At 90, Jacques Pérez, a great figure in Tunisian photography, keeps an “eye” on his country

“It’s the eye that takes the photo, not the camera” : at 90 years old, Jacques Pérez, considered as the father of photography in Tunisia, continues to “to concern” his country with the curiosity of its beginnings more than 50 years ago.

An exhibition entitled “Memories of before oblivion” is devoted to him until the end of October, in a palace in the medina of Tunis, classified by Unesco as one of the most beautiful in the Arab world.

“I have learned nowhere to take pictures, no need, it is the eye above all that is there. I like to look at 360 degrees and show what I saw. There was no a vocation, it came all by itself “, told AFP the man Frédéric Mitterrand, a French cultural personality, nicknamed “The Tunisian Doisneau”.

Born in the medina where he still lives, Jacques Pérez started photography when he was 11/12 years old: “I was lucky to have a German mother and an Italian grandmother who gave me illustrated magazines”, educating his eye, he says. After 15 years of practicing as an amateur alongside his teaching profession, a major Tunisian publisher ordered a photo book from him on Sidi Bou Said, the blue and white city north of Tunis, which would launch his career.

For the exhibition, he chose “emblematic photos” from his work, “always framed, geometric and always inhabited” by people. “People talk to me, their faces intrigue me, I would like to know what’s behind it.”

The photographer Jacques Perez in his exhibition & nbsp;"Memories of before oblivion", October 8, 2021 in Tunis, Tunisia (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

These people have become the main characteristic of the work of the internationally renowned photographer, from the United States to France via Italy.

Jacques “is a humanist photographer. It’s a whole generation. Our examples are obviously Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt …”, underlines to AFP Hamideddine Bouali, the curator of the exhibition.

Another peculiarity of Mr. Pérez: never having wanted to photograph anything other than his country. “I only feel concerned by Tunisia”, he says. “All of us”, the association organizing the exhibition chose it for this reason. While wishing to preserve the national heritage, it indeed wishes “deconstruct the national narrative” according to which Tunisia is only Arab-Muslim, explains its president Rabaa Ben Achour.

Jacques Pérez’s work shows that “the country is in an extraordinary plurality”, she emphasizes. “We see the meeting of Jews, Muslims, workers, people who stroll, traditions of fishing, marriage …”

An eternal Tunisia and “timeless”. Besides, there are no dates in the photos, which could be taken today. Except perhaps those of the clowns at the Ramadan fairgrounds. “Tunisia which is disappearing is the meaning of history, we cannot hold it back”, smiles Jacques Pérez who says to himself “nostalgic for nothing”.

The 70 photos exhibited reflect his work: Sidi Bou Saïd, the sea and fishermen, the daily life of Tunisians, the old crafts, and women, with two very striking photos: “The Lady of Chebika” and “The Lady with the lion”.

His secret for such spontaneous portraits when he does “never stolen photos, nor at telephoto”? For the Lady of Chebika with wrinkles hollowed out by age, “her face interested me but I didn’t know if I could approach her, I got closer, she didn’t react, I got closer again and she practically nodded to me, I took the photo “.

Nothing with him is calculated, “it’s all intuitive”, he says, stressing that “the photographers have this faculty to predict the movement according to”.

He retained the fascination of a child, still surprised to have been able to capture the moment when a drop fell from the jar of a water carrier. It’s all about “patience”, to know “wait for the right moment without provoking it”, like this shot of a street in the medina under a bright sun. It was simply “at 1:00 p.m. in the middle of August”, he laughs. He remains humble: “I don’t take myself seriously, a photo makes me happy to take it, I don’t make it a drama or a mystery”. “I am neither the father, nor the cousin, nor the grandfather of Tunisian photography, I am just a photographer in Tunisia”.

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