Society | France

“People we wouldn’t notice”

French photographer Marvin Bonheur grew up in the banlieue of Paris. Today, he works internationally as a documentary photographer and in advertising. In both fields, he is aiming to portray those who are most often overlooked
A man in a yellow T-shirt and baseball cap stands on a balcony, his gaze fixed on the wall of the tower block opposite, the number 93 written on his back

“Fierté”: French photographer Marvin Bonheur began his career in Départment 93 on the outskirts of Paris, home to a largely marginalised part of French society


Interview by Atifa Qazi

You started out with a photo series (“Trilogie du bonheur”) that portrayed the banlieue you come from. What does the Banlieue mean to you?I was born and raised in Seine Saint Denis, also known as district 93, in the Paris suburbs. My take on the Banlieue is very shaped by the 93, an area which symbolises the “hood” for French society and the media.

Young man looks into the camera, he also holds a camera in front of his eye

I grew up in different cities in this district between Bondy, Aubervilliers and Aulnay-sous-Bois.

It shaped what I am today, my art, my culture, my language and my decisions. I spent more than 22 years there, I had my first job there, my first apartment. The Banlieue is everything for me.

How did you come in touch with photography?

Photography came very naturally into my life. I was born in 1991 so when my generation was around sixteen years old it was easy access to photography: digital cameras were not too expensive. Back then I was a dancer and bought a camera just to take some photos of me and my dance group. A lot of my friends were getting cameras. It was the time of skyblog and MSN was the “social media” of that time.

It wasn’t until 2014 that I began documenting the realities of my hood, the 93. This is when the shift came to do it more as a profession.

Standing person has his hands together in front of his face, as if in a praying posture



Is photography a form of resistance for you?

My best friend in school was passionate about photography but I never dreamt of becoming a photographer. I was more drawn to art, especially drawing, and I also did dancing. Art saved my life and still helps me to express my feelings.

My work comes from a place of frustration. Whether it’s on my way to school, heading home, or just hanging out with friends on the weekends, I talked a lot about how the world sees us, how the country looks at us, how we are pushed out.

I used to feel so angry about this injustice. Back then, discrimination was even more overt than today: Opportunities were out of our reach, doors remained closed for work, art, or anything cultural.

“For now I can’t forgive society for how I felt all of my childhood. Today I feel a sense of revenge”

When you are from the hood you tend to channel frustration through either violence or arts and sports. Excelling in school within the neighborhood can be challenging you can’t compete with the educational standards of Paris. For me, art was the only option. The frustration I felt back then is the driving force behind my current work— photographing the Banlieue was rebellion for me more than just artistic passion.

When did you start to get popular?

First of all through Instagram: where I come from, we don't have the opportunity to connect with the art world. When I began posting my photography online not many people reacted to it.

Around 2016/17 there was a growing interest in hood culture from the Parisian art scene. Agencies, major fashion players, and directors began to explore the aesthetics of the banlieue. That’s when my work got noticed by I-D and vice magazine. Back then I didn’t know any publications like I-D. I was disconnected from this world. I am a black man from the hood. Everything just took off from there.

Your photography often returns to the motif of forgotten faces. Do you feel an obligation to represent the Banlieue?

I don’t know about the future but for now I can’t forgive society for how I felt all of my childhood. Today I feel a sense of revenge. Whether I’m in Detroit, Shanghai or London, my work focuses on overlooked communities, the places that don't attract tourists or mainstream attention. If people tell me to not go to this neighborhood because its ugly, dangerous or because the people are stupid there, I know it’s a place I’ll be drawn to.

With photography I feel I have the power to change what is seen as “ugly” by society. Because I come from a part of society that has been looked down on. People often tell me “you capture people that we wouldn’t notice if we spotted them on the streets, but they look super beautiful in the picture.” I want to push their narrative of beauty.

While the subject may differ, the energy that pushed me in 2014 to do my series in the Banlieue is the same energy that pushed me to go to Detroit or Shanghai. It's about telling my story as a black man from a marginalized neighbourhood, overlooked by society.  

Two young girls smile at the camera, sitting on a camping chair, one on the other's lap



You have photographed such neighborhoods in London, Lisbon, Detroit, Shanghai, Martinique – Why do these places resonate with you?

Because of the people and their humanity - how they welcome strangers. As people growing up in these urban environments, we always longed to be included in society. That pushes us to be more open to strangers.

When I went to Detroit they opened their doors for me, invited me for food, smoke drink and party with them just like my friends in London or Martinique, where my family is from.

These neighbourhoods have a strong sense of community. When you are poor, you understand if you don’t help each other out you all suffer – it’s a matter of survival. It’s easy for me to connect with people in these areas—their struggles mirror my own.

Banlieue culture has become very mainstream, celebrated internationally and sometimes appropriated for example, in the fashion world. How do you feel about this development?

It’s a big question and discussed a lot today in France. When I was living in Paris in a wealthy neighborhood in a very small and cheap apartment, I used to go to the market and see super-rich students, mainly white, from more catholic/conservative families, the stereotype of being French. And then I started hearing them using the slang from our hood or wearing that style of shoes.

They’ve taken to the codes which their parents’ generation rejected us for. It used to make me angry because I felt it’s my language or how I dress myself. They can wear Tns or Nike tracksuits und say “wesh” but they will never understand the struggle of being from the Banlieue, they will never go through police controls like we do. And that makes me uncomfortable.

“Despite using the slang from our hood or wearing tracksuits, wealthy French don’t connect with the people from the banlieue”

At the same time, I’m proud how after years of trying to be accepted we now inspire people. They don’t reject the influence of the hood on culture in general. They can’t do that because they love it: they listen to rap music, they dress in sports gear, they follow football. But, at the same time, they don’t connect with the people from the banlieue, they don’t hire them for jobs. So, in the end, the system is the same as ever. When the trend moves on, my people will still be stuck with their reality. In France we live in an illusion.

There is an athlete in a wheelchair on a basketball court, he is looking into the camera, he has a basketball in his hand and is wearing a shirt with “Paris“ written on it

When working for major advertising clients such as Adidas, Marvin Bonheur requests far-reaching creative control, for instance in the
the selection of models and locations


You have done campaigns for big brands like adidas. Where is the line for you between representing the Banlieue and being exploited by such companies?

At the beginning I was very open when brands came up to me to work with me. Now I tell them that if they want my art they have to trust me. I make sure to not only be the photographer but also creative director.

For my recent campaign for adidas I did the casting and chose the location for the shooting. For me it is important to represent all people in the campaign (short, “fat”, black,…) we shot in the 93 and it was important to have people with different backgrounds and physical appearances. I am proud to say that in a few days you will see a big billboard with a black man from 93 in the middle of Paris.

What annoys you about the current photography scene?

It’s all these codes, the unspoken set of rules that you are supposed to follow. You need to be part of this circle, you need to come from this school, if you don’t you are not considered a “real” photographer. That annoys me, especially in Paris. We are supposed to be the art and fashion capital, but we are so limited by all these codes. If I had stuck to these codes I would never have photographed in the 93.

When I do workshops with young people I push them to trust themselves and do whatever they have in their mind. Art is freedom. Photography is freedom. If you want to shoot flowers in the ghetto, go for it!

Translated by Jess Smee