‘Exchanging one purgatory for another’: Geography and aspiration off the Moroccan coast

A couple and their baby on Tarfaya’s main boulevard. All images © Imane Djamil

Moroccan One to Watch Imane Djamil brings a photojournalistic eye to emotive and misunderstood migration stories

The two coastlines are only 60 miles apart; both have similarly beautiful beaches and sun-drenched dunes but, while one is a tourist hotspot frequented by flocks of western holidaymakers, the other is a quiet, forgotten place with just a couple of grocery shops and some long-time residents. Imane Djamil’s Slow Days in the Fortunate Isle draws these parallels, while purposefully obfuscating the border between the locations.

Until 1958, the Moroccan town of Tarfaya was part of the Spanish Sahara colony, an area that once also encompassed the Canary Islands, aka Las Islas Afortunadas (the ‘fortunate isles’), which remain a Spanish autonomous community. Born in Casablanca, Djamil has been visiting and staying in Tarfaya for years and, when people told her they had come looking for work there, was curious. There were clearly few job openings in the sleepy coastal town, and she soon realised they were trying to migrate to the Canaries. Specifically they hoped to make it to Fuerteventura, the island closest to the coast.

“One tragedy is the mobility policies. Some people are born with the right to travel, some people are not”

Created between 2021–24, her long-term project highlights this journey – and its potential traps. Djamil, who has been published by The New York Times and exhibited at Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe, spoke to many young men trying to make it to the west, to anything “that is not Morocco, Algeria, or Africa”, as “a first attempt into reaching Europe”. But, she explains, few realised that doing so can simply “exchange one purgatory for another”. On Fuerteventura there is less economic opportunity than expected, and once there, the men find it difficult to return because undocumented migrants cannot use safe routes back to Morocco. Some find themselves stuck and waiting indefinitely, marooned in the slow days of her title.

Slow Days in the Fortunate Isle, recently shown as part of Djamil’s solo show at Neue Galerie in Innsbruck, Austria, follows up on a previous body of work, 80 Miles to Atlantis, made in 2020 and examining through a mythological lens “the abandonment of [Tarfaya] and its heritage”, and “the desertification of the Sahara”. The series also nods to her interest in Greek myths, with each individual documented and portrayed as a star-crossed character – even a god – from an ancient story. “One tragedy is the mobility policies,” she says. “Some people are born with the right to travel, some people are not.” Other tragedies are more specific, such as the 18-year-old who made the crossing by floating on a tyre but saw his friend die in the attempt.

Although the majority of Djamil’s published work spans editorials in Morocco for Reuters, Le Monde and Bloomberg, her personal photographic projects highlight photography’s paradoxes and corruptions and, with this series, she aims to create a fictional place. “I don’t want people to make a difference between what Fuerteventura is and what Tarfaya is,” she explains. “Visually, in the imaginary world behind that series, I want them to not distinguish.” This approach was inspired by her love of docu-fiction, but also driven by her frustration at western documentary practices, which often leave subjects dehumanised, objectified, or sensationalised. “The project is not about migration,” she asserts. “The faces of people that are in this [project] are not reminiscent of what we think we know about migrants, which is a word that does not mean anything.”

A self-taught photographer, Djamil was recommended for Ones to Watch by Magnum photographer Myriam Boulos, who says: “Imane tells us intertwined political and love stories through her witty words and images.” Indeed, Djamil is rethinking the medium, using her lens to tell Moroccan stories with more agency, and pushing the industry’s still western- dominated structure by co-founding the KOZ Collective with fellow image-makers M’hammed Kilito and Seif Kousmate.