French Algerian photographer depicts fragile lives of Paris immigrants

by Sophie Davies | @sophiedaviesed | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 21 September 2020 13:16 GMT

Mohamed Bourouissa pictured at The Photographers' Gallery in London. Credit Heather Shuker

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Mohamed Bourouissa, winner of the Deutsche Boerse Photography Foundation Prize 2020, grew up in the low-income suburbs around Paris that inspire his work

When Mohamed Bourouissa first picked up a camera and started looking for inspiration, he didn't have to go far.

The French Algerian photographer has become known for documenting the lives of second- and third-generation immigrants in the banlieues (meaning 'low-income suburbs') of Paris, where he grew up and continues to live.

"It was easier because I have so many friends living in the banlieues, so I asked my friends to introduce me to people, to make the suburbs our stage," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Paris.

Bourouissa, 42, who this month was awarded the Deutsche Boerse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 by The Photographers' Gallery in London, started documenting the lives of marginalised immigrant communities 15 years ago.

Like him, the people he photographed often had families who came from Algeria but who "had made their whole lives in France," he said.

"They are outside society but also inside it," he said.

Bourouissa, who was born in Algeria but moved to France with his mother when he was five, said he did not want his photos to simply show a slice of life in the banlieues, but to expose the impact of the disadvantages they face.

"I was more interested in creating an economic image," he said.

La Prise, a photograph taken by Mohamed Bourouissa in 2008.

The impact of unemployment on the residents of the suburbs figures strongly in his work, and has been an important source of inspiration for Bourouissa, who lives in the northwestern Parisian suburb of Gennevilliers where he grew up.

"I was trying to document the people I grew up with and the most difficult aspect was the economic one, for sure," he said.

"The value we place in ourselves when we work is part of the ideology of our society... when you lose your job you start to devalue yourself," he said.

"I met so many poor people who ask themselves what they're doing with their lives."

The photographer, who studied art history, said he also wanted to correct what he saw as a lack of representation in art books of the kind of community in which he grew up.

"I wanted to integrate the world I grew up with into the history of art," he said.

The banlieues of Paris and smaller French cities including Lyon and Marseille have been synonymous with crime, unemployment and marginalisation since the 1970s.

But that is changing, Bourouissa said, and some areas are even becoming fashionable and starting to gentrify, attracting artists and galleries abandoning central Paris due to rising property prices.

"Years ago it was very complicated with the council housing projects, but now it's starting to change... where I live, it's not so bad," he said.

"We have created our own culture, our own language and that can be very exciting and very enriching."

A photograph called La Republique by Mohamed Bourouissa taken in 2006 that depicts a staged scene shot in Clichy-sous-Bois where the 2005 Paris Riots started.

In the 1990s, French fashion houses had no interest in being associated with the banlieues, and did not court their residents, but that is no longer the case, the photographer said.

In recent years, Lacoste has begun collaborating with the French Algerian rapper Moha La Squale, who hails from the banlieues south of Paris, part of the quintessentially French brand's strategy to move into streetwear.

"It's funny because it's fashionable right now – you see so much advertising, books, artists playing with the stereotypical image of the banlieues," Bourouissa said.

"To live in the banlieues is not quite the same as before."

Nonetheless traditionally negative stereotypes persist, he said, which is why he prefers not to describe the people he photographs as "dispossessed", a term frequently used to describe his work.

"I don't want to devalue the people I'm speaking to, to stereotype them."

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(Reporting by Sophie Davies; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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