Branded a no-go zone: a trip inside the 93, France’s most notorious banlieue

It is seen as a lawless breeding ground for hooliganism and drug trafficking. But a photographer called Mister Happiness is on a mission to tell the real story about the demonised area

She put her pen down, says Monsieur Bonheur, and told me to stop dreaming. The French photographer is recalling the day he told the careers advisor at his school that he wanted to study fashion design. She said, Your parents wont have the money to pay for those schools. They wont be able to pull strings. You should consider something more appropriate for a black kid from the 93, like fixing central heating systems.

There is still disbelief in Bonheurs voice as he recounts this decade-old conversation. She was reminding me of the codes, he says, advising me to play by the rules.

Marvin Bonheur, whose artistic alias translates as Mister Happiness, is from Seine-Saint-Denis, which is often referred to by its department number, 93. Situated to the northeast of Paris, it is the poorest part of mainland France, according to Insee, the countrys office of national statistics.

The banlieue, the working-class areas that encircle Paris and other French cities, are used to being demonised. On 24-hour news channels and in parts of the French press, these suburbs are seen as breeding grounds for hooliganism, drug trafficking and radical Islam. In the aftermath of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, Fox News infamously called them no-go zones. And the 93, because of its proximity to the capital, is easily the most vilified.

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There are joys to growing up here LAulnaysien Anonyme by Monsieur Bonheur. Photograph: Monsieur Bonheur

Yet these same banlieue, home to many who hail from Frances former colonies, are also celebrated for their footballers, who last year secured the countrys second World Cup win. And then theres their huge pool of pioneering hip-hop talent: R&B sensation Aya Nakamura, whose chart-topping hit Djadja was last years big girl-power anthem, is also a child of the 93.

There are joys that come with growing up here, says Bonheur, as he takes me on a trip through the area. And challenges. Bonheur has fed these conflicting emotions into a powerful, yet poignant photo trilogy Alzheimer, Therapy and the forthcoming Renaissance that aims to tell the truth about day-to-day life not just in the 93 but throughout the banlieue. In recent years, French galleries have started taking notice. Hes had two solo exhibitions in Paris with a third one slated for spring, in addition to collaborations with streetwear brands, barbershops and magazines.

It all began a few years ago, when Bonheur moved closer to the centre of Paris and found himself frequently confronted with misconceptions about the 93. One early shot LEnvie dAimer, or The Desire to Love seems to evoke the 2005 riots and the social unrest that engulfed the country following the deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traor. These two teenage boys, of Maghrebian and west African descent, were electrocuted while trying to escape police in Clichy-sous-Bois, a part of the 93.

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Former beauty queen La Miss by Monsieur Bonheur. Photograph: Monsieur Bonheur

It brings to mind rebellion, says Bonheur of the photograph, which shows the back of a young man, caught just as he sends what seems to be an explosive flying into the crisp blue sky. Yet it is actually a firecracker thrown during a moment of celebration. It was taken at a sports event, but it reminded me of the molotov cocktails people threw at police during the riots. That anger was completely misread by the media. It was a way of saying, Weve had enough, wed like to be heard, we want to be loved.

His trilogy captures the tenderness and tensions of the banlieue, offering an honest window into day-to-day life. In the serene and unguarded La Glace, two teenagers from housing projects prove powerless to the pull of an ice cream van. La Miss captures former Miss le-de-France Meggy Pyaneeandee, who was chosen to represent Greater Paris in a national beauty contest, standing self-assured in front of a convenience store. LOr Franais showcases a cluster of golden-hued tower blocks in Aubervilliers, again part of the 93, that entranced Bonheur as a boy. The Parisian banlieue have some impressive architecture, he says, which I like to think of as deposits of gold in the ground. They could be the pride of our country, if we werent so oblivious to them.

Bonheurs work, which he has labelled a crusade of souvenirs, chronicles the many faces, storefronts and spaces that have left an imprint on him many of which will soon become relics of the past, bulldozed away in a citywide effort to revamp the neighbourhoods of Greater Paris prior to the 2024 Olympics. When we walk past a high-rise tower condemned for demolition, Bonheur pauses to process the changes. Seeing this makes me nauseous, he says finally. My first girlfriend and so many of my friends lived here. There goes my childhood.

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There goes my childhood Monsieur Bonheur in Aulnay-sous-Bois, part of the 93. Photograph: Michael-Oliver Harding

Another shot, Passe-Passe, zeroes in on a passageway that the architects of a nearby housing project designed as short cuts for residents, but also to make things easier for cops in the event of chases.

William Roden is the artistic director of LImprimerie, the swanky Paris gallery where Bonheur first exhibited his work. Roden was immediately struck by the photographers sincere and sensitive approach. What took me aback were these short, personal texts that would accompany each new photograph, he says. Where we might only see a building, hed share the story behind it and what it meant for him. Bonheur is trying to correct the many untruths in how these neighbourhoods are portrayed by the media.

Bonheur called the first photo series Alzheimer after realising hed forgotten much of his childhood since moving to Paris. Like so many people from here, I had distanced myself from the past, because I was ashamed or just thought it was lame. As he talks, he occasionally pulls out his compact 35mm, which bears a Fuck Trump sticker, to capture anything that catches his eye. Thats what you hear all the time, so you end up believing it.

Bonheurs mission can be neatly summed up by two numbers: he wants to bring together the 93 and the 75, that being the department number given to Paris. He even has the two figures tattooed on his right calf.

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Tender moment La Glace by Monsieur Bonheur. Photograph: Monsieur Bonheur

On the night of Frances World Cup victory, he says, I roamed the streets of Paris with my camera, and what I saw made me both ecstatic and sad. Bonheur, whose grandparents came to France from Martinique, gets emotional as he scrolls through his photographs of overjoyed onlookers. Black, white, Arab and Asian, every shade and every social class, all happily together. That, in my opinion, is the real France. The problem is that we each stay in our little corners, with boundaries and prejudice. For a few days, the World Cup removed those barricades. Im sure that if there were more encounters of the sort, more communication, we wouldnt be where we are now.

We hop on a bus and Bonheur is pleased to discover its being driven by an old childhood friend, now a father of four. They fill each other in on the decade thats elapsed and hint at Bonheurs next big project: to have his photographic trilogy exhibited where it took root, right here in the 93. Thats the whole point to show people they can be proud of the banlieue, when they generally dont understand why. Living in Paris has made me realise that the diversity we take for granted here is seen as beautiful and special elsewhere. Its like, Look, guys: its framed, inside a gallery in Paris. Theyre talking about us in the press, saying nice things, that its beautiful. Were just as worthy as everyone else.

  • Renaissance, the final chapter of Monsieur Bonheurs photographic trilogy, can be seen on his Instagram and website

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