From 1950 through 1980, Lazhar Mansouri photographed the inhabitants of Aïn Beïda (Aurés), his home town in Algeria. Over the years, Mansouri created more than 100,000 portraits of the local townspeople in his own studio.
The images are a commentary on the time, reflected through families, youth, tribes and military, with an emphasis on custom, kitsch, fashion and a familiar need for youth to be looked upon as 'cool'. Plastic plants, columns ad various patterned curtains serve as backdrops in the studio, framing posed young Algerian children, looking somewhat uncomfortable, dressed in costumes, mini suits or sunglasses, holding guitars or standing near plastic plants. Teenagers wear leather jackets and pose with cigarettes dangling from their mouth. Engaged couples are captured in a kiss or replaying the moment of the ring engagement. In one photograph a village family stands rigid with three young daughters in the front row, yet off to the side is the teenage son in a relaxed pose holding a large transistor radio as a sign of his youth. In most of these photographs smiles are rare, the individuals taking the moment seriously, as a treasured photo memory of their families, in stark contrast to the surrounding kitsch.
When Mansouri was a child, he accompanied his grandmother to the local street market, considered a community meeting place and bazaar, where he met a photographer who had a studio in the back of a grocery store. The photographer hired him and through an apprenticeship, Mansouri learned the craft of photography. Eventually, he left to open his own studio in the back of a barber shop, dedicated to portraiture. After years of documenting everyday people in the region, Mansouri inadvertently created a photographic archive, a legacy of images representing people and tribes rarely photographed. During this period, Algeria went through war and political turmoil as the country fought for independence from France. However, the stability of Mansouri's studio was evident in the thousands of people he captured.
In addition to the family portraits, Mansouri took hundreds of photos of Berber women with tattooed faces. These women never took off their veil for any man, except their husband, so the photo archive Mansouri created is exceptional. Luckily, the patrimony of photographs was saved by another photographer who saw its' value, as upon Mansouri's death, his family considered the necessity of burning all of these controversial negatives.
Mansouri describes the ritual of a seasoned professional who tries to be respectful of customs, but at the same time gets what he wants from the subject: "Women often come accompanied by a relative. They follow the man, veiled, not to be recognized in the street. When they come in the studio they submit to my rules. The only person that comes in is the one who wants the photograph. The person to be photographed has some space to fix her or his appearance, a small hand mirror, one on the wall, a hair brush and combs. Generally women come wearing makeup, well dressed with jewelry. A certain distance is imposed otherwise it would be a sign of disrespect for a man to be too close to a woman. The clients are very different and it is almost impossible to tell who has been in a studio before and knows the procedure and who has never seen a camera and needs instruction. The approach has to be very delicate in order to avoid shame, especially since for some of them it is the first time when they are without veil in front of a man they are not related to. Sometimes, I have to intervene if the hair covers the face, or jewelry is not placed where it should be. Then I try to arrange it, but I take all the precautions of language and discretion."