The photograph was initially shot by the Moroccan police in the southern Moroccan desert. It was handed to Ursula Biemann and myself by the police while we were filming towards video projects on illegalised transit migrants in Morocco.
I chose this image to illustrate my video because it seemed to condense the entire condition of transit migrants in Morocco. Tangled together in it are the self-organised networks of migrants spanning the whole Maghreb and the constantly expanding European border regime, which subcontracts the repression of migration to the States of the Maghreb. Until 2004, migrants rented the services of fishermen along the coast, but with the fishermen’s barks coming under increasing control, migrants were forced to have recourse to the services of smugglers and to build their own barks in the desert. The Moroccan police and military deployed ever more resources to patrol the desert in jeeps and helicopters. Illegalised migrants remained trapped between sea and desert. This violent clash between the logic of migrants and that of their control finds its echo in this image, in the opposed elements of fire and water. The image attains an almost universal meaning: the boat, the vehicle which is meant to bring them to the Promised Land, is destroyed, and with it their hopes for a better life.
This image points powerfully to a dire social and political reality. But, as it has been used in particular instances, it has also failed to point to itself, to indicate its own conditions of production and circulation. Although the information accompanying the image always indicated that it was originally made by the Moroccan police, the focus was always on the ‘photographed event’ – the destruction of migrants boats by the Moroccan authorities, not on the ‘event of photography’.3 In using it myself I did not ask: what exactly is the role of the act of photography and the circulation of this image within the violent containment it documents? It is this question that I would like to address here, by paying closer attention to its conditions of production and circulation, and to the materiality of the photograph.