My Favorite Photographs: Arnaud Contreras

Since 1999, Contreras has documented, via documentary films, radio programs and photographs, dramatic changes to the Sahara.

The first image discussed by Arnaud Contreras.

The Sahara is changing fast. Still a beautiful desert but not just that. Most populated cities such as Tamanrasset or Timbuktu are microcosms that reveal all the problems of those former touristic regions: threats of terrorism, trafficking, illegal migration and pressures on cultural and natural heritages. The only ways to escape this harsh reality for Saharan and Tuareg youth are cybercafés, mobile phone culture, festivals and soirées guitare (“guitar evenings”) celebrating their guitar heroes, the “Ishumar”, such as Tinariwen, Terakaft, Tamikrest, Bombino and many other bands. In their songs they celebrate the link between desert nature, old poetry, and of course women, whose role is essential in their society. Some texts may seem like calls for rebellion, but mainly those are calls for a self-consciousness as a people, of their identities.

In Europe, the Saharan diaspora tries to keep alive the friendly link between the Sahara and the Western world, organizing concerts and parties. Since 1999, I’ve been traveling each year to the Sahara region (Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania) to document those changes, making documentary films, radio documentaries and photographs. After working on Saharan heritages and cultural roots, I decided to focus on contemporary Saharan culture. Going back to Europe, I was fed up with the false “mythic” representation of Saharan people: camels and blue veils… My Tuareg, Berabich, Maures, Songhay friends find themselves living squarely in the modern world, not outside of it. They spend a lot a time on Facebook or Twitter, exchange files via bluetooth. Together, we listen to rock, techno and pop music. Of course we talk about the sad situation of refugees and about the foolish terrorists who take hostage a whole region and its population. But most of the time, our exchanges are about culture, the situation in the rest of the world, cars, girls… just as in the Western world. Through this documentary work, a book and an exhibition will come, I want to give a testimony of their culture. Veils and camels… but not just that. Here are five of my favorite photographs, and some words on what they mean to me.

The first image, above, I love because it shows a part of what’s happening in the Sahara nowadays. Even if western media talk about strong fighters on both sides of the current war in Mali, women are still ruling. In the south, they created networks to help refugees, in the north, they are involved in protests, diplomacy, communication. I have a lot of respect for them. The man on the left is a Tinariwen band member. Without women and their poetry, Tinariwen music wouldn’t exist. The Kidal band Tamikrest honored women by naming their new album Chatma (“Sisters”).

Since 2001, I heard much negative talk in the Sahara about T-shirts with Osama Bin Laden’s face on them. In Europe, you’d read that “Bin Laden is a hero in the Sahel.” When I saw this kid at a local festival in the deep south of Algeria, we laughed together.

He told me, “It’s just a fashion thing, nothing else, just like wearing one with Che Guevarra…or Obama.”

One night, Malian diva Oumou Sangaré was singing in Tamanrasset. It was the first time in years that I saw so many illegal migrants taking the risk to appear in public, singing, dancing. A rare moment of joy.

An estimated 20,000 African migrants are living in the biggest city of southern Algeria. Most of them work three to twelve months in Algeria or Libya and then go back to their homelands in Mali, Niger, Cameroon, CAR or elsewhere. According to researcher Julien Brachet, only 3% of the migrants want to go to Europe — a very different view to what we usually get to read in European newspapers who can’t stop talking about migrants invading Europe.

I spend a lot of time with Saharan rockers, with their family, friends. Tinariwen, Terakaft, Toumast and Abdallah Oumbadougou — this first generation of blues-rock musicians in the region mostly sing in a calm way when they’re on stage. Bombino caused a revolution a few years ago by his Hendrix way of playing guitar, of moving and jumping on stage. Always a smile on his face.


Funny to see how everybody in the region now copies his sound, his behaviour. 2014 will be a year of loud guitars and distortions in Saharan music. Perhaps a link with what’s happening in the desert. Sahara rocks!

In a traditional Tuareg tent, in the middle of nowhere, I came across these rapper kids. This generation claims its own identity, connected to the world via mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter.

Many people associate Saharan society with nomadism. But most of them are already a second or third generation to live in cities or villages. Nomadism still exists in remote regions, but is no longer the only way of living in the Sahara. Kids are proud of their nomadic roots, but are also aware of what it means for the central powers that be: nomads don’t own land and they don’t have one word to say on mining permits for the land they inhabit, those are decided on hundreds of miles away. This generation is fighting for ownership and rights to their land.

  • This is the 18th installment in our “5 Favorite Photographs” series in which we ask photographers to select five of their favorite photographs and to describe what brought them to make the image, and what they were trying to convey. Previous features here. You’ll find more work by Arnaud Contreras on his personal website and on his Facebook page.

Further Reading

The entitlement of Bola Tinubu

The Nigerian presidential candidate’s claim of ’emi lokan’ (it’s my turn) reveals complex ethnic politics and a stagnated democracy. Most responses to it, humor and rumor, reflect how Nigerians enact democratic citizenship.

Father of the nation

The funeral of popular Angolan musician Nagrelha underscored his capacity to mobilize people and it reminds us that popular culture offers a kind of Rorschach test for the body politic.

A city divided

Ethnic enclaves are not unusual in many cities and towns across Sudan, but in Port Sudan, this polarized structure instigated and facilitated communal violence.

The imperial forest

Gregg Mitman’s ‘Empire of Rubber’ is less a historical reading of Liberia than a history of America and racial capitalism through the lens of a US corporate giant.

Africa’s next great war

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

The Cape Colony

The campaign to separate South Africa’s Western Cape from the rest of the country is not only a symptom of white privilege, but also of the myth that the province is better run.

Between East Africa and the Gulf

Political encounters between the Arab Gulf and Africa span centuries. Mahmud Traouri’s novel ‘Maymuna’ demonstrates the significant role of a woman’s journey from East Africa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


It’s not common knowledge that there is Iran in Africa and there is Africa in Iran. But there are commonplace signs of this connection.

It could happen to us

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries, but let’s hope their own increasing vulnerability instills greater solidarity.