In the neighborhood of photographer Clarisse Hahn, in the north of the capital, money goes back and forth as fast as a glance and cigarette vendors rule the space under the elevated metro tracks. “For a long time, I tried to move past that area, to go shoot elsewhere,” she says. That elsewhere took her to Mexico for the “Boyzone” project that she’s been working on since 1998. “Princes of the Street” is a new chapter in that project and will be exhibited at the Rencontres d’Arles 2021 photography show. “Boyzone” is a photo / video series that explores the male body, sometimes shot alone, often in group settings.
Over the course of three years, Hahn photographed men from North African countries, individuals with different backgrounds. “Some of them were born there, others were not. There was often a dual identity.” It took her a long time to immerse herself in that environment, even though the integration came naturally. “As someone who also lives in that neighborhood, I ran into these men every day. With or without my camera. The challenge is to photograph a bunch of men, to insert myself into a very masculine environment, a place where I have no business being.” The street is traditionally a male domain. “A woman usually has a reason for being there, while a man can just hang out there and do nothing, that’s his turf.”
She photographs some of her subjects over a long period of time and manages to gain more intimate access to them. Sometimes she shoots them in their home, other times in hers. In that context, the men often relax and show another face. “To survive in the streets, you have to be a prince: stand up straight, strike first, always be on the lookout. On the street, the balance of power is brutal, but when you take these men out of that space, you discover different attitudes.” The photographer works intuitively, looking to do portraits where she finds individual personalities and trying to go beyond the clichés, while also taking the person out of the group. “Often in these groups of men their individual personality disappears, even though sometimes it does emerge.”
Among the 32 photographs presented at the Mécanique Générale, some archival images are also on display: “Images of WWI, of soldiers from the colonial troops being praised.” Despite the hundred years that separate her own photographs from these archival images, Hahn sees similar attitudes in the gaze of the subjects and in the way they stand together. “I wanted to include a historical perspective in my series, to create a mirror effect.”
This project had a transformative effect on the photographer. “As always, I learn a lot about myself and this is also what motivates me to photograph: to seek to understand others and, through them, to understand myself better.” The photographer set out to explore a space where she wasn’t necessarily welcome and managed to tame it. Thanks to her camera, the street became hers again.
By Sabyl Ghoussoub
Born in Paris in 1988 into a Lebanese family, Sabyl Ghoussoub is a writer, columnist and curator. His second novel, Beyrouth entre parenthèses [Beirut in Parentheses] was released by Antilope editions in August 2020.
“Les Princes de la rue” by Clarisse Hahn, Rencontres d’Arles 2021, at La Mécanique Générale until September 26, 2021. More information here.