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October 22, 2006

Your Turn: The Tension Of Clichy-sous-Bois


(click image for full size)

Yesterday, the NYT featured this image with an article on the upcoming one year anniversary of suburban rioting in France.  The picture, in fact, led the on-line edition.

The gist of the article was that, nearly a year after the controversial death of two immigrant boys in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, the French have done little to aid those warehoused in the slums, and that tensions (in part, spawned by the anniversary) are again on the rise.  (If you remember, last year’s rioting was touched off by the allegation that the boys, who were accidentally electrocuted, had been running from the police.)

The image is intended to highlight government inattention.  It derives from an exhibition in Clichy-sous-Bois to raise awareness, and put a face on those who have been exiled by race and religion.  According to the article, last week’s opening drew the participation and attendance of leading photographers from around the world.  Despite the “buzz,” however, not one French official (beyond the local mayor) showed up.

As exhibition images, especially in Clichy-sous-Bois itself, these pictures seem extremely powerful.  They shout out desperation, anguish, and an urgency to be recognized.  At the same time, they viscerally convey how much these young men perceive themselves (and sense themselves, through the gaze of society) as animals, deviants, monsters, freaks.

Here’s where I have the question, though.

This image led the NYT on-line edition.  (Granted, the paper also provided this objective caption: “A photo exhibit of young people tries to counter stereotypes in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where riots broke out a year ago.”)  Given the power of the image, however, and the fact a much smaller percentage of viewers would have clicked through to the article, to what extent does the picture lend appreciation of the problem, as opposed to dramatizing it, it or even exploiting these faces to sell news product?

Perhaps part of my discomfort has to to with the “anniversary angle.”  Of course, the anniversary ritual is one of the most fundamental vehicles around which we construct meaning.  It is also a staple in the creation of news.  In the context of the story, however, how much is the image sacrificed in its social significance for a media “flash from the past,” not to mention its teaser value in the dramatization of rising tension and even the anticipation of more spilt blood?

And then, I was also wondering how much the foreground figure is complicit in the concern.

Portrayed as moving past in a blur, perhaps we, too, are prompted to gawk for a second, then do the same?

(If you click through to the article, I’m also interested in your opinion of the visual clash — and dialogue — with the other image, featuring those protest signs worn by members of the police union.)

(image 1: Christophe Ena/Associated Press.  Clichy-sous-Bois. Published October 21, 2006.  linked image: Dominique Faget/Agence France-Press. Paris. Published October 21, 2006.

  • mugatea

    I see hip hop style. This could be a predictable album cover for a French rap trio. MC Solar!
    Exposed teeth like that show nervousness and discomfort in the animal world. A not so subtle warning of ‘give me space.’ The column of photos to the left look a little happier, and make it obvious that the photographer was asking for these dramatic facials.
    The linked photo you sent me to is powerful too. It’s very disturbing when any human places a target upon themselves.
    So, the youths look like they were posed for a photo and the police look like they were posing/protesting for a photo. That’s some good old French propaganda. Or is it American? These two photos were presented to us in the NYT, after all.

  • jonst

    “That’s some good old French propaganda”
    Yeah, sure. After all, why would the police be angry enough to protest simply because they were lured into an ambush…and had, literally, their teeth kick out by a mob of approx 50 people armed with steel clubs. Nah, you would not be moved to protest on your own for that if you were a cop. It was HAVE to be organized propagit.

  • margaret

    My first reaction, without reading the article, or seeing the other pictures is a denigration of the men from the suburbs. They may have been “clowning” and making faces to express rage, but the image doesn’t seem meant to elicit sympathy or a desire for change. The riot left the impression to me that it was done for the benefit of the media. It’s all media. (Except for real grievances, which still are not addressed.) And, meanwhile, the “cause” of the people who are not assimilated, and who, in many cases, don’t want to be, is not advanced to benefit anybody. These images only reinforce the attitudes already there on both sides: mutual disrespect.

