Overwhelming, Oppressive Reality

by Hasan Altaf

BourdieuIf you search on Google or Wikipedia for “Pierre Bourdieu,” the results will paint you a picture of a man who was very much a theorist, an intellectual in the fullest sense of the word. Bourdieu contributed to the disciplines of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, literature, and politics; he was influenced by Bachelard, Pascal, and Durkheim, and himself became an influence on younger intellectuals such as ‪Loïc Wacquant‬. In an obituary in the Guardian, after Bourdieu's death in 2002, Douglas Johnson described him as being “as important to the second half of the 20th century as Sartre had been to the generation before”; you could easily imagine an ivory-tower life. What cursory internet searches and obituaries do not reveal, however, is Bourdieu's beginnings as a photographer, and the importance of his photography to the rest of his work.

In Picturing Algeria: Pierre Bourdieu (Columbia University Press), the sociologist Franz Schultheis and the curator Christine Frisinghelli offer the reader an unprecedented selection of Bourdieu's photographs from Algeria, where he traveled for the first time as part of his national service, at twenty-five. He was to return again a few years later, as a lecturer at the University of Algiers, and he joined a research effort run by the Algerian arm of the French statistical institute. He helped produce two important books – one on labor migrants, and another that depicted the impact of brutal French resettlement policies. The photographs in Picturing Algeria date mostly from the time of this research, between 1957 and 1960, but they aren't just the snapshots of a researcher with a camera and some free time. Bourdieu's experiences in Algeria were to have a profound impact on his later life and work; as Craig Calhoun notes in his foreword, in Algeria Bourdieu was learning his trade, and “photography was one crucial way in which [he] gathered data – and developed his sociological eye.”

There is a strange kind of distance and balance in Bourdieu's photographs. Calhoun writes that “they are neither the completely naive snapshots of a newcomer nor products of a fully formed sociologist” – that is, they are neither picturesque, touristy snapshots, nor rote illustrations of theories. Even without any background information, the pictures suggest study, learning, research. They are usually square (he used a medium-format camera, rather than the standard Leica, partly to be more unobtrusive) and generally harshly lit – the highlights (a turban, a veil, a white teacup in the sun) can be almost painful. The picture that most struck me was of an elderly woman sitting in the dirt outside her home. She's sitting in the shade, but has one arm, elbow on her knee, stretched out, and in the sun her forearm bleaches transparent, pure white, like a negative or an X-ray.


An X-ray might not be an entirely inappropriate analogy. Schultheis and Frisinghelli have arranged Bourdieu's photographs by theme – “War and Social Transformation,” for example, or “The Economics of Poverty” – and present them with related excerpts from his writings, some of them never before available in English. The book can be read, then, like Bourdieu himself, in many different ways – photographs with explanatory text, essays with illustrative photographs – but, as Frisinghelli explains, the connection is deeper: “These photographs are above all the result of scientific work, and… must be viewed in a constructive context together with the texts that he wrote at the same time.” Photography for Bourdieu was not a separate pursuit, purely artistic or purely casual; it was, as he noted in an interview with Schultheis in 2001, “a way of sharpening [his] eye, of looking more closely, of finding a way to approach a particular subject” – it was a way of connecting with people while maintaing distance, a way of being on their side without being one of them, a way of learning and remembering and studying – and a method that he would take with him from Algeria back to France.

My first instinct was to look at the pictures (that flat white light) and ignore the text, but that turned out to be a mistake; Bourdieu's writings are marked by the same intelligence, the same perspective, simultaneously removed and intimate, of his photographs. In “Men-Women,” for example, an excerpt from Le Déracinement discusses a topic that is probably more fraught now than it was then, the veil. Bourdieu describes how the movement from rural society (where women did not need to wear veils) to urban changed the purpose of the garment: “The rural woman who has moved to a town cannot adopt the townswoman's veil without denying her own identity, the result being that she must avoid appearing even on her doorstep. By creating a social domain of an urban type, resettlement has led to the introduction of the veil, so that women can move around among strangers.” In “An Agrarian Society in Crisis,” the editors include another excerpt in which Bourdieu predicts that resettlement policies would lead to “the end of 'peasant' farmers.” Bourdieu would later become well known for expanding on the concept of habitus, the way that social structures create individual dispositions, and what happens when social structures are violently changed; you can see that developing in these excerpts, and look for it in his photographs.

When I was in college, I spent a semester in Havana, Cuba, the year before Fidel Castro handed power over to his brother Raúl; the group I went with was eighteen students from New York, studying either photography or documentary video production. Being a young American in Cuba, armed with a camera, was a strange experience – the temptation I think all of us felt was to have our work reflect something about Cuban society, to illustrate, as it were, whatever our preconceived notions were of that country. The pictures I took in Cuba weren't quite tourist pictures, but now when I look at them I can see how focused I was on a particular narrative; most of them were pictures I took to represent something I thought I knew – only the very best of them are anything else.

Bourdieu's pictures from Algeria are mostly the opposite: They were part of his work, memory aids or reminders, a way of engaging. In the strictest sense of the word his photographs were not “art”; they were not taken to be exhibited, shown or sold. They were simply part of his process, the same process as his research and his theoretical work. Doing fieldwork and photography in Algeria affected not only the way in which Bourdieu worked – for example, always beginning his research with interviews and firsthand observations – but also his sense of himself. Speaking with Schultheis, Bourdieu recalled what the writer Yvette Delsaut had said about him, that it was Algeria that taught him to accept himself: “With the same perspective of understanding of the ethnologist with which I regarded Algeria, I could also view myself, the people from my home…” Working in Algeria, it seems, Bourdieu learned a certain form of distance, a perspective of sympathy and objectivity that he would then apply across his career (his book La Distinction, for example, in which he showed the impact of social class on individual dispositions in France, clearly owes a debt to his work in Algeria).

At their worst, both art and theory can become divorced from real life, cloistered hothouse pursuits available only to a privileged few. Bourdieu managed to weave these two strands together, to make both art and science responsive to the real, physical world. The second half of the twentieth century was lucky to have a public intellectual like Pierre Bourdieu, and Schultheis and Frisinghelli have done us all a service in rescuing this earlier part of his work. More than about either photography or research, what this book can teach us is how to engage with the “overwhelming, oppressive reality” around us.

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