Touhami Ennadre is an exceptional artist known for his captivating and thought-provoking works. Born in Morocco, his artistic journey has taken him to multiple corners of the world, enriching his creative perspective and allowing him to create compelling visual narratives.
Ennadre’s artistic style transcends traditional photography, pushing the boundaries of the medium to explore profound concepts and emotions. Drawing inspiration from his multicultural background and diverse experiences, he captures the essence of the human condition with raw intensity and sensitivity.
Ennadre’s keen eye for composition and attention to detail result in visually stunning images that are rich in texture and visual symbolism. He masterfully employs light and shadow to create dynamic and evocative scenes, drawing viewers into his carefully crafted worlds.
With a diverse body of work spanning decades, Ennadre has exhibited his photographs in prestigious galleries and museums around the globe. His thought-provoking imagery has garnered critical acclaim, earning him numerous awards and accolades within the art community.
Beyond his artistic pursuits, Ennadre is also a passionate advocate for cultural exchange and dialogue. He believes in the transformative power of art to bridge gaps between cultures and foster understanding. Through his work, he aims to provoke conversations and challenge preconceived notions, inviting viewers to explore the complexities of the human experience.
Touhami Ennadre’s exceptional talent and unwavering commitment to his craft have firmly established him as a visionary artist. His evocative imagery and unique perspective continue to captivate audiences worldwide, making him an influential figure in the realm of contemporary photography. With each new creation, Ennadre invites us to see the world through a different lens and discover the profound beauty that lies within the human story.
Where are you from, where are you based now and can you tell us a little about both?
Your question is very timely because it is impossible for me to talk about my journey as a photographer without mentioning my life, as both are linked. I was trained in my native alley in the medina long before my mother gave me my first camera. That’s where I learned to anticipate, to look, to escape the ‘m’quaddems’ and the cops of the port. This allowed me, later, in New York, to take pictures in the subway or at Ground Zero under the nose of the cops despite the prohibitions imposed by Giuliani. I am grateful to my street for having made me what I am.
Today, I work in Casablanca, in this street of the medina where I was born, and in Paris, the city that raised me and allowed me to be the man I am today: an artist – citizen of the world.
What first drew you to photography, and how did you get started in the field?
I grew up in a slum in the Paris suburbs, in La Courneuve. There too, it was the galore and our future, it was sporting, comic or criminal. My mother put a camera in my hands shortly before her death. I had just given up my passion of the time, soccer, from which the racism of the post-Six-Day War had turned me away. I was idle and she feared I would turn bad. So she saved for months, penny by penny, to buy it.
Her only obsession was to protect me. My mother gave it to me to make sense of my life. She gave birth to me twice. And it’s not easy to forget that I learned everything from her in terms of aesthetics as well.
In Casablanca, my mother wove carpets. There was no electricity or roof at home, so at night I would hold a candle for her to work by. I grew up in the color of her carpets and in the darkness of the night with a sky full of glowing stars above us. I remember as a child I thought they were human beings. I was very scared because I thought something terrible was going to happen to us. Years later, I found again, in my way of shooting the photos, of illuminating the dark, all that I owed to these long evenings spent lighting my mother. They were my school.
I started working in the street in 1974. In 1976, my first photos won me a critic’s prize at the Rencontres internationales de la photographie d’Arles. After a while, it became very easy for me to take pictures on the sly, unnoticed by others like a pickpocket, but I soon had a problem with that. Okay, I’ll go to India, Africa or elsewhere, to photograph the misery of others, then I’ll come back to France to promote my work in search of a possible success… And then? I kept asking myself: who is photographing whom? Me, clinging to my camera, or my subject? Did the fact of having a camera give me the right to intrude in other people’s lives and then claim to be a hero of photography? And then, at a certain point, I understood that photography had to be a body to body; that I had to get as close as possible to others to express [the gesture of pressing] the essence of them.
During my mother’s funeral, I was in this cemetery, my camera stuck to me as always, without feeling the right to shoot the grief. It is thanks to the hands of my family who were screaming their pain, that I understood: photography is not in the documentary but in the imaginary, as contradictory as that may seem. I had to dribble reality. From that day on, photography was no longer a tracking of visible reality but its erasure in order to let the imaginary unveil the real.
After that cursed day, as the idea of finding the brightness of its woolen threads did not leave me, I tried color photography. But I quickly gave it up, it was too artificial and narrative for me. In fact, my mother’s funeral buried me forever. To illuminate this drama, I saw that I needed a certain blackness and so this luminosity imposed itself. In this sense, I feel close to the pioneers of photography.
You’ve exhibited your work in galleries and museums all over the world. How do you approach curating and presenting your photographs in these different contexts?
Each exhibition is a challenge, often a battle because I do not proceed like any other photographer, and a work in the full sense of the word, by the measure of those it brings together.
What I did in 2022-23, for the exhibition QASIDA NOIRE at the Mohammed VI National Museum (MMVI) in Rabat, which you actually visited, I will never be able to do again, neither in itself nor elsewhere. I went to the end of my strength. My team and I gave it our best shot. In spite of the many circumstantial problems and pitfalls on my way, I felt on a mission from start to finish and I did not break down. You must know that I wanted to show my work in this way for a very long time, but in Paris it was impossible. There are too many prejudices about photography in general, and about me in particular, who doesn’t tick any of these preconceived boxes and who refuses the retrograde, neo-colonial label of ‘African photographer’, which I think distorts everything! I am not a pawn to be moved according to the needs of the cultural chessboard of institutions and the market that guides them.