  • ummabdulla

    From the article: “Visitors were met at the entrance with long white panels bearing photos of the two teenage victims, Bouna Traoré, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17.”
    It’s not clear – are these photos of these two?
    Reading the article, what struck me was that although many of the residents of this area are nominally Muslims, they seem to have no ties to Islam.
    Just this evening, at sunset, the month of Ramadan came to an end (it might be a day later in some places), and now we’re beginning the three days of celebrations called the Eid. This whole month, we’ve been surrounded by the idea of Ramadan, and now the young people are happy and excited. I’m astounded that there was no mention of Ramadan or Eid, as if no one was even aware of it.

  • Doctor Jay

    Those faces mostly inspire bemusement in me. They seem very familiar–young men making faces at the camera, though the cameraman is more professional than usual since the framing and focus is perfect, very professional. And there’s a wide-angle lens in the mix. By tilting his camera 45 degrees, the cameraman becomes part of the image.
    Which creates another level of meaning, that of big money pandering to youth and all their disposable cash. That’s how poster mugatea gets to hiphop, I guess.
    The blur in the foreground could be me, ignoring the billboard, because media pandering to youth is irrelevant to me.
    Sooo, placing this image in the context of an article about the riots. I guess that’s showing how some feel the riots were “riots” which were stage-managed and done for offstage interests, and that this accounts for their complacency?

  • Stan

    This paragraph pretty much sid it all…
    “Clichy-sous-Bois is worse off than many other suburbs. It has no local police station, no movie theater, no swimming pool, no unemployment office, no child welfare agency, no subway or interurban train into the city.”
    Not to mention the fact that no French “officials” showed up for the gala, commemorative event.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    the “other image” is much more interesting, imho.
    East Side Love is Living On The West End
    These distorted images of “immigrant hooligans” were not plastered all over The City, fwiw. ie., they are not well-known but if they were seen in le Metro or something they would not supplant, rather they would reinforce ugly stereotypes that many Europeans have of “The Turks,” their catchall epithet for the perceived un-assimilated as well as all other “guest worker program” peoples ~ that dis-enfranchised by definition, indentured worker class of Untermensch which many of you, Americans are now seeking to create.
    That there is no symbol/insignia to indicate “France” or any other place, only their brown skins and Western conceit “ethnic” features identify these young men: So they are depicting universalized insurgents, thus; bringing to my mind something akin to Laing’s The Other from his work, The Self And Others.
    Much more powerful would have been to give these youths cameras, and have them create images of their world, and that western world which they feel themselves to be excluded…
    …that these images are presented as “in support of” assimilating these youths is bizarre (!) Few people would see these images as, say “reflections of the ugliness of their own bigotry.”
    Rather, imagine that today is an uneasy anniversary of a violent spasm last year where thousands of “Mexican looking” male youths swarmed out of their urban fringe and descended upon your inner suburbs, penetrating almost to your City center, busting into all the chain-store retail shops along the way, to the acrid stench of burning tires and (power out) flickering midnight firelight of hundreds of parked cars, torched; quite literally burning their way in a Plan de Paris straight line towards your neighborhood.
    uh-huh :-/

