Lethal Parallax

Chawki Amari

Artwork by Elephnt

Two men are talking in a smoke-filled room. On the carved table in the middle of the sitting room is a pile of photographs. M. takes the top one and shows it to B.

“Look at this. I took it this morning. It’s a good one.”

Without speaking, B. takes a good look at the image, breathing his cigarette in deeply, then puts it back on the table:

“You’re right, it’s good. The three teenagers all walking in a line and the old woman sitting, watching them go by. There’s an eloquent movement about it. And then, with the clock above them, it looks like a sun lighting up the whole scene. It’s well done. Tells a lot—a whole story.”

M. takes the photo:

“You see, on the right. The foot. That’s from a guy walking past. It’s out of place. Maybe the photo should be cropped.”

“Maybe. But send it as is, they will know what to do with it. They’re the ones paying.”

“You’re right. It’s not my problem. They’re going to buy it anyway. With everything that’s happening in Algeria, there aren’t many pictures around and they don’t really have any choice. And anyway, it’s a good photo.”

B. gets up, stands by the window. From the eighth floor, he can see over the city. All the way down, tiny pedestrians are making their way through the streets.

“Tell me, M.,” says B., turning suddenly, “did you have any trouble taking the photo?”

“Not really. As soon as I saw it, I shot it and then got off through the back streets. I think they saw me, but it was too late.”

A crowd in the street. People are milling around and cries and sobbing can be heard. The police have just arrived—too late, as is often the case—and they try to disperse the curious with the butts of their rifles.

Someone asks,

“What happened?”

An old man, sad-faced, explains:

“Another photo was taken,” he says, pointing to the rectangular hole behind him. “There was a photo there, and they just took it. It’s the fourth this week.”

“Were there any victims?”

“Three young guys and an old lady were killed. Another lost a foot. He was just at the edge of the photo. A lucky escape.”

A woman has collapsed on the pavement, crying. She’s the mother of one of the youths, and she holds her hands up to the sky.

“My son! They took my son! Why, my God? Why my son? Will this never end? That’s two sons I’ve lost this year! Why, my God? Why me? My husband was taken in the War of Independence. Are we forever condemned to die? To bring what life into the world?”

Some women try to calm her down. A man explains the boy’s demise to anyone who will listen:

“You shouldn’t stay here. They might still be in the area. They could use this opportunity to take another photo. They often do this. The first is to attract a crowd and the authorities. The second to take everything. It would be carnage.”

The crowd starts to disperse. Two youths, hands in pockets, bring the scene to a vague ending.

“What is the government doing? Looks like it even helps them.”

“It’s always the people who pay. It doesn’t worry the government. Maybe they’re the ones doing it.”

“That wouldn’t be surprising. Rotten country.”

The attack is over. In the late afternoon, officials come to the site to lay jasmine flowers and to condemn in the strongest of terms the perpetrators of this new crime against the sovereignty of the Algerian people and their ancestral bravery.

The next morning a short article in the press, while the hole is filled already. Bricks hastily laid and a layer of rough, grey cement. Not a trace. A few days later some teenagers have painted vulgar messages across it, of course, along with anti-government slogans. Then the following day, the national advertising agency has covered it with election posters. Which were ripped off within a few hours. The officials then commissioned a mural by some fake art student, featuring red camels walking up something of a hill, symbolizing the hope of a better world in the future. The mural didn’t last a week.

“You know, if there were no foreigners buying pictures, then maybe there wouldn’t be any attacks. It’s all about money. It’s not politics. It’s business.”

“Yeah, but it’s too easy to blame foreigners all the time. I’m sure there are people from here stealing photos.”

“But if there were no market for photos, there would be no photos.”

“If there were no one taking photos, there would be no photos either. Could you do that? Shoot poor people like that from the street. Innocent people? For a bit of cash?”

“Difficult. You’d have to really love money.”

“Or really hate people.”

Something is happening. Commotion in the street, police sirens. Some kids run to see. After five minutes, a police officer comes back from where, evidently, something has happened. He is grilled:

“What was that?”

“Nothing, it was a bomb. We reacted, we thought another photo had been taken. That would really make too many this week.”

“Was anybody killed?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t really see, there was too much smoke.”

The same evening, at eight o’clock, the television announced stricter measures. To fight international trafficking. From now on, to take drugs, cameras, or weapons across a border, you must have a customs authorization, signed by both the supplier and the buyer. All of this must be overseen by a notary.

M. and B. are sitting in their apartment, across from the television. M. is playing with the remote control. He asks, “Did you take photos today?”

“No, I couldn’t. It’s getting more and more difficult. In some areas, people have put up big black tarpaulins on the walls. It sucks up all the light. You’ve got to work with the flash and that’s not very discreet. It’s going to be very hard for us if everybody gets involved.”

“If it becomes impossible, we’ll change careers. That’s all.”

“Can you do anything else?”

“I know how to plant bombs. I did an internship two years ago, over in Chlef. It’s like photography. Just a click.”

“We’ll never earn what we earn with photos.”

“Perhaps. Are we going to eat? I’m starving.”

M. and B. get up and go down the eight storeys to the ground. They take their cameras, just in case. To Full-Town, a hip restaurant in the centre of the city. Greetings and a bit of a chat about the last photo with the owner; they’re regulars. They choose a table at the back, to take in everything. The food is simple and expensive, but the music is good. Made it to dessert without a hitch. B. leans toward M.:

“You see the girl in the veil, there in the corner? In a hijab. I’ve been watching her. Look. She’s finished eating. She’s lighting her cigarette while the man she’s with feels her up under the table. Veil, cigarette, and sex. That’s the kind of photo that sells. And there’s an orientalist painting in the background. What do you say?”

“It’s risky. There are lots of people here today.”

“We’ve been coming to this restaurant for years. They would never suspect us.”

M. thinks it over a moment, then backs down.

“Ok, let’s do it. I’ll cover you, get your camera out. Watch out for the mirror, we don’t want to die as well.”

Discreetly, B. takes his camera out of his pocket. A little adjustment for lighting. There, he is ready. The camera is on the table. M. and B. share one last look. The two are as one. Ready. M. leans down slightly, as if he wanted to pick something up off the floor. B. puts his finger on the trigger.


The shutter closes, snapping up mass and light. Space and time.

A black hole.

M. and B. are in darkness. They float in the shadows. At the end of the tunnel is a light. They are dead.

There was no panic. As soon as he had pressed the button and captured the two photographers on film, agent K. got up and showed his identification to everyone, starting with the owner of the restaurant. Security. People take in the damage, the hole in the wall, and after some quiet comments about the lack of security nowadays, they get back to their meals.

“I’ve been after them for months, those two. Now I’ve got them,” says agent K. to the owner.

The latter complains limply, “You could have arrested them. You didn’t have to kill them. That’s bad for my business.”

“We don’t arrest these kinds of individuals. We send them back to darkness. Where they came from.”

Next to the owner and agent K., a child sitting at a table with his parents overheard the conversation. He stares at agent K., who flashes a mean look back.

“What are you looking at? You want a photo?”

“Yes,” answers the child softly.

translated from the French by Lauren Broom