When you think of Morocco, what comes to mind? From a train on his way to Marrakesh, street style photographer Joseph Ouechen tells me how his portraits are documenting the way the Moroccan youth is expressing itself, the modernisation in Morocco and the importance of decolonisation within art. From heavy metal festivals to Gucci jalaba prints, his work is a window to an often unseen and underrepresented side of Moroccan culture and the stories he tells are both personal and political. His own story and background as a self-made artist are reflected in his unique subjects and style.
Without a formal background in art, how did you get into street photography? Could you share your story?
It’s a long story. My name is Yusef, Joseph is just for work. I was born in the north of Casablanca in one of the slums. It wasn’t the best place to be sensitive to art. My family are modest workers. I didn’t finish school; I wasn’t good at it and I wasn’t happy there. I was only interested in drawing, geography and language. Later, I became interested in TV and print magazines, everything visual. Then it was the era of the Internet and I started looking at blogs about street fashion from around the world. That influenced me. They were my only windows to the world. I had the idea of starting a blog myself using pictures from other blogs, not my own.
At the time, there wasn’t Instagram or social media, just blogs, and I didn’t have access to a camera. I worked in McDonald’s for 3 months and asked my mum to help me buy my first small camera. When I started taking pictures, I went to the street without any artistic vision or approach. Just taking pictures of people for my blog, that’s how I started fashion photography. People were really interested to see what was happening in Casablanca. Step by step, my blog started to have more viewers and then I started to get my first commissions. And yeah, the adventures haven’t stopped.
How did you teach yourself the skills you needed? 
It’s crazy because if there was no Internet, I wouldn't be where I am today. Of course, in the slum, there wasn’t Internet. We had to look for water in public places and for electricity, we used to use a car battery to watch TV. There were public computers in a different neighbourhood, where I would go and pay per hour to look at blogs. I was just a kid when I started doing stuff on the Internet. When I was selected by one of the documentary agencies, I had the opportunity to travel to Algeria and Egypt to do workshops which helped me to be a storyteller and to understand photography. It was big for me.
How do you think being self-taught affects your work?
It gives me huge freedom. My work process is instinct based and I am the one building my structures and constraints. I don’t feel the need to follow any existing process. I am my own guide and I enjoy exploring.
I never had an academic approach. I’ve never been told what to do, I just do it. My statement can always change and this is how I see the world and how I want to express myself. It’s a work in progress. Maybe ideas will evolve and change but it's all based on what’s happening in Morocco and my own experience, what I’m struggling with and what I’m enjoying.
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What’s it like when you ask people if you can take their pictures?
With me it’s instinctive, I couldn’t explain. When I see someone, I know when it is special and my heart starts beating. I follow them and stop them. I start with a compliment. Then I explain what I do, that I document what is happening in Morocco with portraits. I ask them where they are from, find out their story, why they dress how they do, or what the inspiration for their look is. I just say I’m documenting Morocco. Maybe these pictures will help in thirty years to show how we were wearing stuff, how we were expressing ourselves.
You describe your photography as storytelling. What story do you tell and why?
I began copying narratives according to my Western references. But little by little, I started getting involved in our own narratives, the ones I grew up in and was not able to express. My perspective and narrative shifted from what was expected from me as a North African, to a total insider and that is my strength.
What was expected of you?
When I started photography, the narrative was not mine, I was imitating. My education in photography was through European references, not Moroccan. With time I figured out that this was not me and not what I wanted to say. You couldn’t see the neighbourhood, the dirtiness, the real people from Casablanca. I wasn’t happy with the image of Morocco in general. There’s a problem with the way Westerners see Moroccans. You hear Morocco and you think exotic, you think markets in Marrakech and women wearing jalaba scarfs. But I wanted to tell my own story.
For me, when I photograph a girl in a skatepark wearing a scarf and modern jeans, I’m not saying that this is how girls in Morocco should be. I’m just documenting. I don’t want Europeans and Americans to dictate how we should be modern. We have our own story. I’m interested in showing how we are dealing with our traditions, religion and our journey to being modern. It’s interesting to me how the jalaba, the traditional dress is developing, now with new prints, even Gucci prints, and how we are experimenting. Casablanca, for me, is like a laboratory.
Everything happens here first and then it will spread all over Morocco: music, fashion, culture. But I’m just documenting it, I don’t want to influence the expectations of Westerners.
“For me, when I photograph a girl in a skatepark wearing a scarf and modern jeans, I’m not saying that this is how girls in Morocco should be. I’m just documenting. I don’t want Europeans and Americans to dictate how we should be modern. We have our own story.”
Do you think art, in general, should be more like that, more about documenting and informing than influencing?
Yes, for me, anyway. I would like my stuff to let people question themselves, and even give confidence to the younger generation. If they see pictures of people like them who are different and they look confident in the pictures, that’s also my job. Like when I took pictures of those heavy metal fans with the big cross, I didn’t know what the meaning behind it was. Maybe they just wanted to show that they are modern, that they are imitating Europeans or maybe they were not really understanding the symbolism of it. This interests me, why they do that what they do, what they are dreaming of. But, really, I believe it’s all about freedom and them expressing themselves.
What can you tell us about the underground heavy metal scene in Morocco? What drew you to this and are you a fan of metal music yourself?
I am not a fan of metal music. Metal is just a medium to document a part of the society that is suffering judgment, stigmatisation.
How is this part of society suffering? And what are the festivals like for someone who hasn’t experienced them?
