We sat down with rising Moroccan photographer M'hammed Kilito to find out about his journey into photography and everything surrounding his visually decadent works. With an aim of rewriting the Middle East's western narrative of the Middle East, M'hammed invites us in for an intimate insight into his inspirations, visions and his experiences so far that have led him to his integral role in the MENA art scene. Grab a warm cup of tea and join us as we step into M'hammed's compelling world in this exclusive interview with emergeast.com.
EE: Can you tell us what photography means to you?
MK: I consider that each art form has its own specific elements and that the first main objective of any artist is to find a medium of personal expression, a language with which he can express what he feels within him. For me it was photography, this unique frame that suspends time and isolates space has always fascinated me. I find the beauty of the medium within it's constraints. My photos or rather my projects are always arranged in series of images, that's what interests me. For the kind of work I do, I find that the individual images, in a way, don't matter much. It's when you see all the images together in a certain order that a sequence emerges to form a visual narrative (or a comparative pattern by repetition) that allows people to understand a more complete story. Taking pictures is not only an artistic act for me, it is above all a claim and a message that engages and invites for reflection.
EE: How did you start your journey into photography?
MK: One day in 2007 in Ottawa, Omar, an Egyptian friend who later became an excellent film director and editor came to see me and told me that the Ottawa School of Art was offering scholarships to take art classes. I went to inquire and filled out an application and they actually gave me a scholarship to take a photography course.
One night around midnight, while I was working on my prints in the darkroom preparing for my first exhibition in a café, I ran into Mauricio, a photography professor who used to run the darkroom. He came to see me and told me that he found my images very interesting, they were staged photographs. During that time, I was very influenced by the Spanish photographer Chema Madoz and I can certainly share with you how very poorly I imitated him.
That same evening in the darkroom, I remember it as if it was yesterday, Mauricio started telling me about the director Peter Greenaway, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. For instance, it was through the writings of Sontag that I discovered the work of Diane Arbus, Kertesz, Man Ray and Robert Frank and only later that I have seen their photographs. A few months later, I ended up taking a course with Mauricio and I can say that he was the first important person to encourage and push me to do photography, to lend me photobooks and to orient me. He was most certainly an influence and a decisive encounter in the path I have followed until today.
Then I had also this very instructive experience being part of the Montreal Photobook Club, where I have learnt so much while exchanging with other photographers who were as passionate as I do about photobooks. I started to discover new photographers, better understand the importance of long-term projects and building a sequence of images. The members of the club used to be so fascinated about the photographers’ statements, the textures of the book covers and the editing of the images. They perceived the books not only as photobooks, but more as objects of art.
EE: What do you take with you on travels for your photography?
MK: I'm not much of a travel photographer, I barely take pictures when I'm travelling. When working on my projects, if I have enough budget I shoot with film without hesitation. Usually it is a combination of 120mm and 35mm. I love medium format cameras for several reasons like the relationship to slowness, taking the time to frame and looking through the viewfinder, the contemplative side. 35mm when there is more action and the situations are a bit faster. If I don't have budget, I simply shoot digital.
EE: Amongst your work which is your favourite and why?
MK: I'm having a little trouble telling them apart, it's like asking a parent which one of his kids he prefers and why. Every project I've worked on has started with a long period of preparation and research. They are habitually motivated by internal need and willingness to shake up the ideas in order to confront our own realities and the numerous facets of our identity. I'm not sure if I get to much impact though, but I keep trying to find ways to do it.
My series Destiny was born out of a questioning related to social determinism, the theory that holds that all human actions are determined by their previous states without the will being able to change anything to this determinism. In other words, in this system, humans have no free will and, if they believe they have it, they only have the appearance of it. I wanted to verify the veracity of this concept by focusing on the sociology of work. The idea of this project comes from a personal experience that dates back to the high school period. As children, we often played football in the neighborhood where I grew up. Arriving at the college level, some went to the French high school; others, like me, [went to] the public one. However, the story of a close friend affected me a lot. His father was the janitor of the building next door. He came to see his son one day to explain to him that he could no longer provide for the family by himself. He then asked him to leave school and start working as a butcher’s apprentice for a local butcher he had already spoken to. Something that he did, and at the age of 14, his choice of professional career, and therefore of life, was already sealed by social and economic determinism, at such a young age.
Cinema Camera series, started from my interest in the human condition. I decided to work on the magnificent film These hands by Hakim Belabbes, a film halfway between fiction and reality, shot as documentary. It tells the life of the craftsmen of Bejaâd (small city in Morocco) such as the potter, the blacksmith or the weavers. The director gives a voice to people from the periphery in order to tell their happiness and above all their misfortunes, which are so dominant. So I went to Bejaâd for the 10th anniversary of the film to see and find out what had become of the craftsmen who have moved me so much in the film.
