the honest, raw emotion of paris' banlieues
We speak to Yanis Dadoum about growing up in and documenting the banlieues of Paris.
"Why do you want to interview me?" asked Yanis Dadoum as we arrived at our meeting point. We hadn't really though about it to be honest. But Yanis makes a good point: why is there such a sudden fascination with the aesthetics and world of the Parisian banlieues? A general consensus had formed in the last few decades and it seemed everybody agreed to hate those infinitely sprawling blocks of concrete that stretch out around central Paris, beyond the Boulevard Peripherique. They had become the icons of French architectural, urban and social failure.
Sitting steady on his chair, his elbow leaning on his knees, Yanis Dadoum talks about Epinay-Sur-Seine - the suburb where he was born and still lives - like no one else. A lot of people see him as the insider artist of the banlieues. The photographer's love for those geographies is real, intense and benevolent. Far from any form of exoticism peculiar to the artist-explorer gone on a mission to document a dangerous, unknown world, Yanis invites us to look at reality and accept it as it is. His document of these areas is lo-fi and shorn of grandiloquence, full of honest, raw emotion.
Can you tell me about your collaboration with Red Lebanese and how you guys met?
Red Lebanese is an independent publishing house and we met through friends, through graffiti, through everything happens in the north of Paris, in the 18th. I sometimes go and paint with them. One day, one of the guys told me 'we should do a zine and publish your photos'. So we just did it.
How did you get into photography?
It wasn't planned at all. I did a degree in marketing and started taking pictures during my second year of university with a disposable camera. I really liked taking pictures of buildings, my friends, all that stuff, but I always needed a special detail that made it stand out, a guy pissing but wearing a Supreme cap or something like that. I slowly got bored of that. I don't want people to pose for me anymore. I don't want any form of embarrassment.
Are people generally ok with you taking their photos?
It depends how you approach people. It depends how you look also. It happened once that a guy on a motorbike refused to let me take a picture of him, but generally people are fine about it.
Why do you think that is?
People like to be put under the spotlight, it's totally normal. That's why I don't like talking pictures of people without telling them. What really matters in a picture is the person in it, and I don't want that person to feel used in any sort of way.
Why? Does it make you feel voyeuristic?
One day, a friend of mine said to me: 'you're using us right?' I can understand why some people think like that. You see, as a guy from the banlieues, some people think I don't show everything that's happening here, that I hide the hardcore side of life here. Or that because I work with some fashion brands people think I'm exploiting this world for them. I struggle with considering myself as a photographer. To be honest, I just want to capture what surrounds me, that's all. I don't really try and learn about what kind of camera or film would be good for specific situations. Technologies means anyone can be a photographer now.
You do "street photography" which can be quite sociological -- you're like the eyewitness of a time and space…
Yes, I don't try and do pretty pictures. And I don't expect people to tell me if they are beautiful or not. I am not one of those who dreamt of being a photographer all my life. Honestly, I just want to immortalise something. And I love when things aren't spectacular.
Why did you choose to take pictures of just the banlieues?
I was born there, in Epinay-Sur-Seine. I still live there. I was born in the middle of my city, literally. The hospital I was born in was demolished, so I like to think I was just born there, in the middle of the street. Those surroundings defined my identity. I am from the banlieues, so I lived through and know things people from the outside can't know. When I started my studies I discovered all the prejudices about banlieues, this fear that they arouse in people. They are like a scary myth. Everybody thinks that if you go to the banlieues you're gonna get robbed or shit like that. At the end of the day, society always reminds you that you are from the banlieues.
Who, people you meet? The media?
People think the banlieues are like a jungle. It's not true. People do make mistakes, for sure, and when media come around it's awful. They come as explorers to talk about violence and drugs. There is also a new phenomenon at the moment: there is a new admiration for the banlieues aesthetic. But people are only interested in the surface, they don't really care about what is actually happening here. They love coming to do fashion shoots around the tower blocks but that's it.
Do the people that you photograph see your work or not?
At the beginning, no. Now, yes. I don't know where they find my work. But it happened a few times that some guy stopped me in the street in my neighbourhood and said 'Oh you are Dadoum, you take pictures of guys on motorbikes!' They are pretty happy in general. I'm not another guy coming from central Paris taking exotic pictures of the banlieues. I was born there; I live with these people, grew up with these people. Some of them even ask me to be in my pictures now.
There is not much about you or Red Lebanese on the internet…
The guys from Red Lebanese are in their own world and I think they let things be. If they have to meet someone or do an interview, it has to happen naturally. They don't force anything. Me, I think, I am just not organised. I don't know if it's because I don't have much time, or maybe I'm lazy, or I just like it the way it is? I struggle seeing all my pictures in the same place on the internet. I don't like seeing a fashion photo next to a documentary one.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Everything that I experience and see. My whole family lives in the banlieues. I have loads of old pictures taken there, passed down from older generations. I like this traceability, this lineage, being able to document the evolution of a community and a place. I like some stuff from the past like the rap from the 00s, rap videos also. The video of Mafia K'1 Fry for their track Pour Ceux is bloody amazing. Everything is there. Those guys woke up one morning and said 'let's do a video clip'. All the kids from the blocks came out and they just filmed. Voilà. That's great. Even in the way they are dressed, those guys don't force anything. Don't play anything.
Do you think we git weary of the Haussmanian, tourist, Paris and that we're look for new possibilities in the banlieues?
Paris has always fantasised about its banlieues. Now more than ever, because they have become the leaders in terms of style and aesthetics. Everybody loves the new French rap scene. People think they are listening to dealers who have feelings, but everybody has feelings, even criminals, there is nothing new about this, but people fell like they've just discovered it. Paris suffocates the people who live there, they need to be challenged and leave their comfort zones. Even though a lot of brands are investing in the banlieue-style at the moment they still treat it as if it's something exotic.
It isn't the same as it was ten years ago, when there were 20 nights of rioting in a row… Do you think things have changed in the banlieues now?
Things haven't really changed no. The previous generations grew up, had kids and have been replaced by a younger generation, but it's still the same. Nothing changes in terms of security either. There's more police control, but we don't care about that. It's pointless. One day, it will burst again. The only difference now is that there is no common cause anymore. Every time something serious happens in the banlieues, everytime a guy dies in detention in a police station, the info gets swallowed and people don't even have the time to gather around events like that before they disappear.
Afterwards the politicians try and do shit but its always self-interested. They repaint facades of buildings with some graffiti artists because they think we love street-art and that they'll win some votes like that. But those buildings just need to be rehabilitated or demolished. They also organise rap sessions for kids. They want to create this urban folklore. But we just need fucking education! They think that we will be content with fake urban culture if they pretend to be supportive of it. But at the end of the day, the type of rap music that get publicity is definitely not the one that exhorts people to improve themselves or pushes them to have a political mind. The type of rap that we hear on radio always talks about drugs and violence and feeds a hyper negative image of the banlieues.
What do you dream of doing?
A book. An annual edition. I would like to concentrate on people's looks and outfits in the banlieues. I would love people to discover my pictures in ten years and see their contemporary fashion trends or aesthetic codes in them. I would like those books to document linearity, a sort of cyclic trend and a certain avant-garde fashion coming from the suburbs.
Text Micha Barban-Dangerfield
Photography Yanis Dadoum