Back in November 2005, when nightly riots on the outskirts of French cities catapulted the word banlieue into the international media vocabulary (generally preceded by adjectives like grim, ghettoized or impoverished), Patrick Zachmann was in Shanghai. He had already started working on his exhibition, ‘Ma proche banlieue’ (My near, dear banlieue). Four years later, far from reacting to ‘current’ events, the images offer a multi-faceted reflection on the French banlieues as seen through some 30 years of his photographs and films.
Zachmann’s ‘decisive moments’ have tended to spread themselves out: seven years for his early project on Jewish identity, six for the Chinese diaspora, three for Malian families between France and Africa, three more for Chile’s ‘buried memory’, plus multiple sequels. But the banlieues have always occupied a particular place in his work as a setting where his preferred themes – immigration, identity, memory and forgetting – take concrete, human form, as suggested by his punning title, ‘Ma proche banlieue’, evoking at once the ‘inner suburbs’ and his lifelong connection with them, beginning with the Paris suburbs where he was born in 1955.
Eleven different photographic series were structured into a strikingly cinematic installation where the flow of exteriors, interiors and close-ups subtly drew visitors into the physical and mental spaces of Zachmann’s banlieues, so different from the media stereotypes pointedly recalled at the entrance by a group of garish, grainy screenshots of the 2005 Paris riots from CCTV news in Shanghai. A sequence of panoramic views of aptly named ‘Paysages de la banalité’ (Landscapes of the commonplace, 1997–8) lined an entire wall, wryly enlivened with tiny video montages of Zachmann’s Polaroid portraits and taped interviews of local passers-by. The following sequence moved in closer, with medium shots of traditional ‘Jardins ouvriers’ (Garden allotments, 1994–5) and their working-class gardeners, followed by the intimate ‘Portraits de famille’ (Family portraits, 1989), which revealed a de facto melting pot of council flat residents attempting to assert their individual identities within the architectural anonymity of their housing blocks. A third sequence zoomed in on issues of immigration and identity by panning back and forth between Malian families living in the Parisian banlieue of Evry and their relatives in Mali (‘Maliens ici et là-bas’, Malians here and over there, 1993–4), which matched up stately colour portraits (here) with more impressionistic black and white snapshots (over there).
In the emotionally charged final sequence, another set of diptychs took viewers back and forth in time through the juxtaposition of Zachmann’s black and white photos of the teenagers he came to know in a 1984 workshop for ‘disadvantaged youth’ from the districts of North Marseilles and the colour portraits he made two decades later when he returned to find out what had become of them. Flashing back to the workshop itself, he also created a veritable wall album of the then-teenagers’ own photos and writings on the theme of identity. And in a second, Rosebud-like flashback, these faces faded into similar faces from other banlieues: Zachmann’s own family of Jewish immigrants, from Algeria on his mother’s side and from Poland on his father’s side – or what remained of it after Auschwitz – as he photographed them in his first, long ‘Enquête d’identité’ (Identity investigation, 1977–86).
But just as the 20 years that elapsed between the two wings of the Marseille diptychs remained unseen, Zachmann’s family history had remained unstated. To fill in the blanks, he sat his father in front of a movie camera for what became his first film, La mémoire de mon père (My father’s memory, 1999). In Marseille, a photo ‘update’ on his workshop experience metamorphosed into Bar centre des autocars (Coach Terminal Bar, 2007), another kind of ‘home movie’ in which Zachmann’s encounter with his former students and their families allows him not only to fill in the time gaps but to explore the hows and whys of their difficult – and sometimes tragic – itineraries. Both documentaries were integrated in the installation, behind the opening screenshots from Chinese television, as a way of encouraging visitors to take a different look at Zachmann’s 30-year slice of individual and collective history. It also served to foreground his own creative itinerary, from a budding (self-taught) photojournalist in the classic tradition to a virtuoso ‘storyteller’, as he calls himself, constantly reinventing his technical means to render his subjects in all their complexity and contradictions.