Promoting an insider’s view of Parisian suburbs

Parisian photographer Marvin Bonheur wants to break stereotypes around the capital’s suburbs by challenging young talent to share pictures from their neighbourhoods on Instagram.

Promoting an insider's view of Parisian suburbs
29-year-old Marvin Bonheur grew up in Seine-Saint-Denis and wants to help change the conversation around his home neighbourhood. Photo: Kaspar Björkman
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.
“Growing up, I was surrounded by brilliant people of all kinds.
“I’ve always been appalled by how, outside of these areas and in the media, we can all be put in the same box and given a bad reputation because of a small minority. And there is no dialogue. I was always surprised because I’ve always thought there was a lot of talent there,” explains Marvin Bonheur.

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.
The département, locally known by its administrative number 93, is one that many have only seen through pictures of burning cars and black hoodies making the rounds in the media – particularly after days of rioting shook the Paris suburbs in 2005. As a result, the French word for suburb, banlieue, has a much more negative connotation to it than the direct English translation.

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.
In Seine-Saint-Denis, a départment with a long history of immigration, the birth rate is higher, and the population is younger, than the regional average. In 2015, two thirds of children born there had at least one parent with an immigrant background. These suburbs are central talking points in the public debate around immigration.

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.”






A post shared by Carl K (@klagbacarl)

“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.”






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“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.


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A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’

The people from Western Sahara have been fighting for their independence for decades. Under the control of Spain for over a century until 1974, Western Sahrawis were able to have a Spanish National ID and passport, to serve as public servants and in the army, with the western Sahara declared by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as the 53rd province of Spain.

A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’
Some of the children participating in the programme experience health conditions caused by the tough life in the refugee camps. Photo: Sonia Clemente
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 1974, after pressure from the UN, Spain agreed to a referendum to accept the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. But when Morocco, supported by France and the U.S., invaded the country, Spain abandoned the Sahrawis. Nowadays, 80 percent of their country is occupied by Morocco, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens are stranded in refugee camps in Algeria. The result is that people living in this region are denied the same rights given to other former colonies, such as the ability to claim Spanish citizenship.

Today, the fifth of the country that is not controlled by Morocco is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and it is governed by the Polisario Front, recognised by 46 governments around the world, although none in the EU. In Spain, some local organisations and public figures campaign for their government to support the Sahrawi people.

“Spanish citizens have stood next to the Sahrawi people for 45 years because they understand that Spain has a political and legal responsibility with the Sahrawi people, but they see their political leaders incapable of amending this error. It is the great divorce in Spain,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Front Delegate in Spain said, “Spaniards are holding a responsibility that belongs to their government.”

At the time of the interview with the Sahrawi Delegate, Abdulah Arabi expressed concern that they were closer than ever to a break of the truce. Two weeks later the truce broke. “We have generations that have been born in refugee camps waiting for the UN to apply their peace plan so their parents and grandparents can decide what they want to be.”

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Holidays in Peace

One of the most successful programmes trying to both improve the conditions of the Sahrawis in refugee camps and to bring awareness to the conflict is Holidays in Peace. It allows Sahrawi children living in Algerian refugee camps, in one of the roughest deserts in the world, to live in Spain for the summers with host families.

This programme allows kids to avoid the desert heat, and access medical treatment and check-ups. It also helps them to learn Spanish, the second official language of the SADR. 

The programme began in 1976 with just a handful of children, and only three years later, 100 children spent their summers in Spain. In the 1980s the initiative gathered institutional support from the SADR government and several Spanish civil associations under the umbrella of “Friends of the Saharawi People.”

By the early 2000s, thousands of kids would travel every summer.

“In the good year before the 2008 crisis when the [Spanish] government donations were larger, we were able to bring up to 10,000 children every summer,” Arabi said.

Many of these children come back for several summers and stay with the same families again. When the children return to the camps, the host families often visit and send care packages. The associations also send vans full of supplies a few times a year to the camps.

Raúl Bedrina, who joined one of the associations in Madrid, and later helped to create the Gdeim Izik association in the south of the Spanish capital, hosted a child for the first time eight years ago.

“It is not charity, it is solidarity. These children are the best ambassadors of the Sahrawi people, who share a common history with us,” he said.

Western Sahara is the only Arab country with Spanish as a co-official language. However, the language barrier is still a challenge for the children, as they only began studying Spanish around the same time that they travel for the first time.

“At that age, kids are like sponges, in two months they are fluent,” Bedrina said, “but we put in the effort, too. Every day for one or two hours before going out or to the pool, we would sit with a picture dictionary and helped him.”

Bedrina talks about the cultural shock the children suffer when they arrive. The first thing they want to do is call home.

“Our kid went to bed crying for days because he missed his family. It’s also very odd for them to see things like a refrigerator, and they keep checking to see if things are still cold,” he said. They are also used to much more independence, to just go out a run around without supervision “but if only because of traffic, that is not possible here.”