It’s one of those safe spaces for people to be themselves. Even when I was younger, it was the only place I could go to and wear whatever I wanted. It was like a celebration, where no one is judged. People with the same dreams of being free.
Later, I started to document this festival. Every time I went I was really surprised by the looks and how original they were for Moroccan guys. They don’t wear this stuff normally. This is the only opportunity. When you see them the next day, they won’t look like that. If you wore this look outside of this space, you'd be called weird. But in Morocco, they are really associated with Satanists, just for liking this music. And I know that if you are from a rich family, it’s ok. You get the opportunity to travel and do whatever you want. But for bigger populations, like me and my friends, it wasn’t accepted. They think you’re lost in life and what you are doing is a shame to the family. They feel like you have mental problems. This is the experience of a lot of people.
The festival is the only place they can celebrate and enjoy themselves. And they are happy to be in pictures. In 2013, a group of people went to jail for being at this festival because they were believed to be Satanists. Back then it was hard but nowadays it's slightly different. After this event, a small group of intellectuals and people in the industry started to fight for freedom and it started to change. But it's still judged. It’s associated with evil.
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What do you think the future looks like for the festival?
Today they have problems with money and sponsorships. It’s a struggle every year to maintain this festival. It’s not seen as a safe space but as something that makes problems. It should be bigger and better every year but it’s the opposite. Today we have a conservative government and they don’t support these things at all. Not art or music. It has been like that for 4 years.
You said that fashion is just an excuse for you; your main interest is sociology. When did you start becoming interested in and aware of these issues?
My workshop with Word Press Photo was the beginning. I was mentored by bigger photographers who explained to me the power of the pictures and the meaning behind telling these stories and then it evolved. With time, I started to understand that this is about more than just fashion. The idea of a Moroccan girl wearing a skirt, even deciding the length of the skirt, deciding how much she wants to show, this for me is a statement. Or putting colours in their hair, it’s not about fashion, it’s deeper than that. I always say, ‘it’s fashion, but it’s not fashion.’ It started with fashion but it’s more than that.
Do you think it’s becoming easier or harder for young people to be themselves?
I believe it’s easier now. Even in my own experience, I was judged for wearing skinny jeans and now they are fine, no one cares. Even wearing a special hat, I used to have to put it in my backpack, and I couldn’t wear it until I got downtown. Now you can wear whatever you want. People are expressing themselves more. Even the traditional dress, the jalaba, is more colourful now, there are more prints. The internet is really speeding up the process. It’s a safe space. You can have your own group of people or friends, and you can look for the people that are like you, which can help a lot.
“I would like the viewer to experiment a new narrative that is not stigmatising or exotic in a colonial way.”
Through your lens, we discover the youth of Morocco. Why did you choose this as your subject?
Demographically, we are a very young society. I believe youth is the main indicator of that society’s future; to me, it is an interesting case study. Their fashion is eclectic and diverse. The youngsters are not limited in one model. It is original. It’s taught me to value our people. It is a wide laboratory. I would like the viewer to experiment with a new narrative that is not stigmatising or exotic in a colonial way.
So would you say your work is part of a decolonising process? Why is this important to you?
It goes back to what we were saying about the western view of Morocco. You’d never get the opportunity to go to a typical neighbourhood where there is real life and a real struggle. There are some areas where it's hard to take pictures of people but I’m trying to make relationships all over. Even in my neighbourhood, it’s hard to hang out with a camera.
In Morocco, a lot of people don’t like having their picture taken because they don’t know where it will end up. Also, there are those websites that do cheap journalism, all about scumbags and people killing people.
People are afraid of this and sometimes they confuse me and my camera as being a part of this. I’m always explaining that I’m not doing this. I get rejected a lot. I enjoy photography but it takes a lot of energy to convince people and let them know that it’s serious and I’m professional and passionate, not just a random guy.
What gear do you most enjoy using at the moment and why?
My Fujifilm camera (Fujifilm XH1) with the trusty 35mm 1.4. I didn’t update to the latest camera. The gear is just a tool for me to produce my work.
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So you’re on the train to work right now. Where are you heading?
I’m somewhere in the countryside between Casablanca and Marrakesh. I’m working with Fashion Trust Arabia, a big fashion contest for designers. Now they have finalists, one in jewellery and one in bags, who I’m shooting with today. The bags are made from plastic water bags with leather. I’ll be shooting with Hassan Hajjaj and the designer because they did a collaboration together.
Do you enjoy travelling for work? 
I love it and I would like to be known for it. It’s not like I’m always on the move, but I love going places every month. I know the areas really well by now. So, it’s good to leave for a while then come back. Casablanca is really chaotic, stressful and it’s polluted. I’m not selling it well. There is a lot of cool stuff happening too but for someone who was born and grew up here, it’s tiring sometimes. It’s a love-hate story. It's not always financially good, there are ups and downs but, generally, there are only a few people who are established as photographers in Morocco. It’s not a common thing. I enjoy taking risks, it’s more inspiring. And at every new job, I meet new people.
Do you think you have a natural eye for beauty?
Maybe, sometimes I think about the contrast between me and my family and I think, ‘what’s this about?’ Is it about being more sensitive? Why you? You could be just like your brother or the people in your neighbourhood, so why you? Why do you want to share these things and express yourself this way? Sometimes I question the meaning behind everything. But yeah, even for me, I can’t understand why I am this way or what I want from it. And I question whether what I do is adding anything to the picture of Morocco, whether it has a real meaning, whether it is helping to make a change. But I know that I am enjoying it.
As are lots of other people!
I hope so.
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