Trouble in the Suburbs

One of the more interesting shows in Paris last week was at  the Galerie Fils de Calvaire in the 3e, which was showing Périphéries by Mohamed Bourouissa, (click on ‘Artists‘, then select his name)  a photographer born 1978 in Blida, Algeria who lives and works in Paris. These were staged images from the estates around the edge of Paris, “la banlieue“, usually translated quite misleadingly as “the suburbs”, which evokes Acacia Avenue and rows of neat semis and bungalows rather than the concrete wilderness of these images, seen often at night. These are the “suburbs” that riot rather than those leafy roads that commuters take the Southern Railway back to.  You can see a rather better presentation of 15 of these images elsewhere on-line.

I’m seldom a great fan of staged photography; it seems in its very essence to negate the true power of photography which comes from its ambivalent linkage to the real, but these images are perhaps a little different. Bourouissa is from the banlieue and certainly knows it and its inhabitants intimately, and the scenes they enact for his camera have a raw edge that is usually lacking in staged images. The people in his images seem to be playing themselves rather than appearing to be taking roles in someone else’s fiction, and many are not far in age from the 29 year old photographer.

There is a palpable tension in the group of youths hanging around in the entrance lobby of a block in Red Square. In front of the picture I felt much of the kind of hesitation and fear that a resident might feel on coming home and coming upon such a scene. Visually the square of the title on the back of one of their jackets in an otherwise grey scene carries a suggestion of that menace. Bourouissa says of his work: “What I am after is that very fleeting tenth of a second when the tension is at its most extreme. We have all known those imperceptible moments when the tension seems more violent than the confrontation with the other. At that extreme point, anything could happen, or nothing,” and this picture illustrates this to perfection.

There is a similar frisson in an image made in what looks like a car park next to some sports facility at dusk, where at right a man sits on a low wall drinking beer from a bottle, while at left another in a bright yellow jumper stands behind an open car door. In the centre of the picture, caught in the light, a man holds a large white dog, caught apparently in mid-air as its teeth seize the jacket of another man.

Another remarkable picture concentrates on a face to face confrontation between a black and white youth, seen from just behind one of them, looking over his shoulder towards another black youth who stands coolly a metre of so back, recording the event on his camera phone.

I can only find a postage stamp size image of ‘The Reflection‘ on line – on the Fils du Calvaire web site – follow the link in the first paragraph and click on ‘Works‘, then Périphéries, then the second thumbnail to see a slightly larger thumbnail.  A youth sits back to the camera facing a small wall made of around 25 discarded TV sets piled up 3 or 4 high on the edge of a concrete area on an estate. His shoulders are hunched and he looks down. What can’t be seen in the small reproduction is the reflection in one of the screens that gives this large – roughly 5′ wide – image its title on the gallery wall, of a tree hit by sunlight on its bright yellow autumn leaves, contrasting with the drab blacks and greys and dull greens of the rest of the scene.

The notes with the show refer to photographers including Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Karen Knorr, but frankly I found his work considerably more interesting, perhaps because it has something they all seem to me to lack, a concern for the subject.

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