Saturday, 22 June 2024 13:13

Youssef Boudlal, a photographer juggling between stress and sequins

Winner of the Reuters award for best picture of the year 2014, Youssef Boudlal, 49, juggles the glamor of Chanel and horror of war zones. Portrait of a man who navigates between heaven and hell.

From Paris to Kabul, Aleppo to London, fashion-weeks to the lost villages of the Atlas, Youssef Boudlal is a man whose life is based on two crutches: fashion and horror.

Glamor to pay the bills and the human condition to nurture the soul. To meet this man in a hurry, be patient. Back in New York, where he was awarded the prize of the Reuters photo of the year he finally fixed our rendezvous at a cafe in Casablanca.

In jeans and a military jacket, wearing flip flops, hair hidden under a hat and a sporty body, the photographer retains a look of an eternal teenager. His first words unveil his Oujdi accent. "I was born in a big house in Oujda, home to five families, including mine," he says.

"Every time I go to a war zone, I absolutely need to make a stop. This is fundamental to avoid sinking psychologically, "he acknowledges, serene.

The glory snapshot

The story behind the best photography of 2014: He is called by Reuters to cover the fled of the Yezidi community in the Iraqi-Syrian border. Thousands of families walking towards Iraq, in a 45 degrees temperature. He is there too.

I was taking a picture of a group of women who were crying. I turned a moment when my eyes fell on a little girl with blue eyes. Mechanically, despite the rotten midday light, I took the shot and I turned around to take others plans. Within hours, the small girl became the face of the exodus from Syria of the Yezidis.

The shot became viral, allowing Youssef to win the Reuters award for best picture of 2014. He does not know the name of the child, or where she is today. Since then, he was contacted by several people who wish to adopt the little girl. "She has a family and I do not think she needs the others," he said, exasperated.


"I wanted to be an architect. It was almost an obsession for me, "recalls Youssef Boudlal. Born in 1966, he took over his first camera, a Canon AE1, at the age of 16 and enjoyed to stage sets and installations, and ask his friends to photograph him.

Early narcissism? "It's not in my nature," he defends himself. After a bachelor's degree in 1987, he took a gap year before arriving in Paris in 1989 to enroll in a school of architecture.

It was a disappointment. Large schools are expensive. Thus began a period of five years where he continues doing, pell-mell, the jobs of chef, fabric trader, and even night clerk at the postal sorting center of the Gare d'Austerlitz.

"A mechanical loom that made me crazy, although I discovered all the departments of France. I worked at night and slept during the day, "he says recalling this difficult time.

Still, the budding photographer continued to take snapshots of Paris in 1994 and decided to enroll in a school: "I took a crash course in printing black and white photos. It was still the heyday of silver."

Then luck knocks on his door. A friend informs him that a part-time pictures shooter position was open at the Gamma agency, which provides for the major French media including Paris Match and Le Monde. He does not hesitate for a second.

The 25th Image

For four years, Youssef receives the films of the great reporters that he is the first to develop and shoot. "It's like I was in a great academy of the image. This feeling of giving life to the eye of the photographer is exciting, but it's also a great responsibility, "recalls Youssef. This chapter of his life offers him a great experience and allows him to realize his need for fieldwork.

He resigned from the Gamma agency, while negotiating a freelance job with the newspaper Le Monde. First destination: Gaza. Amazed, he discovers Jerusalem. Since then, Palestine became his second country to which he will devote many reports.

Boudlal will cover the seat of the Moukataâ where Yasser Arafat remained cut off for three years, will attend the bombardment of Jenin and Gaza and will witness terrible scenes of decomposed corpses littering the streets.

Back in Gaza, he seeks lucrative employment to finance his reports and remain independent. A renowned fashion photographer is looking for an assistant. This is a good compromise for him to earn a living while staying in the photography field.

"The work is very demanding as it is to put in place a technical device and book the best seats to the chief photographer. When he began to take photos of the podium, I was already on my scooter to go put me on another show, "he recalls.

Cold sweats

After the attacks of September, 11th, his double career took a new turn. He decides to go to Afghanistan when the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in full bombing of the Tora Bora mountains.

"After finishing the work, I took a taxi with my guide to join Pakistan. Close to the border, we were stopped by a group of Mujahideen. A few days earlier, four Western journalists were executed on the same road by the Taliban. I thought it was the end, ". He finally comes out safe and sound by reading some verses of the Koran which he always keeps with him.

Glitter side, he was hired in 2004 as an affiliate of Chanel.

"For 10 years I’ve covered fashion-weeks, as well as private shows," he says. But the adrenaline need is greater. Over the years, he travelled all over the Middle East and will witness the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

But Syria was a shock. Yet Youssef is prepared and knows how to keep the necessary distance with his subject. He also trained in a center in England to learn how to behave in a hostile environment. "In Aleppo, one of the guides who accompanied us was killed by a sniper," he says.

After the horror of the Syrian war, he goes tomorrow in northern Morocco for a report. From hell to heaven, you were told.

This article was originally published in French in Telquel magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Google+ Google+