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Vincenzo Sassu
Photography Vincenzo Sassu

The youth living amongst France’s most stigmatised suburbs

Photographer Vincenzo Sassu aims to switch a French suburb’s reputation for radicalisation, drug dealing and violence into one of hope

People in their 20s working, sleeping, partying and hoping doesn’t sound too revolutionary. These are adults with the bloom of youth driving them to lark about, sleep around and make money. But living in the French banlieues (suburbs) means being painted by the media as reprobates. 

The banlieues of France and Belgium have been made infamous for fostering the terrorists responsible for the Brussels bombings, the Paris attacks and the Charlie Hebdo shooting. The titanic post-war tower blocks are commonly understood to be rotten with crime, poverty, and social alienation. Bad apples. 

Living in these brutalist fringes, where youth unemployment can reach 40 per cent, Tony and his six friends face grinding oppression. Unfortunately, it needs to be said that most are not criminals – and photographer Vincenzo Sassu aims to help repaint the image of the banlieue’s young adults with his photos of the friends. 

Sassu, previously a journalist, is a Paris-based Italian photographer whose project “Les Rêveurs” (“The Dreamers”) claimed one of the 10 Magnum’s Graduate Photographer Awards, supported by RBB Economics and hosted at Photo London last week. He befriended the seven “characters” through living in a particularly ill-famed banlieue zone known as 93, in La Courneuve town near Paris in 2014 and 2015. 

“I’m telling a story about normal people with normal lives trying to fulfil their dreams so they don't turn out invisible”, Sassu says. “They don't correspond with the common narrative of youth, who are usually depicted as violent or disadvantaged. We need to try to find another point of view to tell the stories of people that suffer from this misrepresentation.” 

“I’m telling a story about normal people with normal lives trying to fulfil their dreams so they don't turn out invisible” — Vincenzo Sassu

He continued: “When the media speak about those areas, especially La Courneuve, they always give the same kind of narrative of drug dealing, violence or radicalisation. It’s not at all the reality. Living there means difficulty finding a job and finding the mental view to get the job.” 

When Sassu arrived he first met Tony, 26, who has lived in the banlieue his whole life. Tony started rapping as a teenager to try and fit in as one of the few white people at school. He said: “Doing rap music really helped me to understand their lifestyle and to be accepted as a friend”. One of Sassu’s images of a man smoking in the car now adorns one his albums. 

Sassu has been immersed in the plight of banlieue perception for years. He published a book in 2011 called Là-Bas La Banlieue (The Suburb Over There) on the media’s representation of French suburban riots. To capture the people in a different light he turned from journalistic writing to his camera for his photography Master’s submission at Westminster University. 

The group has a patchwork of origins; the Comoros Islands, China, Senegal, Mali, Algeria, Moroco and Spain. They contribute to a single nationality quilt. Sassu muses: “In the banlieues of Paris they are more than French. New French. The idea there will be any more of ‘Jean Pierre’ of the French background? No. We are all immigrants. The only thing that changes is the day of arrival.” 

The images are well-composed, albeit unremarkable. You might not look twice at the tonally placid shots. This is the point. They show Tony’s five buddies doing ordinary things in the heart one of the most-stigmatised French banlieues. The pictures read like a professional series of Facebook pictures. Niffay has a nap at home. Virginie and Salif giggle while waiting for some fast food. Laïla prepares to go on-stage in a play. Anis lounges on a sofa during a party. No delinquency. 

They have degrees in finance, digital art, law and educational sciences. 

Sassu became part of Tony’s everyday life. He says: “I spent a lot of time with Tony. He became a really close friend. We’d go to concerts, we’d talk about our lives. He introduced me to his friends. Their lives are so diverse and so beautiful for me. I chose to be based there to work more as an anthropologist than a journalist.” Sassu is not the first to call for alternative media coverage of the banlieues but he’s certainly treading new ground in actually doing it. 

He concluded our conversation: “The idea is to start a new narrative, with just a little drop. But the droplet has to be true in the water. There are people who dream as anybody in the world and they will achieve what they want in their life. Beyond colour. This is a project about hopes and the future.”