Marilyn Stafford: A life in Photography Story behind the picture: Algerian Refugee in Tunisia, 1958

As photography fans are flocking to the Marilyn Stafford: Life in Photography exhibition at Brighton Museum, we asked Nicola Jeffs, who is a member of the Marilyn Stafford Working Group Collective, to tell us more about her work.

Until recently, Marilyn Stafford kept her archive of black and white photographs of 20th century icons, portraits from the reporting fields and swathes of pictures of the high and low societies of post-1945 Paris, London and the Middle East out of the limelight, in her home in West Sussex.

Lately, she’s been having her well-deserved moment in the (flash bulb) light with a raft of cleverly curated retrospective exhibitions across the globe, the latest being her biggest exhibition to date, here at Brighton Museum.

You will have glanced at the now infamous picture of Albert Einstein hunched in his armchair back in 1948 in newspapers, books and websites. Or have seen the deft images capturing a resplendent Indira Gandhi ascending from a plane bedecked in furs and oozing matriarchal confidence. Or, perhaps you have viewed the gamine fashion snaps of Twiggy or Sharon Tate, now frequently called upon as mid-20th century inspiration by Vogue editors rifling through the archives to find that special shot of the swinging 1960s. These are all Marilyn’s work.

To me, some of Marilyn’s most interesting photography, however, is of lesser known but equally strong and significant women in history. She is a self-identified humanitarian and a documentary photographer who also worked in fashion.

She says, “I was doing one (type of photography) as it’s what you believe in, the other for survival” in reference to her double life as a documentary news and fashion photographer.

Let’s rewind to 1958.

Marilyn was drawn to Tunisia, from her adopted home in Paris. The French government were engaged in an extremely brutal guerilla war with anti-colonial forces. A long, bloody conflict employing mass murder, terror and torture had resulted in the displacement of 2 million Algerians who spilled over the border into neighboring Tunisia where Marilyn headed to help tell their story.

I was living in Paris and I was always interested, since World War Two, in displaced peoples; migrants. When the French bombed a Red Cross Hospital on the border, the international interest in Algeria grew. So, I went down to Tunisia and made contact with the Liberation Army and said I wanted to do a story,” she recalls.

Unlike many of Marilyn’s other fashion or celebrity portraits, the name of this woman is not A-list or associated with a special brand or campaign. In fact, it is not given or known. We have no knowledge about her as a person other than the title which indicates her refugee status and where she was when it was shot.

Algerian Refugee in Tunisia, 1958 © Marilyn Stafford
Algerian Refugee in Tunisia, 1958 © Marilyn Stafford

“I know nothing about her other than this picture, nothing at all”, Marilyn adds.

The traditional dress and the bare feet in the photo marks her as an Algerian from a poor background. The image, shot in black and white, emphasizes the distressed, layered North African garments. The folds and shadows in her clothes hide stories. The cloth of her dress is reminiscent of the women’s dresses from the final scene in the film Battle of Algiers. You can almost hear the shrill, guttural throat singing and see the cloth of the spinning cloaks cascading towards the French policemen and army.

The woman in this portrait looks angry and defiant. Her face is uncovered; unveiled. This is revealing now, looking back, in showing the status of women at the time of Independence some four years later.

Marilyn was 5 months pregnant when she traveled to Tunisia and this was surely in her mind when taking this image. “Something must have happened”, she tells me. It’s a universal image of motherhood and protection of a child against adversity. A baby is swaddled in heaps of ragged materials, possibly the only things the woman had to keep the baby as safe as she could. Marilyn adds, “I called her my Madonna.”

One is reminded of Dorothea Lange’s portrait of the Migrant Mother (1936) in Marilyn’s image. Except, the woman in our photo addresses the camera with her gaze face on. She is part of a defiant group, albeit desperate economically, who had been brutally forced from their homes amidst fire, rape and gun shot, not wearily searching for something as those in the Midwest were. Her anger and dissent are palpable in the photo. Noteworthy, too, perhaps, is that Depression-era America is the land of Marilyn’s own childhood.

Other images from this series, men praying and landscape shots of the refugee camps, appeared in The Observer in March 1958, to tell the story of what was taking place in Tunisia. A quick dig in the online archives tells us that The Observer that year was concerned with NATO, détente and UK divorce law. That an image of an emaciated woman caught up in the post ‘45 French colonial disentanglement should have been a front cover choice for British newspaper readers is striking and unique.

The tones of black, white and grey in this image evoke someone, on the edge, on the border, between two countries. The woman sits on a wall with dark stone on one side and clean white stone on the other. This could be taken to represent her refugee status and her life in flux, caught between her place of refuge and her former home. The composition of the image also places her very much in the foreground, emphasizing her as the subject, as a woman first and her circumstances second. She sits proud in front of the slumped sand sack behind her.

The young, ambitious Marilyn worked with Henri Cartier-Bresson to hone her craft of street photography and the candor of her mentor’s work shines through into Marilyn’s own work. You can see this in this image we have been discussing. Given less than a day in the refugee camp, Marilyn took scores of images that day evoking her mentor’s ‘decisive moment’ style. He thought so too, as it was Cartier-Bresson who sent the images to their publisher The Observer, after Marilyn showed them to him back in Paris.

To me, she is a Joan Didion with a camera, a bird-like frame, neat bobbed hair, with a sharp wit, and a kind heart. Marilyn’s ability to get to the places she needed to in order to get the shots she wanted; with sharp reflections about women, from a woman grafting in a male industry, were perhaps unparalleled at the time. It is fitting her work is now getting the recognition it deserves.

Nicola Jeffs, Marilyn Stafford Press Officer

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