  • PTate in MN

    The person walking by without seeing that could be any one of us.
    I believe that Americans will fail to “see” because these images automatically and unconsciously activate our own schemas of racial discrimination. We will look at the French situation and see only ourselves. I wonder what anyone imagined could happen in one year. In the US we have been working on this problem for 40 years with so-so progress to show for it.
    Like mugatea, I also see American hip-hop culture. French Rappers? The hats worn askew? The fuzzy parka? The distorted faces and camera angles? American media/record companies make huge profits promoting hip-hop, but hip-hop doesn’t help American youth integrate into American society any better than it helps French youth integrate into French society. Hip-hop is by definition alien to the dominant culture: It celebrates victimization, alienation and behaviors that are dead-end and dysfunctional.
    In contrast, the protesting policemen advertise their vulnerability on placards: They are telling us that they feel like targets. In addition, they are directionless, looking this way and that. I am reminded of the research on implicit racism. In the classic study, participants observe four stimuli–a white man with a gun, a black man with a gun, a white man with a cell phone, a black man with a cell phone. The researchers measure how long it takes participants to identify whether the man is holding a gun or a cell phone. They find that both whites and blacks are quicker to perceive black men as holding a gun. So the police placards, which communicate vulnerability, may also serve to heighten their anxiety about black violence. These targets are black. They have guns in their hands. And they don’t know what to do to restore order.
    I look at these two pictures, and I worry for France. Both sides are feeling aggrieved. On one side, some are reacting to exclusion by behaving in ways that makes it harder for the dominant culture to accept them. They rationalize violence and aggression because they regard themselves as victims. In the other side, I see fear and a desire to protect themselves coupled with confusion over what direction to take. This strikes me as an inflammatory combination. Given the perception of threat, those with power may rationalize violence and aggression as necessary to restore order.

  • readytoblowagasket

    The photographs of the kids are *unsympathetic.* They reveal the photographer’s utter failure to connect with his subjects, to understand them. (The face on the left reminded me instantly of the poster for the movie A Clockwork Orange, a scary reference.) Instead of revealing anything about these kids’ *lives* that we might identify with or sympathize with, we are given just an *external* reproduction of emotion (which I can’t even label as “desperation,” “anguish,” or “an urgency to be recognized”) — posed, exaggerated, and distorted — blown up *larger than life.* Other than technically beautiful, this is not art, it’s a fashion shoot or a music video. It’s surface. In the reproduction of emotion, in the oversized, overly dramatic scale, the photos reveal more about the photographer’s *fear* of these kids than anything about the kids (other than they need the attention of a dentist). If the images make us uneasy or uncomfortable, they are meant to. Because the photographer is uncomfortable.
    The scale should have been human scale, full-body photographs of the kids in situ. So we can see just how scary these kids really are.
    Talk about irony: The photo of the fastidiously groomed middle-aged policemen wearing the targets that *they* practice on is Inspector Clouseau ridiculous! Are they SERIOUS?!!!

  • jtfromBC

    To release tension try;
    1) Google
    2) Clichy-sous-Bois Photo Exhibit
    3) Images
    4) click on..’a generation, from Clichy-sous-Bois’
    5) a slide show of 68 pics with some Untermenschen art.
    6) translation is available by highlighting on most individual drawings by avoiding the slide show presentation.
    Bon voyage !

  • MonsieurGonzo

    regardez l’autre image : Voila!
    le BUDDY JESUS :)

  • Chris

    I first saw these images in a video called 28 Millimetres as posted on the Urban Street Art blog you pointed us to some time ago, Wooster Collective. Scroll to the October 19th entry.
    Here’s a link to the same YouTube vid:

  • Bob

    Some pictures are worth a thousand words, and some pictures take a thousand words or more to explain. My reaction was that the story would be another dull and boring Times attempt at news, and I would rather spend my time elsewhere.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Holy crap, Gonz, you’re right! I hadn’t paid attention to the targets’ “hand gestures.” Hysterical!! : D

  • jonst

    “Hip-hop is by definition alien to the dominant culture”….
    ROTFLMAO……its as corporate (the dominant dynamic–”culture” is to postive a spin–as the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was in 50s.
    They’ve got these fools doing what they want them to do.

  • readytoblowagasket

    jonst, do you EVER PAY ATTENTION to what people say, or do you just sit there waiting for the chance to espouse your murky racist views? Seems you never miss a chance to MISS THE POINT so that you can make a snarky attack on blacks. You’re a prince.

  • KingElvis

    I’m left of Lenin in most regards, but I can’t for the life of me gin up anything like pity for these monsters. It seems to me quite ‘French’ for the media to try and somehow understand the hooligan’s ‘alienation.’ You know what? I’m alienated from kristchun kulture in the US, and I don’t set cars on fire. They don’t want to fit in, they don’t want to have a nice apartment – they want to set fires.
    Many of the rioters actually cited boredom as a causus beli. Boredom.
    The French should bring back the Legionaires if only to get ‘tough guys’ like this off of the streets.

