Among North Africa’s Berbers

The first day Ferhat Bouda picked up a camera, he found his calling.

He also found himself in jail.

In June 1998, he had borrowed a neighbor’s camera to photograph demonstrations after the assassination of Lounès Matoub, a well-known singer and advocate for the Berber people of Northern Africa. Mr. Bouda, then 22, was soon swept up by the local police and spent the next three days in jail in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria.

A street scene on the eve of the French military’s Operation Sirius in Mali. Kidal was under the control of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and under the control of French and Chadian soldiers. June 12, 2013. [Photo:Ferhat Bouda/Agence VU]

A street scene on the eve of the French military’s Operation Sirius in Mali. Kidal was under the control of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and under the control of French and Chadian soldiers. June 12, 2013. [Photo:Ferhat Bouda/Agence VU]

Yet it was in jail that his passion for photographing his people, the Berbers (or Amazighs), was sparked. He moved afterward to Paris, where he photographed the Berber diaspora. He turned to photography full time in 2010 to document the Berbers, an ethnic group with a shared language — Tamazight — who have lived in the western part of North Africa, especially Algeria and Morocco, for at least 12,000 years.

Their language and culture have been suppressed, starting with the Arab invasion in the seventh century, continuing through the French colonial period and into the era of independence. Berber studies were often forbidden and the language banned in the latter half of the 20th century.

A woman picking olives. Kabylia.Algeria. Dec. 30, 2012. [Photo: Ferhat Bouda/Agence VU]

A woman picking olives. Kabylia.Algeria. Dec. 30, 2012. [Photo: Ferhat Bouda/Agence VU]

“Discrimination, extremism and cultural denial organically pushed me to work on the Berbers,” he wrote in an email exchange. “It has become not only a necessity, but a duty for me.”

Mr. Bouda photographed Berbers in Tunisia and then in Libya, where many had taken up arms against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. He has also documented the Tuaregs, who are traditionally nomadic Berbers, in Mali. It was there, he said, that he “discovered the cultural wealth and the diversity of the Berber world,” including the briefly independent Tuaregs in Mali’s Azawad state.

At a wedding party. Kabylia, Algeria. Aug. 8, 2014.[Photo: Ferhat Bouda/Agence VU]

At a wedding party. Kabylia, Algeria. Aug. 8, 2014.[Photo: Ferhat Bouda/Agence VU]

But most of the time Mr. Bouda has been photographing in Algeria’s Kabylia region, where he was raised by his mother and grandmother after his father left their small village to work in France.

Mr. Bouda sees Berber culture defined by solidarity and mutual aid within the community as well as democratically elected village leaders. While the vast majority of Berbers are Muslim, religion is separate from village affairs, which are secular, he said. Women, he added, take the lead in preserving and teaching their heritage.

“The Berber culture is an ancient culture that has survived through the turmoils of history,” Mr. Bouda said. “The invaders, the dictators have all tried to break this culture, but no one has succeeded. This culture has survived.”

Source: New York Times