Cheating death on the battlefield – Interview with revered Moroccan photographer Youssef Boudlal

Cheating death on the battlefield – Interview with revered Moroccan photographer Youssef Boudlal
All the images© Youssef Boudlal/Reuters.

Revered Moroccan and world-famous photographer Youssef Boudlal repeatedly cheated death on the battlefield to become one of the greatest war photographers of our time.

Having covered stories in conflict zones in Palestine, Libya and Syria, Boudlal is a firm believer in Robert Capa’s famous saying that “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. Judging from his portfolio however, you cannot help but notice that Boudlal has often times been extraordinarily too close to where the active fighting was.

The outcome? Extremely harrowing and often times deeply moving imagery, including the famous ‘A Brief Encounter’ – an iconic picture of a young Yazidi girl that won Boudlal the 2014 Reuters best picture award.

A girl from the minority Yazidi sect fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinja. © Youssef Boudlal/Reuters.

Boudlal has graciously accepted an interview with us in order to reflect on some of his works and experiences in conflict zones. Although, Boudlal’s photography is by no means limited to war and disasters, his extensive portfolio extends to fashion and day to day stories.

Youssef, you have come a long way as a photographer. What keeps you going? What inspires you?

I don’t know if I can do something different besides photography at the moment. The beautiful people I get to meet, the great stories I get to cover and the new places I get to discover during my travels, all of which make me very excited to carry on this path and keep submerging into the realm of photography.

I get so much inspiration from great works by others in the field, as well as from great cinematography in movies. I also become inspired by looking back at my own work and previous accomplishments, and often my inspiration comes also from working on new ideas and taking on new challenges.

What does photography mean to you, and why should anyone want to be a war photographer?

Photography is part of human history. It is a desire to witness an event and be able to share it. It’s instinctive, improvisational and reflexive. Being a war photographer is an opportunity to be close to the story and an opportunity to understand the reality and find out what is truly happening on the ground.

What was your first professional assignment as a war photographer, can you tell us a little about it?

My first assignment in a war zone was in the Battle of Jenin which took place in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank during the Second Intifada on April of 2002. I was a freelance photographer then working for the French Gamma press agency, and it was a hell of an experience. I will never forget the impact this experience had on my life. It was the first time I saw corpses and people suffering. It was a disaster as so many people lost their lives after Israeli Defence Forces entered the city looking for Palestinian militants. I remember this was also when I stopped taking pictures of women in mourning of their dead. This was just too extreme and too harsh for my first experience in such an area.

You have said that you don’t bear the audience in mind when you take a picture and that you see your job as a matter of personal commitment. Can you elaborate some more on these statements?

I believe in the basic elements of photography. I’m not interested in making a statement about photography, but I’m interested in using photography to make statements about the people. I see my job as an attempt to understand a situation and try to share it with the world. When you work in conflict zones, you better take a position in one way and try to be objective as much as possible.

Free Syrian Army fighters run away to take cover from the exchange fire with regime forces in Aleppo, Syria. © Youssef Boudlal/Reuters.

Many of your photographs show that you were on the front lines of the conflicts such as in Libya and Syria. How extreme did you have to go for some of these shots?

“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” as Robert Capa said, and I approve his statement. However, in some cases you need to control your limits, you need to make the right decision, and know when it is the right time to make a move. This of course comes with experience and a lot of luck.

Syrian rebel fighters aim their weapons as they wait for government forces to appear. © Youssef Boudlal/Reuters.

Can you tell us about your feelings and what runs through your mind during these moments?

One important thing to keep in mind when working in these places is focusing on what is going on around you. One small mistake could get you into all kinds of trouble and even cost you your life. Of course, I have to get the pictures, but a picture does not worth a life.

A man stands crying near the graves of his two children killed during a government forces strike in Syria. © Youssef Boudlal/Reuters.

Was there a time when you felt connected with the subjects in your pictures?

Every time I cover a story, I think about the people whose lives I document, and I oftentimes think about my inability to stop what’s going on in front of my lens. I think about my powerlessness, specifically with regards to the horrors of war and conflict which these people have to endure. In addition to trying to deal with what I witness on a daily basis, I endeavour as much as I can to portray these people and help share their stories with the world.

The tragic death of Leila Alaoui this year came as an unbearable shock to all of us. When did you learn about her death, and how did you receive the news, as a Moroccan and a fellow photographer?

I first met Leila in Paris and we had a great conversation about photography in Morocco, especially about Moroccan portraits. I have been following her great work ever since. I knew she was working in Ouagadougou focusing on women’s rights. She happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is part of the risk we take in our profession, and which places a tragic exclamation mark on the dangers faced by journalists. It is indeed with great sadness that I received the news of her death that day via an alert on my cell phone. I could really not believe it. She was young, beautiful and talented. She is resting in peace now.

Your pictures have undoubtedly impacted our lives and our perception of conflict and war. How did your experiences taking these pictures in the war zones impact your life?

Visual media has continuously affected our perception of war over the years. As photography became less complex, photojournalists could venture deep into the battlefield. Nowadays television and other media outlets bring a steady stream of war footage into our living rooms without censoring scenes of brutality on either side. This saturated coverage played a key role in turning the tide of our opinion against the war. That is the impact.

The Yazidi Girl is probably one of the most famous and most powerful portraits in your collection. Would you say that this is your favourite work?

I have been working as a photojournalist since 2001, and I have a great interest in documenting people living through war. I did many important reportages and The Yazidi Girl is just one of many others. This little girl has been highlighted in the news, and yes she is one of my favourite works because with her look she is expressing the sad situation that all the Yazidis are still living today.

What began as a hobby of taking pictures of his family and people his neighbourhood has turned into a passion and into a very exciting and successful career for Boudlal. We are really pleased he accepted to talk to us and we wish him all the best in his future endeavours.

Please note: All the images featured in this interview are © Youssef Boudlal/Reuters.

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