“The ties you, as a host family, establish with the family are very strong. They are sending their children to a house they don’t know, so they want to know you.” Many of the host families visit the camps to meet the Sahrawi family, and the families want to send their other children to the same host family. “Our kid was the one who sold us the idea to host his younger sister. He took us for a ride,” Bedrina remembers, laughing.

Each host family is assigned a Sahrawi family, and they get to know each other as part of the process.

These children are not orphans, they have families who love and care for them, and it has to be made clear to the host families that the children will come back to their families after the summer. There are other programmes for teenagers who come to study in high schools during the school year and who go back home for the summer, but it is a much smaller programme.

The 2008 economic crash affected the programme a lot. Local governments cut the funding given to each association and they found it harder to fundraise money during the year. Many families who had hosted kids in the past couldn’t host those years because they were suffering from unemployment or financial troubles.

Most host families are middle class and the weight of an added member in the household was too much for many of them. “Kids come with nothing,” Bedrina said, “you have to give them clothes, food, et cetera…”

Because of this, the number of years the children would travel was reduced from five to three, so more children could continue to travel. However, it still cut the number of children able to travel by more than half for some years. Things had started to improve in this respect, but then Covid-19 hit.

An outdoor prison

The conditions in the desert are very dire. “There is no vegetation, no water, and temperatures go higher than 50 degrees,” Arabi said.

Before Covid-19, there were two times a year where host families could travel to the camps, around Easter around Christmas. For Bedrina, and many families, although hosting a child has been quite an experience, nothing compares to visiting the camps, and seeing the conditions.

“All Westerners should go and see a refugee camp to open their minds about what is going on in the world. I have seen colleagues go there and feel completely overtaken by the injustice and the world would fall on them. It was too much for them,” he said. Bedrina has been three times to the camps, not only meeting the families but also interviewing women about their vision on the conflict for a documentary and bringing humanitarian aid collected in Spain.

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Bedrina described the camps where Sahrawis have been living for 45 years as “a giant outdoor prison. It is difficult to describe with words.”

“The first days there I thought I had a cold because I was having trouble breathing, but then I realized it was the sand dust I had been swallowing all day,” he said

David Pobes, another volunteer in an association also travelled by car to the camps to take donations gathered in Madrid. He lived with the family he had been in contact with. “You live with them, and you can see they have nothing. The homes usually have two rooms. Not two bedrooms, two rooms. There is no furniture and they sleep on the floor. While you are there you eat with them, cook with them, and clean with them,” Pobes said.

'Saved many lives'

While the main objectives of Holidays in Peace are building awareness of the Sahrawis’ situation, and to take the children away from the camps during the hot summers, one of the key aspects that have helped save lives is the access to better medical care and nutrition during the summer.

Healthcare is a scarce resource in the camps. “We have a Ministry of Health that guarantees health in all the towns in the camps. But the dispensaries are indeed basic,” Arabi said. When David Pobes visited one of the clinics in the camps, he was surprised by it: “in one room, they had an old gas refrigerator for insulin. That was the best technology I saw.”

The clinics are meant mostly for first aid. If it is more serious, the patient must go to the province hospital or the national hospital. If it is even more serious, they must be transported abroad. However, access to specialized medicine is rare.

During the summers in Spain, the children get a full check-up with a blood test and access to specialists. “Thanks to these check-ups we have been able to save many lives of children who are now living a normal life, thanks to this programme,” Arabi said.

Spain has universal healthcare, meaning that the children can access the Spanish healthcare system upon arrival. Children in the camps suffer from hearing and sight problems because of the sandstorms. “You wouldn’t believe the stones that I have seen taken out of these children’s ears. Stones!” Pobes said.

When it comes to sight problems, the associations run fundraisers the entire year not only to cover the €600 flight but also glasses these kids might need. Some optometrists provide the glasses for free for these kids, but unfortunately, there are not enough.

Adapting to the pandemic

Due to Covid-19, the programme was cancelled for the first time since it began decades ago.

To alleviate the effects of not running the programme, the Polisario Front came up with an alternative list of events in the camps. During July and the first half of August children in the refugee camps have taken part in cultural and sports activities.

“We have done practically everything they would do here, such as medical check-ups, but, of course, conditions are not the same, as structures are fragile there.” Arabi said.

They took part in poetry and music workshops, football, cross country, and a programme of exchanges with older people who told them their life stories. They have been able to offer this version of the programme to all the children in the camps, around 9,000.

In August a group was taken to the liberated territories. It was the first time they could see them. Arabi said the programme was a bit rush, as they couldn’t be sure what the Covid conditions were going to be or if they would be able to do it at all, “but the results have been good.”

The plans for next summer remain uncertain, but the hope is that it will be able to return to its usual format, providing many children with a connection to a Spanish host family, language lessons, medical care and a break from life in the camps.

Thess Mostoles is a Spanish journalist currently living in the UK and reporting on international politics, war and conflict.