By DAN BILEFSKYJAN. 19, 2016
Leila Alaoui had been on assignment in Burkina Faso for Amnesty International for less than a week, working on a series of photographs focused on women’s rights. Credit Art Factum Gallery
LONDON — Leila Alaoui, a French-Moroccan photographer whose hauntingly beautiful photographs chronicled the themes of migration, cultural identity and displacement, died Monday night from injuries sustained during a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. She was 33.
Her death was confirmed on Twitter by the French culture minister, Fleur Pellerin.
Ms. Alaoui, whose work has been displayed around the world, was described as one of the most promising photographers of her generation by Jean-Luc Monterosso, director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.
“There was an internal light that illuminated both her and her work,” he said. “There is a documentary rigor in her work, but also a rare artistic sensibility.”
She was wounded after gunmen opened fire at a hotel and at the Cappuccino Cafe in the capital, Ouagadougou, on Friday.
The North African affiliate of Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the rampage, which killed at least 29 people and wounded dozens more.
A photograph Ms. Alaoui took while on assignment for The New York Times in 2014. Credit Leila Alaoui for The New York Times
Ms. Alaoui had been on assignment in Burkina Faso for Amnesty International for less than a week, working on a series of photographs focused on women’s rights.
In a statement, the human rights organization said that Ms. Alaoui had been parked outside the Cappuccino Cafe during the attack and was shot twice, in the leg and thorax. She had a heart attack after she was taken to a hospital in Ouagadougou.
Ms. Alaoui’s work, which combined lyricism with her professed desire to avoid easy sentimentality, had been displayed at museums including the Maison Européenne de la Photographie and the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, Art Dubai, the Marrakesh Biennial in Morocco and at exhibitions and galleries in New York, Argentina, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. It was also featured in publications including The New York Times and Vogue.
Ms. Alaoui was born in Paris in 1982 and grew up in Marrakesh. She studied photography at the City University of New York before spending time in Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
She had been living in Marrakesh and Beirut, Lebanon, according to the website of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, where she had recently displayed a series titled “The Moroccans,” part of a celebration of photographs from the Arab world.
The exhibition on Morocco featured her characteristically intimate portraits, showing men and women in traditional outfits from different ethnic groups and from the most remote parts of the country.
Writing about the exhibition on the museum’s website, she said that she was determined to avoid the exoticism that sometimes infected postcolonial portrayals of Morocco and the Arab world. Instead, she said, she wanted to present her subjects as they were.
Ms. Alaoui said she was influenced by the American photographer Robert Frank, who traveled across the United States in the 1950s and chronicled American life with an unsparing honesty and a spontaneous, intuitive style. Similarly, Ms. Alaoui photographed her subjects with the eye of a documentary photographer.
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Describing her approach to “The Moroccans” in a recent interview with the news channel France 24, she said she never posed her models. “I set up my studio outside, during market days,” she said. “The people passed by and those who wanted stopped to have their photo taken. The only thing I asked of them was to face me.”
In a joint statement, Mr. Monterosso and Jack Lang, a former French minister of culture who is now president of the Institut du Monde Arabe, paid homage to Ms. Alaoui’s championing of the downtrodden and the dispossessed.
“She was an artist who shined,” they said. “She was fighting to give life to those forgotten by society, to homeless people, to migrants, deploying one weapon: photography.”
Aida Alami, a journalist who was a childhood friend of Ms. Alaoui and was later her roommate in New York, said the photographer radiated positive energy and never recoiled in the face of danger.
“I saw her before she left for Burkina Faso, and she said, ‘Don’t worry, I have been to more dangerous places,’ ” she said. “She was so optimistic, she thought that nothing bad could ever happen to her.”
Ms. Alami recalled that while on assignment in Rabat, Morocco, a few years ago, she had told Ms. Alaoui that she wanted to interview some migrants.
Ms. Alaoui, who was chronicling the plight of sub-Saharan immigrants there, invited Ms. Alami to join her to meet some. Arriving at Ms. Alaoui’s home, she found her surrounded by 40 migrants for whom she was cooking lunch.
Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for west and central Africa, said Amnesty had chosen Ms. Alaoui from several candidates to take photographic portraits in Burkina Faso because of her singular ability to make “faces talk.”
Ms. Alaoui’s photography depicted faces with an astounding beauty and a certain seriousness, Ms. Daoud said, but without ever turning her subjects into victims.
Caroline Chauvet contributed reporting from Paris.