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Nation & World

Beyond Orientalism: Photographing Tunisia

Boy back flips off a wall in a soccer field, Umm-Al-Arais
Boy back flips off a wall in a soccer field, Umm-Al-Arais

Tunisia is a land of contrasts. The north African country and its people have a complex history and a rich cultural heritage. While the Western world may be familiar with the country's northern region littered with prosperous beach resorts and museums, the southern territories are rich in resources but often less visited by tourists.

Tunisian photographer Zied Ben Romdhane traveled to the region of Gafsa, the phosphate mining region in southwest Tunisia to record a country of mysticism and majesty, and its hard-working people, who are living simple but profound lives and fighting an often neglectful government.

A cloud on the top of a hill near the phosphate field, Al-Mitlawi
/ Zied Ben Romdhane
/
A cloud on the top of a hill near the phosphate field, Al-Mitlawi

Samar, Al-Mitlawi
/ Zied Ben Romdhane
/
Samar, Al-Mitlawi

Lazheri, an ex-mine worker, Al-Mitlawi
/ Zied Ben Romdhane
/
Lazheri, an ex-mine worker, Al-Mitlawi

Romdhane's work in West of Life shows the Tunisia that is rarely seen on the news. His images are of the region's daily life. We meet characters whose name we do not know but Romdhane's work makes us realize these characters' close relationship to their environment.

While the topography of the region is inhospitable and bleak, Romdhane shows it in all of its complexity and fullness; he balances harshness with humor and his affection for his subjects.

American writer and art historian Teju Cole wrote in his 2017 New York Times essay, "Which Photograph Stays in Your Memory?" that "all images, regardless of the date of their creation, exist simultaneously and are pressed into service to help us make sense of other images." Romdhane's Tunisia photos bear this out. They are reminiscent of other photographers' important works, namely Sebastiao Salgado's "Workers" or Danny Lyon's late 1960's image, "The Cotton Pickers, Ferguson Unit, Texas." They also have the rhythm and composition of war photographer Gerda Taro's images and the intimate work of Budapest-born photographer André Kertész.

An asphalt worker during road building, Gafsa
/ Zied Ben Romdhane
/
An asphalt worker during road building, Gafsa

Mine worker with a broken back, Al-Mitlawi
/ Zied Ben Romdhane
/
Mine worker with a broken back, Al-Mitlawi

West of Life is more than black-and-white images of working people. They have been photographed to show them as humans with the desire to have full ownership of their destiny, not to be the subjects of pity.

The people in West of Life have stories to tell, things to do, games to play. Their stories have political, social, and environmental overtones. Romdhane's work steps away from the mystical orientalism of golden sand and palm trees, and illuminates a region with bright light, shadows, architecture and emotion.

For more information about the book: "West of Life" please visit: Red Hook Editions.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Damaged walls caused by explosions in the phosphate field, Al-Mitlawi
/ Zied Ben Romdhane
/
Damaged walls caused by explosions in the phosphate field, Al-Mitlawi

Chemical waste evacuated into the sea, Chott-Essalam
/ Zied Ben Romdhane
/
Chemical waste evacuated into the sea, Chott-Essalam

Corrected: July 24, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of the photo credits in this story misspelled photographer Zied Ben Romdhane's last name as Romhane.