As a second-generation immigrant, Paris-based photographer Ilyes Griyeb is able to see past the illusions surrounding Morocco and those unheard stories – until now. He has spent 5 years working on his first book, Morocco, which is also his first voyage into photography. Ilyes created this book because no-one had done it before. It is a global vision as well as an intimate and introspective love story to Morocco, featuring mainly his own family and friends in their hometown of Meknès. The work sheds light on the everyday life of rural workers not as hardship but craftsmanship, without exoticism, just truth.
Can you first tell me a bit about your background as an artist?
I’m kind of self-taught. I started with graphic design then switched to art direction. But really, it’s something I learnt myself when I was about sixteen, at home with art tutorials on the internet. I left school after the first year and started to work. Everything went very quickly. I worked in an advertising company, which I hated, and then I switched to small graphic design studios which I liked until I got bored. Photography was on the side and I just fell in love with it. I didn’t imagine myself as a photographer or anything, I just started doing photography because I liked it and voilà, it just happened. This book is my first thing. I started photography with Morocco.
So, what's your relationship with Morocco like?
I have a very strong relationship with Morocco. Obviously, I’m French and Moroccan but if I compare myself to my cousins or friends I grew up with in France, my family had a stronger bond with Morocco. My parents are very conservative, very religious and hard-working people. We weren’t allowed to speak French at home and we used to go to Morocco every year. I felt more connected to Morocco than the others and I had a relationship with Morocco that was different from theirs. For a lot of French Moroccans, when they go to Morocco, it’s just like holidays. It’s the month when they can show off their successful life in Europe. It’s something that I don’t really respect even though I understand where it comes from. I feel different.
My father went back to Morocco about twelve years ago. He bought a big plot of land; we’re a family of farmers. So he started to go back more often and so did I, three or four times a year. Then my father settled down there. I feel like I’m not seen as a French guy when I’m in Morocco. Of course, I know they know I’m French, I’m not that pretentious, but I can kind of sneak in, which helps me take photographs.
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How did this project come about, and what does it mean to you?
I wanted to make this book because I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Because I’m from the first generation of sons of immigrants, my parents had a different reality, so having an artistic life was never possible for them. I try to show that it’s possible for us, the first generation living in France, to just do whatever we want because most of us are working in shitty jobs and there’s a lot of racism. We are way underrepresented and I think it’s good to give some representation, and just be proud of who we are, what we are and where we come from. And to not accept the vision other people give of us. We need to speak about ourselves as much as possible. A lot of images from Morocco have unfortunately been created in the past decades by white guys because Moroccan people were not being noticed for being artists. There's a lot of interesting work out there, but nothing, for me, comes close to the truth.
Have your feelings about Morocco changed through working on this project?
My photography is introspective, so yes. It helped me understand myself more, my parents, both sides of the coin. I gained a lot of maturity and understanding of myself and life because Morocco is part of my life.
This is your first photography project. How did you hone in on your own style?
I would say it came quite naturally, even though that's not really true because I did have a career in art direction before which shaped my eyes and directed my inspiration. But when I started photography, I knew what I wanted to do. If I compare myself to friends who are also photographers who started maybe fifteen years ago, you can see they have had different eras or periods. Me? I started with what I’m still doing today. I started later, so maybe that’s why it’s natural.
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Could you tell us a bit more about the subjects of your photographs, your friends and family? How do decide who to portray?
I don’t really decide, or expect anything, or project anything. I just hang out with them and see how it goes. Maybe that’s why it looks organic. It can look staged too, but it's still organic. It’s an in-between thing. I don’t decide, it’s just a feeling, like destiny, you know? I don’t set up a session or anything. For me, that’s the only way to do photography because when you set up a meeting, it changes the way you’re going to approach it. It works fine for professional jobs but in Morocco, I have the luxury of doing it my way.
How does your family feel about being such a big part of your work?
They don’t get what I’m doing at all! They’re like, “You’re gonna put me in a magazine?” No, they don’t really understand. They’re curious but they don’t really get the meaning of what I’m doing. We’ve never really talked about it.
Amid portraits of individuals, you include photographs of spaces and inanimate objects that are also rich in personality and intimacy. What draws you to particular spaces or objects?
I never know, as I say, it comes naturally. I’m not the guy who plans a picture. I miss a lot of pictures because of that, actually. I never go back, and think, “Ok, this spot was amazing I’m going to go back and take a picture.” It happens or it doesn’t happen. When you see something you see it the way you see it at the moment. Most of the time, if you come back, it’s not going to be the same. And Morocco is a country in transition, so it moves very quickly. The country changes very fast.