  • jt from BC

    KingElvis, whats left of Lenin, Rasputin ? before your young life descends into madness get an informational grip:
    “One professor was not surprised to see Paris suburbs aflame.” Chris Arnot Tuesday November 22, 2005 The Guardian
    “In his book Paris, co-written with Daniel Noin, of the Sorbonne, is a photograph taken in Clichy eight years ago. The Clichy development was built in the 1970s of poor materials at a very high density. “When I heard recently that violence had erupted in that part of Paris,” says White, “I correctly guessed that it was on that particular estate.”
    “He was not surprised that the rioting spread to the outer rims of other French cities. “The governmental response was not tremendously helpful,” he says. “I can understand the republican tradition that says you are a French citizen first and foremost, irrespective of your ethnicity. However, it serves France poorly when these young people are not allowed to be French because of discrimination. They have the passport but no substantive citizenship.”,,16474
    Despair turns to Fury, but it’s not too late to end France’s war with itself. People in the explosive estates around Paris know what they want: respect, recognition and representation. Timothy Garton Ash Thursday June 8, 2006 The Guardian,,1792592,00.html
    And by the way these problems have *little or nothing* to do with what you call kristchun kulture !

  • readytoblowagasket

    “Many of the rioters actually cited boredom as a causus beli. Boredom.”
    Oh my GOD, I think I’m going to *PLOTZ.*
    *Boredom* is kind of a permanent state of existence for teenagers, so what the hell else WOULD they say? No, really. What should teenage rioters say to us grownups that would suffice?
    *Boredom* is NOT a “casus belli.”
    “They don’t want to fit in, they don’t want to have a nice apartment – they want to set fires.”
    Maybe you’re left of Lenin on other days. Today this comment is more Little Green Footballs.
    Why would I say such a thing? Because you’re conveniently ignoring what causes almost all race riots, and that’s when THE POLICE *kill* or are *involved in the deaths* (OR Rodney King-style beatings, Abner Luima-style sodomizings, ET CETERA) of immigrants/minorities.
    The police-related deaths of a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old triggered the French riots too.
    People will put up with A LOT of SHIT, but they draw the line at BEING KILLED. Is that *so hard* to understand? If it is, it’s time for a United States history refresher course.
    Mass racial violence in the United States:
    List of incidents of civil unrest in the United States:
    Amadou Diallo (remember him?):
    Rodney King riots (remember that?):
    Tompkins Square Park *Police Riot*:
    So don’t feel pity, but please *attempt to* acquire some facts before indulging in biased conclusions.

  • KingElvis

    Gasket: In this case, the two youths were electrocuted by hiding in a transformer. Then the police were attacked for “killing” them. I’m not saying that police never incite riots, I’m saying I don’t have any sympathy for these people. I’ve lived in “marginal” areas in Chicago IL where gangsters would stare everyone down and wreak havoc; gunshots, smashed car windows. They create their own problems – they’re willfully violent – their proud of their violent ‘gantsta’ personas. Yet right after they attack police, they want to be pitied as poor, poor, victims. I don’t buy it.

  • momly

    Without reading a word, I thought the pictures were of a hip-hop group, as well. The expressions, the fashions, teh attitude – as someone up above said – is all surface. There is no invitation to come closer and understand in these “portraits”. If anything, they say get any closer and I’ll bite you. But who suggests the pose – the photographer or the subject? We’ll never know….it becomes a Rorschach inkblot to us.
    The picture with the targets is no less surface in that it hopes to ellicit sympathy and/or indignation. It’s as much a manipulation as the other one.

  • jt from BC

    KingElvis, about two percent of ghetto youth whose profile corresponds to your knowledge base and value system end up dead or in jail.
    Having worked in one of the toughest ghettos in Canada whats amazing is how so many survive racism, poverty, violence, social neglect and especially, twits like you.

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