29-year-old Marvin Bonheur grew up in the suburb of Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois in the Seine-Saint-Denis département of France.
Certain parts of the belt of suburban areas and social housing outside the Parisian inner-city is also almost synonymous with immigration, notably from African and Muslim nations with a colonial past.
During the autumn, 57 photographs from the Parisian suburbs with captions starting with “My neighbourhood is also… ” were posted on Instagram as part of what Bonheur intended as a competition of anti-stereotypes, an initiative aiming to highlight different sides of the suburbs.
“My neighbourhood is also: Brotherly love between two brothers that nothing will separate.” Photo by Julien Borel, 21.
Divina Frau-Meigs, a professor at the Sorbonne university in Paris specialising in media content, representations, users and reception, has followed the depiction of the Parisian suburbs.
She says that the media coverage has come a long way since the riots of 2005, which pushed the president at the time to target the areas with more public policy. Then, coverage often played on stereotypes of disenfranchised, lawless zones where social inclusion is minimal, and she says there has already been a lot of positive change.
“Banlieue are not featured so much anymore, they have stopped being a sort of black spot of French media coverage. There is much more documentation that is positive about what young people in those suburbs are doing.”
Frau-Meigs says that media literacy training, for politicians, journalists and a new generation of youth-leaders in the suburbs has played a part in diversifying representations.
Bonheur's own career in photography took off when he moved from the suburbs into the city in 2013. He has become a figurehead for urban photography, but says he has been stereotyped based on his background.
He says many young people from low-income areas are faced with this stigma when they start taking steps into adulthood, and that the media's portrayal of the suburbs have very real consequences when applying for jobs or to schools.
“It’s a thing that’s a lot more serious than you’d think. It destroys lives in a way. Because of it you have youngsters with a lot of talent that will not be considered because they have a certain pair of shoes or speak a certain way.”
“My neighbourhood is also about showing something other than the buildings, it is also our mothers who have gone through thick and thin to give us a better future. All this while keeping a smile.” Picture by Malcolm d'Almeida, 22.
As well as hoping to act as a role model, Bonheur is taking active steps to support young photographers and promote a diverse representation of the suburbs.
“As someone coming from the suburb, I’ve realised we also participate in these representations by sharing stereotypical images ourselves,” he notes.
“For example, the images that come out of the suburbs the most are from rap music videos, often with motorbikes, violence, dogs and insults. It’s part of the suburbs as well, it’s not false. But since the media shares it, the artists share it, if we only post on Instagram when we smoke a shisha or put music on, that’s once more sharing the same picture.
“With the competition I wanted to influence people to show other things, to surprise. Living there, it is easy to show other things, but it’s never asked of us, and we never really thought about doing it.”
Partnering up with Fisheye magazine, Dysturb, Argot magazine and Lomography, he launched a competition on Instagram, challenging young aspiring photographers in the outskirts of the capital to show their side of the story using any kind of camera. To lower the threshold for participation any kind of photograph, regardless of quality and format, is accepted. Participants don’t need to own a camera, a smartphone will do.
The reason for this, he says, is to show he is not an exception, but that “there are many of us who are talented, not only in photography but in a lot of things.”
“My neighbourhood is also the surpassing of oneself”. Picture by Carl Klagb, 28.
“Instead of always waiting for the young talent from the suburbs to come to Paris, I wanted to go there to show that there is a lot of talent there. It's also up to you to go look for them,” he says.
The competition is on Instagram, because with a billion monthly users, over two thirds of which are under 34, the medium is ideal for reaching large young audiences. Bonheur also thought the platform would have a particular appeal to under-represented groups.
“The relationship between the suburbs and photography is a bit paradoxical. Pictures and videos are taken and shared on social media, like Snapchat, all the time. Professional photography is different, it’s not seen that favourably. If you see a big professional camera, there is some reluctance because it’s associated with the idea of journalism, the media and a certain elite. The ties between the suburbs and the media are pretty negative,” he says.
The partners are key, and other than contributing with the prizes, ranging from cameras to exhibitions and being featured in a prominent photography magazine, having established partners back the competition has legitimised the project.
He emphasises the importance of creative opportunities for young people in areas with lower opportunities, saying: “A child left alone in isolation has a stronger need to express themselves than one that has access to the means for expressing themselves.”
“My neighbourhood is also people like Yassine, lawyer at the Paris Bar and member of the Council of the bar association”.
When he was interviewed in mid-September, Bonheur said that he hadn’t seen as many unexpected profiles participating as he had hoped, but he had been positively surprised by the amount of young women among the contestants.
Divina Frau-Meigs is curious to see what kind of pictures the competition will bring to light. She says she believes in the idea behind Bonheur’s initiative.
“He is ticking all the right boxes, bringing young people from there, empowering them. encouraging them to show their neighbourhood from their own perspective, to own it, give pride back and self-esteem, which is key for empowerment and for civic engagement. For me, it is an excellent initiative.”
But she says that the reach of the competition will be what determines if it can have an impact on how the suburbs are perceived.
“It’s going to depend on who is on the receiving line for these images. Hopefully there will be some crossing over to mass-media where these results could be reported and the pictures could be shown to much larger audiences. I have a little faith that this kind of initiative will reach the far right, which may not be the primary target, but could be a nice target to target.”
Frau-Meigs warns that while mass media depictions have become more representative, she sees the same tropes about violence in the suburbs being used by the far-right and less mainstream outlets on social media to polarise the narrative. In France, Islam, radical Islam and the areas on the outskirts of Paris and Marseille have emerged as new talking points.
Still, she points out that the phenomenon is not only a French one.
Bonheur also made it clear that he doesn’t see the national borders as a big factor when it came to the challenges suburban youth are facing. He is already thinking about the next competition, and says he might go for a longer time period, looser age limits and bigger geographical areas to increase potential impact.
“The more I travel the more I realise we are very many. When I go to London, Lisbon, Martinique, New York, and discuss with young people from the working class, we have exactly the same vision of life and often the same problems.
“Seeing that we are so many, even without sharing the same language or culture is motivating, because it makes you realise that we are not alone,” he says.