When French colonial armies arrived in Algeria in the early twentieth century, they were accompanied by photographers. France had occupied Algeria since 1830—the occupation would last until 1962—and these photographers wanted to take pictures of Algerian women as they’d imagined them: lounging in harems, smoking hookahs, trapped in the prison of their own homes, topless, sexually available. But when they reached the country, they encountered women whose bodies could not be seen. Veiled from head to toe, with only their eyes visible, Algerian women were inaccessible to the photographers’ gaze.
The photographers were undeterred. They hired models, often from the margins of society, and paid them to pose and to wear costumes. In their studios, the photographers used props and backdrops to create bedroom interiors, decorated spaces with hookahs and coffee pots and rugs to look like harems, and placed bars on windows to produce a sense of imprisonment. If Algerian women would not take off their veils voluntarily, the photographers would pay them to do so.
These staged photographs, which became picture postcards, are the subject of “The Colonial Harem,” by Malek Alloula, an Algerian poet and literary critic who died, in 2015, as an exile in Paris. The book, which is dedicated to Roland Barthes, was first published, in French, in 1981; it was translated into English by Myrna and Wlad Godzich five years later. Though the photographs that Alloula examines in the book were staged, they were captioned as if they documented life in Algeria. For example, a photograph of two women viewed through a barred window is labelled “Moorish women at home.” Three separate images of a single woman, in the same outfit, are captioned as if she were three different women, from three different places: “Young Bedouin Woman,” “Young Woman from the South,” “Young Kabyl Woman.” A woman shown in a jewelled and tasselled headpiece, her elaborate dress opened to show her breasts, is captioned “Moorish Woman in Housedress.” The images reveal not Algerian women but the colonial photographer’s fantasies about them. They are an illusion.