The Arab world has been in a continuous state of conflict and war for the past couple of decades. Being difficult and heartbreaking to document those events, Zohra Bensemra shows how the personal and professional aspects of her life intersect, building a unique personality. Zohra is an Algerian photographer, or photojournalist, who currently works for Reuters. She has documented wars across North Africa, the Middle East, and Near East, including acts of terrorism that put her life at stake. Working for more than 25 years, Zohra recalls the events that shaped her thoughts and behaviors, especially her love for Algeria.
As a young girl, Zohra always wanted to become an ophthalmologist and, being the persistent person she always has been, she did not change her mind. Zohra recalls an incident from her childhood that spiked her interest in photography. As a young girl, Zohra used to take her brother’s camera in secret. Her brother did not comment on that until it became repetitive. After he saw Zohra’s interest in the camera, he bought her one to use herself. Zohra began using her new camera and had her brother develop the film once it was complete. This, however, did not impact her decision in studying medicine, as she remained determined to pursue this path.
Zohra’s choice in her current career was spontaneous. When she was around 20 years old, her friend approached her telling her that she found an interesting job opening for her. A local independent newspaper was hiring a photographer to document stories and news. Zohra thought it would be a good idea to apply but was uncertain about it since she had no experience in photojournalism nor a degree in that field. When she was hired, she had her doubts, however, she worked hard to prove that she was able to convey reality in her photography. Gaining experience and recognition from that newspaper during important events in the country led Zohra to larger opportunities, as she was hired by Reuters.
A family’s opinion always leaves a trace in one’s mind. Zohra’s family was supportive growing up. She never felt that her parents discouraged her from pursuing what she loved. However, this was different when she decided to go into photojournalism where she had to be on the battleground. Being the way their parents are, Zohra’s father opposed her decision out of fear that something bad was going to happen to her. His fear was not because Zohra was a girl but solely on the basis that he did not want any of his children to be in a position where injuries or death are possible. Despite that, Zohra decided to proceed with what she started with and left her family’s house in pursuit of her career. As she told her father, Zohra is a strong believer in fate, and what happens to one, whether on the battleground or in their bedroom, is meant to happen and no one can stop that or reverse time.
The first major event that Zohra had to document was the Algerian war (1991-2002). Being discouraged by her surrounding to go to the battleground and photograph the events, Zohra built the courage to challenge her reality. She vividly remembers the first photographs she took and the breakdown she had when she took them.
Zohra mentions that if she did not develop the film amidst the chaos, she would not have continued her career as a photojournalist. Despite being afraid to develop the film that day, Zohra’s friend decided to develop the film for her because she knew how important it was for her. Zohra woke up the next day to have developed different emotions, ready to face any challenge that might arise in her career. This event, being her first, was repeated over the years during other major events around the Arab region. Zohra recalls being in Lebanon during the 2006 war against Israel. She retells the story when she documented the bombing of Qana in South Lebanon. The same tears were shed; Zohra learned how to work past her emotions because the world was waiting for the story.
During her work in Algeria, Zohra faced no discrimination being a woman in journalism. She believes that women are not seen as inferior in the field of journalism since society aims at raising strong independent women. Zohra recalls going on a work trip to Iraq during the conflicts where she received a misogynist comment from a colleague. Being told to go back home because she was a woman was not easy to hear. Zohra, being a strong character that she is, fought back and stood up for her right. She refused to be told what to do based on her gender. Zohra highlights being supported by her supervisor at Reuters at the time who did not accept any type of discrimination.
Zohra feels that the history of their country or what has it contributed remains unknown. She acknowledges that many inventions arose from the Arab region through Arab and Muslim scholars, but few seem to remember that. Despite her love for Algeria, she believes that schools play a role in building generations that love the country unconditionally without being able to criticize any wrongdoings. This, according to Zohra, causes conflict and leads people to leave the country when something is not right, instead of staying and fighting for its reform.
If there is one quality that Zohra wants girls to have, it would be honesty. She believes that being dishonest would not allow any girl to have a fruitful career and lead a healthy life. From her work experiences, Zohra saw firsthand how dishonesty caused tremendous effects on people’s lives and minds. She discusses honesty from two angles. The first is being honest and true to oneself and listening to what the mind is saying and the second is being honest in one’s work and portraying the real image of reality. Zohra noticed the latter being difficult in today’s world where photoshop is used in photojournalism and falsified information is being spread.
This story was written by Tamara Sleiman