul; in this case it was a Cassoulet tin that had
previously contained a taboo product: pork….

Franz: Schultheis: Before we finish, I would like to ask you a personal question: In your opinion, what role does your experience in Algeria play in the context of social self-analysis, which you outlined in your last course at the Collège de France?

P.B. Yvette Delsaut wrote a text about me in which she very rightly says that Algeria is what allowed me to accept myself. With the same perspective of understanding of the ethnologist with which I regarded Algeria, I could also view myself, the people from my home, my parents, my father’s and my mother’s pronunciation, reappropriating it all in a totally undramatic manner—for this is one of the greatest problems of uprooted intellectuals when all that remains to them is the choice between populism and, on the contrary, shame induced by class racism. I encountered these people, who are very much akin to the Kabylians and with whom I spent my youth, from the perspective of understanding that is mandatory for ethnology, defining it as a discipline. Photography, that I first began doing in Algeria and then in Béarn, definitely contributed a great deal to this conversion of my perspective that required a genuine change of my senses—which is no exaggeration. Photography, you see, is a manifestation of the distance of the observer, who collects his data and is always aware that he is collecting data (which is not always easy in such familiar situations as balls), but at the same time photography also assumes the complete proximity of the familiar, of attention, and a sensitivity with regard to even the least perceptible of details, details that the observer can only understand and interpret thanks to his familiarity (and do we not say that someone who behaves well is “attentive”?), a sensitivity for the infinitely small detail of an act that even the most attentive of ethnologists generally fails to notice. But photography is equally interwoven with the relationship that I have had to my subject at any particular time, and not for a moment did I forget that my subject is people, human beings whom I have encountered from a perspective that—at the risk of sounding ridiculous—I would refer to as caring, often touched.

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