The exceptional young photographer Yzza Slaoui, a rising star of the North African and European art scenes, was killed in a car crash in her home province of Figuig, Morocco on November 29, 2021. Slaoui’s death has come as a hammer blow to activists and photographers on both sides of the Mediterranean, by whom she was revered for her ability to produce work that was at once a call to collective action and a tribute to the individual human spirit.
This humanism, a passion for what people are and what they can become, shone through her art. Indeed, Slaoui had recently been selected to present her work as part of the “Facing the Sea” exhibition, held in Tangier in November 2021. She was 28.
Slaoui described herself as “a self-shooter,” working on social issues and women’s rights, and promoting underrepresented voices.
In 2019, Slaoui described herself as “a self-shooter,” working on social issues and women’s rights, and promoting underrepresented voices. Her work also focused on climate change. After graduating with a degree in Documentary Filmmaking from University College London, Slaoui had traveled throughout Africa, documenting what she called “the human costs of environmental degradation.”
This work includes a series called Bazaruto Boys, which documents the relationship between the inhabitants of the Mozambican island of Bazaruto and the water that surrounds their home. Bazaruto Boys is so-called because of its particular emphasis on the lives of young boys on the island. Slaoui’s camera captured the effects of rising sea levels that threaten to shrink Bazatuto’s land area, as well as the threat of cyclones that wreak havoc against a population that relies primarily on fishing for commerce and survival.
Slaoui’s work also recently featured in a Moroccan project called Tempus Fugis, which exposed the lives of health workers during the Covid-19 pandemic and used portraits of ordinary Moroccans cocooned in their homes to explore the mental-health effects of Covid lockdowns. Yzza’s work has been exhibited in museums such as the Macaal in Marrakech and the Abderrahman Slaoui Museum. She also worked for clients such as Vice, Azeema, and Good Broadcast.
Slaoui believed in the power of photography to change the world. A passionate campaigner for women’s rights, she was a member of Women Photograph, a non-profit that supports and gives a platform to underprivileged women and female photojournalists from over 100 countries. Women Photograph has over 173,000 followers on Instagram and showcases the work of its partners to a large international audience.
Slaoui shone a light on the issue of forced marriages.
In Give Me Shelter, Slaoui shone a light on the issue of forced marriages, documenting the struggle of women in Pakistan for their right to marry (or not to marry) as they choose. The series displays the work of a program that provides shelter for women fleeing abuse and forced marriage. The program provides safety alongside educational and vocational classes to assist women in becoming independent. Yzza produced powerful portraits of the women, being careful to protect their identities. “They are survivors, and their strength and courage deserve to be represented,” she wrote on her website.
Yzza Slaoui will perhaps be remembered most for her striking photographs capturing the lives of the people of rural Morocco. Her affection and support for the communities of her beloved Morocco were apparent not only in her art but also in her activism. At the time of her death, Slaoui was on her way to visit organizations supporting rural women in Figuig province. According to her family, she was also carrying aid materials with her.
Slaoui’s series Qabla consists of a series of stunning portraits paying tribute to the traditional midwives of Morocco. In describing the project, she quoted the words of Tunisian feminist anthropologist and politician Lilia Laabidi who called traditional midwives “the guardians of a mysterious science and hope of women.” Qabla is typical of Slaoui’s work — intently focused on the individuals it depicts yet allowing their lives to illuminate a bigger picture.
Slaoui’s documentary films also used portraits of individuals to tell a broader story. Her film Taxi Rouge is a snapshot of the lives of Hajj Omar, a taxi driver in the bustling metropolis of Casablanca, and his customers. The viewer comes away with a true sense of the hospitable chaos of the city, as diverse in the opinions of its inhabitants as in its myriad sights, sounds, and smells. Hajj Omar and his passengers share their views on topics ranging from politics and society to happiness and fear.
Slaoui’s documentary films also used portraits of individuals to tell a broader story.
Likewise, Fantasia Warriors tells the story of Hamila Bahraoui and other female horse riders, following their struggle against patriarchal norms in their field. Fantasia is an equestrian performance depicting Moroccan military spectacles of old. Bahraoui and her companions struggle to break into the rank and file of those permitted to participate in Fantasia performances, which are open only to men. In Slaoui’s words, the documentary “aims to show how tradition is used as a smokescreen to justify the perpetuation of existing or previous stereotypes.”
In 2003, Hamila Bahraoui achieved her dream of becoming the first-ever female rider to participate in a Fantasia competition. However, the right of women to participate in Fantasia was revoked in 2010. As ever for Yzza Slaoui, the story of the female Fantasia riders is representative of a larger narrative.
“While Fantasia Warriors confirms some of the stereotypes about women in sports held by society,” she wrote, “it also tries to create an understanding for a new generation who are willing to fight for what they want to achieve. As they fight for their right to compete as equals with men, they are a symbol of female emancipation in Morocco.”
Following the tragedy on November 29, Moroccans were quick to pay tribute to Yzza Slaoui. Activist Yasmina Benslimane, who had planned to meet with the artist in the week following her death, reacted with shock. “Absolutely heartbroken to learn about the passing of such a talented, beautiful soul,” she wrote on Instagram. “You impacted lives. You were empowering. Your work was meaningful. You were a pure soul.” Benslimane went on to say that Yzza had been “destined for greatness.”
The anguish at the loss of what Slaoui still had to give was shared by many activists.
The anguish at the loss of what Slaoui still had to give was shared by other activists. Moroccan Outlaws, a group that campaigns on issues surrounding sexual liberty, issued a statement on December 3. “We lost a young, talented, beautiful, and sensitive soul: @yzzaslaoui,” it read. “Yzza, you were one of our most fervent advocates and you used your wonderful art for us. At Moroccan Outlaws, we are devastated by your passing and we send all the love we have to those close to you. Rest in power beautiful queen, you had so much to give.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Yzza Slaoui’s death would be compared to the passing of the iconic Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui in 2016. Alaoui was 33 when she was killed in a terrorist attack carried out by an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Burkina Faso. Many have spoken of the similarities between the two women and Slaoui had been tipped by some to take over Alaoui’s mantle.
The writer Tahar Ben Jelloun wrote of Laila Alaoui that she “knew how to detect reality behind appearances, how to show the splendor of a body behind the veil of prejudice.” The same could be said of Yzza Slaoui, whose portraits of individuals had a subtlety that placed her subjects in a social context or told a political story, without the focus ever shifting from the humanity of the people depicted.
Like Yzza Slaoui, Leila Alaoui used her work to promote the rights of women — she was in Burkina Faso on an Amnesty International assignment working with a women’s rights photography project. Alaoui too was widely viewed as a champion of the dispossessed. Both also used their work to shine a light on the plight of refugees around the world and told the stories of those whose lives have been devastated by ever-worsening climate change.
Like Leila Alaoui, Yzza Slaoui will be remembered as an artist who used her work to give a voice to the voiceless and to fight for progressive ideas without ever betraying her artistic vision. Indeed, the vision and the political struggles were as one. As the problems to which she dedicated herself, from climate change to the rights of refugees, grow ever more urgent, her voice is needed now more than ever. She leaves a hole that will never be filled.
Those whose lives she touched will forever wonder what stories and flashes of reality she had left to reveal to us. It will hopefully be of some consolation to her loved ones that the work she leaves behind, and the change she helped bring about, will live forever.