“A lot of images from Morocco have unfortunately been created in the past decades by white guys because Moroccan people were not being noticed for being artists. There's a lot of interesting work out there, but nothing, for me, comes close to the truth.”
What do you mean by that?
I mean you can come in January, then come back in July and a whole neighbourhood has been built up. The first meaning of under construction, not something deep – even though it can be that too, of course. Construction's really cheap there. It helps a lot of people from the countryside who want to go to the cities. It makes it affordable but in July it's new and the next January it looks like shit. That’s the problem.
Your family is from the countryside, do you like it there?
It’s where I feel good, even though now I’m in Paris so I like the city too. My grandparents and my parents are all farmers. I feel they are honest and true and it’s something that makes me feel very comfortable. It’s difficult to find that in our world, especially in fashion, photography and advertising. It’s something I’m kind of scared of – 'fake people.' I try to have the least amount of people revolving around me. I’m really hard to convince, I’d say. But when I’m surrounded by those people, it’s easy and natural. When I’m with them I shut everything off and I’m just happy to be with them. So yes, I feel very comfortable when I’m there. Basically I think I love being with workers, all around the world. They’re all the same, it’s the same identity.
What do they have in common that draws you to them?
They have the same fatalism I would say. They are grounded, that’s the perfect word for them. They are in the reality of the world. They don’t project themselves in twenty years, every day is different and if they can be happy at the end of each day, it’s a good thing. They are not lost in dreams. In the end, you get trapped in your dreams if you never realise them. You don’t invest in yourself, you just invest in the image of yourself and expect that one day you will realise your dream but 90% of the time it doesn’t happen.
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Do you think this culture is something that could be lost in the future?
I think it’s coming back, actually. Everything is a circle. It’s lost for twenty or thirty years and now it’s coming back. In crisis times like today, the only things that last are these things. All the technology, all the space shit, we don’t really give a fuck about it. It’s more important to be alive and to be healthy today on planet earth. And I think agriculture has to change from productivity to be more localist but I think it was the past and it’s the future.
The people I recently shot for Le magazine du Monde are all artists to me. They have artists’ minds. Maybe they’re a little bit idealistic but I love idealistic people. They don’t see agriculture as a hard job. They see it like craftsmanship, you build something with your hands and feel way more happy and healthy by doing so. They feel it’s useful, it gives sense to their lives. I think only a few people on earth give that sense to their lives you know.
Do you spend a lot of time in nature?
It’s balanced, I would say. I also feel very happy in my darkroom in my lab, that’s my nature. But yes, when I'm in the land of my father in France or Morocco I’m very, very happy. It makes you reconnect with reality, outside of this narcissist world.
You’ve said that this project is you reclaiming Morocco’s narrative from a Western view. What does that mean to you?
Morocco has been in fashion in the last few years and I’ve never seen any advancement from this. People come to Morocco and use the image of the country, forgetting all the social realities of the country. I’m just trying to show the reality I guess. I think it’s really important to do it. Even Moroccan people can fall into this, they can forget about the reality of the country because they want to be the hype, they want to be in fashion and they don’t want to have that heaviness in the images which can be very good but also very slowing. When you see photo books about Morocco, they’re often very architectural and aesthetic which works well for advertising and fashion but it’s never really brought anything that’s going to help the country evolve. When you take something you have to give something back, this is what I think of art basically. You can’t just use things up until they get used up.
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What’s so admirable is how organically you’ve created this book. As a viewer, that authenticity really shows. What advice do you have for aspiring artists who want to make something authentic or original?
I mean, we are original. So you should try to really explain the world through your eyes and your vision and the way you see it. Even if it’s going to be something very simple, as long as it’s very personal it’s going to be original. Introspective work makes it automatically, for me, original. I think of photography as an introspective thing.
Did you put a lot of importance on the physicality of the book?
Actually, one thing I was always sure of was the look of the book as an object. I wanted it to be red, I wanted it to be leather and I wanted it to have the cross of Morocco on the cover, no images. This is something I had in mind for about four years. I wanted it to look like an old encyclopaedia, something like that.
Finally, where would you like your work to take you next?
I think I’m just going to continue telling my story and my family’s story. I think maybe this book was a global vision of Morocco and I might try now to go into details and talk about specific topics, maybe my father and his land. I’d like to spend some years with him and see how he evolves. Also, I can go back in my history and see exactly where he came from and the steps of his life that led him to France then back to Morocco. I think if I can tell his story, I can tell mine too. It’d help me understand more things about myself, which I like to do.
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