Finally, my latest ongoing project Portrait of a Generation is about the realities of Moroccan youth. It is a project inspired by the Report "New Integrated National Initiative for Moroccan Youth" released by the Economic, Social and Environmental Council in August 2018, which presented alarming figures about young people between the ages of 15 and 34: Two out of every three young Moroccans drop out of school, the unemployment rate is about 20%, half of the youth who are employed work in low-paying jobs, 75% do not have social security coverage, 20% suffer from psychological disorders, etc. The project is an investigation of todays youth spread over different chapters (personal identity, rural youth, social activities). I am interested in understanding how young Moroccans are navigating this harsh reality? What are their dreams and frustrations? How do they express themselves and find their place in society? What are the direct and sensitive consequences of all this on their daily behavior?
Conclusively, I think that my favorite project will be the next one to come. I'm very critical about my projects, mostly unsatisfied and always thinking that I can do better. Almost all of my work has been carried out following the failure of another project; it is by taking risks and working through failure that one innovates. It takes resilience and I'm convinced that we learn more through failure than success. So we should not be afraid to fail, to start all over again, it is a healthy part of the process and we may like our new project better.
EE: What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photographs?
MK: This career becomes an extension of who you are, you become obsessed and permanently thinking about your projects. It involves a lot of ups and downs, there is also a lot of great encounters, love and happiness, but also a very hard and lonely path you must be ready to take.
EE: What details do you believe make the best photograph?
MK: A good combination of aesthetics and emotions.
EE: Your art is heavily influenced by your Moroccan heritage, is there a certain side of your country that you’re trying to capture and immortalize?
MK: I feel that Morocco is one of the reasons I'm a photographer. Everything that I do is somehow tied to my identity here, it is where I have the real passion and love for the people and the culture. It is also the country I understand the most and where I want to contribute and effect change. One day, when I used to live in Canada, I felt that my culture of origin had caught up with me and that it was about time to go back to Morocco to photograph. Every time I thought of a photographic project, the ideas of interest were related to Morocco. For the moment, I can't go to other countries and produce projects there, I have tried before, it was a good experience, but it is not something I plan to do in the near future. My work has a lot do with my past and where I come from, it becomes part of the body of work I'm creating and it helps me better connect and tell life stories of the people I meet. I feel it is my duty within my capabilities to ask the right questions, to incite discussion and to provoke debate.
Since the establishment of photography in the 19th century, in the regions where we live, photography has been an instrument of imperialism used by the white man to assert his superiority over our people as a legitimation for the civilizing mission. It was just a constructed rationale for intervention or colonization. Through photography the imperial powers had the monopoly on truth and history, imposing the narratives that comforted their interests in order to better control us. Currently, we see many photographers and visual storytellers from Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Ghana and other countries whose work is constantly reflecting the need to transcend preconceived notions of what Africa and Middle East is, what art made in Africa or the Middle East is, and how artists can engage their audience. We are all together working and structuring our own narratives.
It is very important to me through my photographic series to enact a counter discourse to what is usually shared in the media and which does not represent a comprehensive perspective of Morocco specifically and the region in general. I strongly believe that when practicing photography, in what is called the Global South, we must necessarily be activists and show what others have not experienced or seen. I don't want to say that everything is perfect in our countries, but it is our role to impose balance in the narratives and show that we can also photograph for example the humanist, courageous, humorous sides of our people as opposed to the sensationalist, Orientalizing and often dramatic photos that are usually shown of Africa and the Middle East.
EE: What would you like your viewers to take home with them when they view your work?
MK: My interest in photography is to get people to think and reconsider their prejudgments. I see it as a tool that invites to deconstruct in order to better reconstruct. I am interested in other people and how people think about other people. I don't want to tell people that they are wrong or that their idea of other people is wrong, I don't want to tell them that they are right either, but I just want them to think about the work I present. For example, several times I've been told that the young Moroccans in my photos don't look Moroccans. I just ask them in return what it means to look Moroccan? I think that's a good start to challenge stereotypes and engage reflection on how quickly change is taking place in our societies. We live at a time where we watch, regardless of where we are, the same TV series, listen to the same music, have the same idols and dress in the same fashion. The phenomena of cultural globalization, and in particular the increase in media and technological flows, have enabled a rich global cultural industry to flourish.
Flash time with M’hammed:
M'hammed Kilito the artist in three words
Resilient, devoted and dreamer (in the romantic sense of the word).
If your work was a sound track what would it be?
That is the hardest question of this interview! I can describe my work as minimal, engaged, frontal and straight to the point. I'm having trouble finding a sound track, I wish it could be as poetic as "Motherland" by Mulatu Astatke and as engaged and solid as "Freedom go no die" by Fela Kuti.
Biggest achievement so far
Actually, I'm very honored and grateful to collaborate with institutions who are very conscious about the importance of equality, representation and diversity in arts and photography such as Magnum Foundation, World Press Photo, National Geographic, AFAC and Prince Claus Fund. I have been learning a lot through them.
Dream celebrity to photograph
Wynton Marsalis, the most talented trumpet player alive and such an inspiring and eloquent bright man.
Dream place to exhibit your work
It is neither MOMA nor the Tate Modern. The dream place where I would like to exhibit my work is Centro Cultural Recoleta. An art center in Buenos Aires, I used to visit quite often when I used to live there. A space where I have seen an incredible diverse, daring and disruptive forms of expression. I have never thought about this before, I should definitely try to get in touch with them!
For M’hammed’s full profile click here!