I have worked as a photographer for the Magnum Photos Agency since 1990 and I sometimes direct documentaries, which are always an extension of my work as a photographer.
Photographed Reality : from emotion to memory
Before showing my film Bar centre des autocars (2008) and the exhibition catalogue Ma proche banlieue (2009), I wish to emphasize that I have been extremely touched by Denis Cerclet’s speech on memory. When I show the work that I do as a photographer, I often claim that my work is about memory, identity and immigration on the French soil in the last thirty years, but my approach is not academic, it is rather pragmatic and remains very intuitive. The developments proposed by Denis Cerclet have hold my attention because in a way, they refer to the role of photography, for example when he highlighted the fact that memory is not just a backing storage, that it is deeply connected to emotion, remaining thus in perpetual motion. This view on memory I find interesting because photography could appear as a way to exhaustively reproduce reality, like a sort of “perfect memory”, while it is as imperfect as our own memory, especially if taken as an art and therefore as a subjective practise.
Constitution of a personal memory
It can seem paradoxical, but I consider photography both like a journalistic way to collect information, by reporting impressions of the world, and even by denouncing certain situations, and as an artistic task. It was only after the publication of a book entitled Enquête d’identité, Un juif à la recherche de sa mémoire (“Inquest of Identity, A Jew in search of his memory”) (1987) whose elaboration took me seven years, that I really understood why I had become a photographer. I had no memory, or more exactly, I had a memory “issue” and through photography, I was trying to create a family album, which I never had since my family had never kept photos. Finally, thanks to photography, I was trying to reconstruct some sort of puzzle that would constitute my memory. I thought that the driving force behind my creation, if there was one, was closely connected to the search for these missing images. Through my creative process, I use the flaws of my memory and let my intuitions guide me, my attractions, some experiences that I photograph and that quite often I forget afterwards. What interests me the most though is meeting people.
My close suburbs
The book entitled Ma proche banlieue, which retraces the photographic work that I’ve done since the eighties in the French suburb, gave birth to an exhibition that took place in 2009 at the Cité National de l’Histoire et de l’Immigration. In spite of this title, I don’t really feel that I have directly focused on the suburb, I should say on the suburbs in order to highlight the plural dimension of this urban territory. For thirty years, I have rather tried to investigate immigration movements and identities and this has always led me to the suburbs, whether around Paris, or in northern or southern France. That’s why I’ve always regularly visited suburbs, to direct photographic documentaries but also other types of works.
From a photographic work on social integration to the book Ma Proche Banlieue
In 1984, for example, I was asked, along with nine other photographers, to lead a photography workshop at the occasion of a social integration training aimed at young people with great difficulties. The idea was not to train them professionally to photographic shooting, but to use photography as a means of expression in order to help them better understand themselves, better know themselves, and maybe in the end lead a better life. I decided to go to the northern district of Marseilles where I met eleven young people, almost all from families of immigrants. They were sometimes hard to handle on a daily basis, but had a real potential.
I entrusted them to photo cameras, small compacts and I asked them to work on one of my favourite themes : the question of identity. I wanted to encourage them to think about their own identity. The project lasted six months and it was a fascinating experience. In parallel to that, I did a photographic investigation on these eleven teenagers ; I followed them in their daily life, in their district and within their family.
At the end of the training, since I wanted something from this project to remain, we worked on a booklet about the training, which was given to each participant. This approach mattered to me because these teenagers were a little bit “surrounded” by failure and I considered it important for them to have achieved something, from beginning to end, something they could keep as a souvenir. When we parted, I kept contact with some of them, but we lost contact throughout the years.
20 years on : Bar centre des autocars
In between, two decades passed by, during which the media mentioned the suburbs regularly, but always in the same way, and especially when cars were burning there. Young people and the suburbs were often portrayed in a globalising way, and I was very irritated to continuously hear about these teenagers in the suburbs as if they were all alike, similar from one generation to the next, and especially as though they would never get old.
Likewise, I have noticed that while the media “talked” about teenagers and the generations that reached France in the 50s and 60s, in the end, they never mentioned the generation in-between, those who are 40 today and are part of the first generation of children of immigrants. This made me want, twenty years on, to find these persons with whom I had worked in 1984 when they were still young.
I had kept pictures from this time, mine and those that the eleven teenagers had been able to make during the training, I also had some of their comments. With the help of a sociologist who had accompanied my approach, we had gathered their dreams ; their teenage angst and had even encouraged some of them to write. So, I had in my possession wonderful documents and I thought that if I could get in touch with some of them, I could manage to show how these “former young people” had grown up, gotten old and what they had become. These wishes led to the production of Bar centre des autocars.
Intervention of Patrick Zachmann - Transcription by Jean-Marc Génuite
Roundtable "Construction of memory and new looks at the world : what identities are being built with cultural actions ?"
National Forum Passeurs d’images 2009 (17, 18, 19 December, Paris)
Read Denis Cerclet’s intervention : "Memory and identity, the role of artistic actions"
Section devoted to the exhibition "Ma proche banlieue" at the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration
[Magnum Agency : www.magnumphotos.com
Les Films d’ici (production of Bar centre des autocars ) : www.lesfilmsdici.fr