Text by Nikola Lorenzin
All Images © Mohamed Bourouissa courtesy Loose Joints
Mohamed Bourouissa was born in Algeria in 1978 but has been living in France since he was five years old, growing up in the suburbs of Paris. Périphérique (2005-2008) is one of his first and most exhibited works, now published as a book by Loose Joints. His practice describes contemporary society implicitly, by its contours. With a critical take on the mass media image, the subjects of his photographs and videos are people left behind at the crossroads of integration and exclusion.
“Since the end of the Second World War, the legitimate desire of colonised peoples to regain their sovereignty emerged in almost every part of the world. Meanwhile, governmental policies encouraged migration to France in order to attract the workforce necessary for the reconstruction of the country following the conflict. In this historical context, the French Republic’s model of integration proved largely to be a failure. Since the 1980s, this tension is reflected by an increasingly fraught conflict between the city and the banlieues (suburbs).“, writes Clément Cheroux in one of the two essays contained in the book.
It is this failure, repeated over time, that lead to the riots of 2005, following the death of teenagers Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, electrocuted at a power station while being chased by the police. Back then, Bourouissa was in Algeria, from where he followed the news on television, observing from the outside the artifice of its storytelling. It is at that moment that the idea for Périphérique was born.
Produced over a period of three years, between 2005 and 2008, Périphérique’s intention is that of subverting press and media depictions of the banlieues. The title is a reference to the Paris ring road, which separates the suburbs from the centre. “Mohamed Bourouissa was a combination of both onlooker and participant: as a photographer, he constructed images; as a child of a cité, he apprehended the images that stick to these neighbourhoods.”, writes art historian Taous R. Dahmani, in the first essay we encounter in the book. Built through a collective participative approach with his friends and the people he met in different suburbs of Paris, Bourouissa’s images are recompositions of mass media consciously structured clichés. A representation that becomes reality when massively reiterated, locking it within a meaning crafted in the intentions of the making of the image. Bourouissa chooses the same subjects and scenes exploited by the press and media, with a double aim.
One is that of deconstructing this type of imagery, by showing the artifice on which it is built. What may look like a spontaneous situation, is in fact carefully and patiently prepared and staged, from lightning to composition. As he explains in the interview with Alexandrine Dhainaut, scenes are based on detailed sketches prepared before the shoot, where, however, a whole free space is left to the improvisation of the actors: an open-ended screenplay where everyone involved participates in the creation of the final image. What strikes about these images, is their ability to move on the thinnest of the lines between documentary and fiction: we are confronted with scenes that look extremely natural and familiar, and as a consequence, we are shaken and moved to reflection when we discover their fictitious nature.
On the other hand, the decision of sticking to the scenes stigmatized by mass media, lies in Bourouissa’s will of reflecting the global tension, son of post-colonial dynamics, within local situations: like a cascade, falling from the macro onto the micro. On top of this, the process of re-enactment feels like a collective catharsis that Bourouissa, his friends and collaborators go through.
Another core element of the work is that of taking as the French model of integration as a reference, with all its controversies and schemes of functioning, in order to create an imagery openly inspired by the great painters of European tradition, with the intention of integrating “the recent history of banlieues …into the Western history of art”. The most striking example is “La république”, inspired by Liberty Leading the People by Eugéne Delacroix, commemorating the second French Revolution of 1830. Bourouissa’s image is taken at night and presents us with a collective moment of tension (A riot? A protest?) where the French flag is kept folded and hung from a low roof. Bodies, and their gestures, are precisely composed and theatrically distributed in space, while the lighting, which comes from a car in the background, enhances the drama of the scene and its reference to art history.
Thirteen years after its completion, in October 2021 Périphérique has been finally published by Loose Joints, an independent publishing house based between Marseille and London. “Heeding time.”, writes Dahmani in her essay. Thirteen years later, Périphérique proved to be still extremely actual and urgent.
The book is crafted in a big 22×33 vertical format and features a simple and minimalistic soft cover: the monochrome back and front covers serve as a background for the title, which engages with its own meaning by almost reaching the top border of the layout. The open spine holds 172 pages together, which are divided into two sections, each printed on a different paper. The opening and closing of the book represent a collection of 60 unpublished images. These are research and preparatory shots that Bourouissa took while scouting locations and testing scenes and subjects, glimpses of the staged imagery that was about to create. The actual body of work of Périphérique is contained in the central section, opened and closed by the two essays by Dahmani and Cheroux. The images are printed on thicker paper, 150g compared to the 70g of the research one, and the smart use of gatefolds strengthens their purpose. Like in “Le rencontre, 2005”, where the gaze of a man walking in the streets reveals a moment of confrontation between two groups of men.
Périphérique is the winner PhotoBook of the Year in the Paris Photo/Aperture PhotoBook Awards 2022.
172 Pages / 22×33 cm
Open spine softcover with gatefolds and multiple paper stocks
Design by Thomas Coombes
Text by Taous R. Dahmani and Clément Chéroux
Published by Loose Joints
Released in October 2021