The French-Cambodian photographer, William Keo, is at home in the outer districts of Paris. In his Beautiful Paradox project, he wants to reveal all the many aspects of life there. That is not always easy – in particular, considering the current, negative reporting covering the on-going riots. We spoke with him about honest imagery, the influence of his home, and the effort to get to the bottom of all the troubles.
You have called your series Beautiful Paradox. Why?
Talking about home is often difficult. It’s sometimes easy to fall into clichés when you don’t know enough about certain subjects; the French banlieue is a perfect example. For me, it’s not a place full of violence and poverty as is usually shown; there is beauty, boredom and magical moments. The title reminds me of the idea of opposition I try to fit into the one distinct project: a place full of paradoxes that I love as much as I hate; extraordinary as well as disappointing, peaceful as well as violent.
You grew up in a banlieue. How do you find being both an observer and yet somehow part of it all?
I’m always trying to challenge what we already know about the French banlieue and to document it in a way that is a social commentary, without becoming gloomy or with a sense of déjà-vu. Being so close to my subject prevents me from having an outside clinical view and being totally objective, or even honest. I constantly question the way this territory and its people are represented – I live with the people I photograph and there are consequences to the images, because these are my neighbours. I want to represent things as they are, as honestly as possible. Sometimes it’s disappointing and that’s all it is, and I’m fine with that; sometimes it’s very visual and impressive, and that’s fine too. With such a complex subject, I don’t want to fall into the trap of romanticising the place, or simplifying the situation and conveying the image of pure ghetto, or of a commercial photo shoot, which is something I often see: fantasy representations of the banlieue.
How do you manage to create a distance in the motifs that you’re photographing?
It’s hard for me to create distance because I literally work down the street from home. Even in prison I run into people I know. I photograph people I know, and I go with the police to places where I hung out when I was younger. The geographical proximity makes me feel so connected, that the only way I can get some distance is to do other projects elsewhere.
How has your home defined your work today?
I think that all homes influence the way photographers work. It’s a bit silly, but the suburbs taught me to be on the alert, to be attentive to details, because in the banlieue a public space can be a dangerous place. I walk on the streets at home in the same way that I walk when I’m abroad. I have learned from my family and from sports to be patient, disciplined and to adapt my speech to my audience. Beyond my home, I think I am the sum of all my encounters: people who have touched me, influenced me, broken my heart or made me happy.
How do you experience the current situation in the suburbs of Paris?
I’m really sorry to see all the material damage; I don’t think that sends the right message. A supermarket where my parents used to go shopping has been burnt down. I’ve covered the urban unrest for a number of nights, trying to avoid the obvious images and stories of burnt out cars. What is happening is a historic process, which means that it’s necessary to explain everything that happened before.
Where does this anger come from and what needs to change?
The origins of the anger are various. The police approach has changed since 2003. There were police who were close and integrated into the life of the districts, but they were dissolved that year by Nicolas Sarkozy, the Prime Minister and later President of the Republic in 2007. In 2005, following the death of two youths who were trying to escape from the police, riots broke out for three weeks, before gradually dying down. To prevent further outbreaks, police equipment was beefed up to include rubber bullet launchers, and there were more repressive controls in the suburbs. The dialogue between the housing districts – which feel excluded – and the police – who are sometimes targeted by young people – broke down, creating a vicious circle. There was a massive police recruitment in 2015 after the attacks of November 13, with candidates who didn’t come close to fulfilling the necessary criteria, giving rise to a less trained police force, with profiles that would never have passed previously. Police violence was made visible with the yellow waistcoat movement in 2018, burying plans for new community policing in the suburbs; and the authorisation in 2017 to shoot during police controls increased the number of deaths during such controls. Nahel is a case in point, one of the rare cases where it was filmed, and that was the trigger for all these riots. It’s of primary importance to renew the dialogue between at the state players and the inhabitants. I’ve never known a government so far removed from social realities.
What is the biggest challenge you face in the current situation?
My biggest challenge is to avoid the easy image, to look for alternative stories so as to enrich and offer more keys to understanding, rather than just burning cars and people wearing hoodies – at least, not just that, those images are too obvious and they are just the end of a chain of events.
Will you continue with the series, and are there aspects you would like to add to it?
Of course, I want to continue. There are chapters to be added, but access to certain things is complicated. You have to be patient. I don’t like to rush people to get what I want. I would like to continue exploring the question of health in the suburbs, related to drug users, and the underground economy; but also in a more conceptual way, photographing construction sites that transform the territory, even if it’s just to host the Olympic Games. I like this idea of mixing reportages, landscapes, more conceptual photos; it’s the balance I want to find. Maybe trying out other things will enhance this project. It won’t guarantee its success, but at least I will have tried.
French-Cambodian photographer William Keo was born in 1996. He began his career working for NGOs to finance his studies in Art Direction. His work focusses on wars and conflict areas such as Syria and Ukraine. In addition, he has been working on Beautiful Paradox, his long-term project about his home district, since 2019. He became a nominee for the Magnum Photos Agency in 2021. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.