Own The City: Marvin Bonheur
The Paris-based photographer explains what it means to grow up in the banlieue and how sport and street culture bind his community.
Words: Kate Matthams Spencer
Marvin Bonheur’s photography provides a rare and often joyful representation of the working-class neighborhoods that surround Paris, known as the banlieues. It wasn’t until he moved further into Paris from his childhood home in Aulnay-sous-Bois that Marvin developed his way of “seeing,” he says. Today, his work is shown by gallerists in Paris, London and beyond, all who are keen to showcase his powerful vision of life in “the 93” (a reference to his arrondissement or borough).
A self-taught photographer, Marvin regularly returns to his neighborhood to take pictures. Not only is he compelled to record his roots, he’s eager to show a softer side of the street culture that often gets misrepresented by the media. He credits his neighborhood with teaching him the most important life lessons, including values like sharing, tolerance and realness and the benefit of having a tight community.
Marvin says that he prefers to shoot film, because he doesn’t like the ultra-realism of digital imagery. The soft nature of film mirrors the way he sees his home and also helps him document the strong ties between the people who live there. Sport is a huge part of the social fabric, and his pictures communicate the solidarity and love fostered through football, in particular. Marvin’s photographs are no doubt inspiring a change in the perception of neighborhoods like his.
How did your neighborhood influence you and make you who you are today?
When I arrived in my neighborhood as a child, I was the newbie who didn’t know anyone. Even at such a young age, I knew I wanted to fit in. The first lesson I learned was the importance of understanding the culture around you, including the language and clothes.
The community is really like a big village. If there’s a wedding, the whole neighborhood will go. In the same way, if one of us is hurt, we all suffer. I choose to see our togetherness as a positive.
How did you get started in photography?
I used to enjoy looking through my parents’ photo albums. I enjoyed reliving their memories and emotions through pictures. When I left the neighborhood to live closer to Paris’ city center, I felt an emptiness, so I started taking pictures of my friends. I soon felt an urgency to document my roots. I started with compact cameras that are easy to put away quickly and are less intimidating to people. When I developed my style, I really fell for film, because it conveyed the same softness that I saw with my own eyes.
How have people from your community reacted to your photos?
I’ll share a story from an exhibition I did in Paris. Some of the guys from the neighborhood came, and as they left, they said, “You’ve left the hood, but you’re really doing something for us. These pictures are in a show in Paris, and people who don’t know the neighborhood are coming to see them, and it’s creating a real change.” I get messages like that on social media, but it was the first time someone had said it to my face. It felt like a victory. We weren’t necessarily proud of coming from “the 93” or perhaps the way it’s seen from the outside. I had created a reason to be proud of it.
Your style is real and raw, and it captures the essence of your neighborhood. How did it develop?
It came very naturally. I couldn’t do something that was staged, I had to go all out and capture what I saw. I show real life. I show things that people don’t necessarily want to see. I want to show what’s true.
What inspires you the most about your neighborhood?
I like brutalism, I also like the baroque. They are rich in information but also raw. Paris can be brutalist in places, as well as baroque. The architecture in the banlieues is minimalist, and artistically speaking, my neighborhood has a lot of charm.
What are your favorite images to capture?
I like to show what people don’t see. I like contrast. I try to explode clichés.
How have football culture and PSG influenced you?
Since I was little, football has been a sport that brings people together, whether at the local sports ground or during the big tournaments. There’s that magic of connecting people and breaking down barriers. PSG is special for kids from the 93, because a lot of the players come from this area. We’re proud to be represented.
“PSG is special for kids from the 93, because a lot of the players come from this area.”
What does Jordan Brand mean to you?
When I was growing up, MJ was one of the main references we had. He inspires me in my work as a photographer. One day, it would be an honor to have people talk about me in the way they talk about him.
The Jordan Brand x Paris Saint-Germain Apparel Collection is available starting July 2019 on Jordan.com. The Air Jordan VI is available starting August 10 on Jordan.com.