Know Your Street Art: Zied Ben Romdhane’s Night in Tunisia

The #Dysturb project began in France and came to Euqinom Gallery in September to coincide with the Global Climate Action Summit.

Street art work by Zied Ben Romdhane. Photo by Jonathan Curiel

His name is Lazheri, and he’s a former mine worker who lives in a remote part of Tunisia’s Gafsa region. The mines near his village by the Algerian border produce material that’s used in agriculture around the world. Gafsa’s government-
controlled mining company profits from the labor of people like Lazheri. But Lazheri’s village is poor and polluted, a disconnect that photographer
Zied Ben Romdhane captures in his photo, which was enlarged and wheat-pasted in September on the side of Euqinom Gallery in the Mission District.

Lazheri, An Ex-Mine Worker, Al-Mitlawi is part of the #Dysturb project that takes photojournalists’ images of “social, political, or environmental injustice” and wheat-pastes them on walls and other public places, to drive attention to the images and the issues they convey. The project, which started in France, chose San Francisco to coincide with September’s Global Climate Action Summit here, with Romdhane’s work part of a new series of some 35 enlarged, wheat-pasted images that are still up. Next to Lazheri, An Ex-Mine Worker, Al-Mitlawi is another image, shot by the Indian photojournalist Arko Datto, of a Bangladeshi fisherman whose livelihood is endangered because of global warming and rising sea levels.

Each #Dysturb wheat-paste includes a detailed summary of the issue behind the photos, links to learn more, and ways to contact the photojournalists and #Dysturb. In essence, the project is a new kind of photojournalism, according to #Dysturb’s co-founder, photojournalist Benjamin Petit.

“We do actions everywhere in the world,” says Petit, whose project worked with the Magnum Foundation on its Bay Area climate-change series, which also saw posters wheat-pasted in schools. “We’re professional journalists. Our goal on the project is to reach out to people who aren’t necessarily connected to news and aren’t big consumers of news. A large part of the population doesn’t necessarily trust the news anymore. When we started the project three or four years ago, it was really to [remake] the direct connection between newsmakers and the audience.”

Romdhane says the project is bringing global attention to an issue in Tunisia that more people need to know about. Romdhane, who lives and works in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, has spent more than two years visiting Gafsa and hanging out in the village called Al-Mitlawi. Lazheri is a village elder. Without his help, Romdhane could not have done his photo series in Al-Mitlawi. The photo of Lazheri is a tribute to him and to the village. Romdhane’s bigger series from the region, called “West of Life,” humanizes the villages even as it spotlights some of its environmental conditions, which can be traced to French colonization in the late 1800s.

“The most important thing that attracts me to the region are the social relations,” Romdhane says via Skype from Tunis. “The history of phosphate [extraction] started with French colonization, with a geologist in the French Army who was seeing what natural resources existed in Tunisia. Then a French company came to the region and installed the mining field. French occupation brought labor from Morocco, Algeria, and all the colonies of North Africa.”

Tunisian independence in 1956 hasn’t helped Gafsa’s villages, which are prone to tribal clashes. Tourists rarely go there — unlike Tunisia’s beach resorts and Tunis itself. Romdhane says his photo series has increased Gafsa’s visibility in Tunisia “a little bit.” This “little bit” of impact is also true about his photo on the corner of Alabama near 25th Street.

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