” The city. A photographic anthropology”, by Camilo Leon-Quijano: objective Sarcelles

Neighborhood party at the Grand Ensemble.  Photo taken from “La Cité”.

” The city. A Photographic Anthropology”, by Camilo Leon-Quijano, Editions de l’EHESS, 288 p., €22.80.

We suspect that a dormitory city is not just about its misery, its delinquency and its idle young people. But the most stigmatizing clichés are also the most tenacious. And the inhabitants? What image do they want to give of themselves and their city? To answer it, Camilo Leon-Quijano immersed himself in the Grand Ensemble, the southern district of Sarcelles (Val-d’Oise). From 2015 to 2018, armed with his digital camera, he conducted a survey of people “not very visible in work on the suburbs: sportswomen, members of the middle class or groups of citizens, an elderly person and children”.

From this work he drew a sociology thesis, but above all The city, a truly beautiful picture book punctuated by short ethnographic texts. It must be said that the author is first and foremost a photographer with an undeniable eye, winner of around ten prizes, in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan and the United States. This international recognition is all the more remarkable in that it concerns a difficult subject: a poor suburb in the Paris region.

Indeed, Sarcelles, a town located about fifteen kilometers north of the capital, is not strictly speaking a photogenic place. “Laboratory of living together, this city (symbolizes) both the hope and the disappointments of urban dreams” of the post-war period, writes the sociologist. The small rural town of 8,000 souls in the 1950s has become a “old new town” of 57,000 inhabitants, marked by the “regular and gradual disinvestment by public authorities”with its degraded shopping center, its absence of places of sociability and its cultural desert.

One imagines that, in such a context, where illegal practices quickly make one suspicious and nervous, does not machine-gun there with his objective who wants. But Camilo Leon-Quijano has a considerable asset: his Colombian nationality. Because he is foreign, he is ” considered as (…) able to understand this social space without a priori, to reverse the hegemonic discourse on the suburbs” and, therefore, as being able to grasp the attachment of the population to this city.

“The city as a place of images”

His method, ethnophotography, also has a lot to do with it. It consists of confronting people with their own imagery, inviting them to take photos, comment on them and reveal their universe. It’s not about “describe, document or illustrate in an exhaustive way the social life of Sarcelles (…) but (of) see the city as a place of images”. Camilo Leon-Quijano began by volunteering to lead a photographic workshop with a women’s association, which opened the doors of the neighborhood to him. Then he extended the principle with the children of a primary school, who took him on exploratory strolls. There the entrance to an HLM, a corner of the park, here the sports field, further on the tram station, so many images taken. Gradually, he lets himself be guided, adopted and presented. His photographic account follows his encounters: the young women’s rugby team, the Made in Sarcelles collective or the Bentz family, with whom he lived a few days a week for more than a year.

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