Here at the MMVI, thanks to the generosity of His Majesty, I was able to produce QASIDA NOIRE, which is unique in its aesthetic uniqueness and scenography. I don’t think there has ever been, in the history of photography, such a demand for dialogue between its content and space: QASIDA NOIRE is composed of three spherical circles, immersed in the black-light, which impel three movements. The first circle presents the essence of my work on the prayers of men, on what connects them, that is to say Faith. The second circle goes out to meet my own people, on a journey to the depths of my country. The third penetrates to the heart of my artistic approach. It is very singular and it takes place in Rabat. Nowhere else, in New York, Paris, London or Berlin, has such a device been proposed.
Your photographs often have a strong sense of mood and atmosphere. How do you approach lighting, black and white, and other technical aspects of photography to achieve this effect?
This black where I come from bathed my early childhood. It is that of my Gnawa ancestors, in the depths of Guinea. It is also that of my native house which, at night, had only the sky for roof. It is still the intensity and the strength of this same black which makes light in my prints. In this, it is a metaphysical black.
For me, photography is a total act. There is no question of being replaced by a laboratory technician, I put my hand to the task from the shooting to the structuring of the space necessary for the gaze of others to complete what I have received by pure chance: my photography.
I am always afraid because I photograph very closely, almost glued to the face of the other, I must be as quick as careful, I play with my skin but fear teaches you to be fair and precise. For my series on trance, I went to Bahia, Recife, in the favelas of Rio, in places that are unforgiving. In Bombay, Port-au-Prince, Addis Ababa, in the Bronx, the night is terrifying. For example, in the New York subway, I was as afraid of the cops as of the gangs… Generally speaking, when a photograph appears, confuses you and hits you right in the heart after having waited for it for months, sometimes you have to act very quickly before it disappears.
What is it that draws you to the subjects you shoot?
I don’t choose them, they choose me and absorb me in their imperious need to be experienced in order to be shared.
In my work, there is no representation, there is only a cry. There must be an interpenetration with the other, that’s how I see photography. To make this cry heard, to make it known that what happened is inhuman or extraordinary, to make it visible, audible and universal.
You have described your technique as being closer to the plastic arts than to photography. Can you talk about how you see your work in relation to these different art forms, and how you approach the process of creating a photographic print?
To surpass myself without any calculation. This is what guides my approach: to always go further, beyond the mastery of my art and my profession, to reach, with fear in my stomach, the unknown, the incredible. The magic of a work, whatever the process of its birth, can only come from this vertigo and from a collaboration without the knowledge of the other.
Can you walk us through the process of creating one of your large-scale prints, from selecting the negative to developing the final print? What are some of the challenges you encounter along the way, and how do you overcome them?
I photograph in 6 x 6 cm. My rolls are developed in my studio as well as the long work on the scans with my assistants to reach the Ennadre black. I print the whole thing in working proofs; then I make a selection of about one photograph out of thirty or forty, to constitute the series on which I will work.
Then begins a very long work.
My enlargements are unique, of a format close to 120 cm x 150 cm / 160 cm x 220 cm and Fresco 300 cm x 500 cm. Unique not because of the refusal of duplication but by the nature of my work. Indeed, for each photograph, I draw a series of covers and modulate the exposure times; even if a photograph can be close to another, they will never be identical, hence the uniqueness of my work and the fact that it is as much a plastic art as a photography.
As an example, the printing of a large format with all that it represents of tests, drawings and cutting of the covers, requires a minimum of 12 hours of work. I am therefore very far from those happy photographers who, as soon as they have a satisfactory negative, print it or have it printed as many times as they want in the formats of their choice.
Who are some of your own photographic influences, or influences in general and how have they inspired your work?
You can understand why my admiration goes rather to ‘masters’ like, in painting, Tintoretto, Velasquez, Goya, Caravaggio, Delacroix, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne and so many others… In cinema, there are Murnau, Dreyer, Lang, Hitchcock, Tarkovski, but I am so obsessed by Japanese aesthetics that I used to spend my time watching Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, to name but a few, in art house cinemas or at the cinematheque. I was also fascinated by Ukiyo-e, the masters of the print such as Hiroshige, Hokusai, Harunobu, Utamaro, in photography, by the Shiseido brothers, Shinzo Fukuhara and Roso Fukuhara.
As for the answers to the question of the role of light and shadow, I found them in poets, writers, painters, Japanese masters of cinema, more than in photographers who confront us without reason with the contrasted representation or the abuse of the wide angle. The true light that gives value to the things of life without reproducing them, that knows how to make the shadows speak, is the one that makes your style.
What are you working on currently, and what can we expect to see from you in the future?
Right now, I’m so disgusted that I’ve put my work on hold. Everyone copies everyone else, making imagery that is seen and forgotten. On the other hand, the curiosity of cultural decision-makers who prefer to ramble rather than take the risk of revealing is over… I only observe dead eyes and bullshit around me. I prefer to stay away from it.
Finally, what do you have being exhibited currently and where can we find you online?
I have projects that are close to my heart but it is too early to talk about them.
I come from another world even if I have integrated the innovative part of technology in my approach. I am not a fan of social networks as far as the diffusion of my photos is concerned, even if I use them to transmit those of my thoughts that I believe are likely to interest others…