The Gare du Nord, in Paris, teems with hurried passengers, with farewells and reunions. It’s a train station like any other, or is it? The crowds filling the immense hall are as cosmopolitan as Paris itself. There are the regulars who take the same suburban train home every night, and those taking off for a long stay in London or Amsterdam; some travel alone, others with their partner or their families. Some rush across the station without seeing it; others marvel at its architecture. Some are irritated, others excited or impatient. Yet everyone, in the course of their journeys, has forged a special relationship with the train station, and has a singular story of departures and returns, of daily routine and surprises. And in their midst is Marvin Bonheur, photographer and reporter, winner of the audience award at the 2020 Circulation(s) Festival.
As a child, Marvin Bonheur spent a lot of time on the RER D commuter line, between Paris, where his mother worked as a nurse, near the Gare du Nord, and Seine-Saint-Denis, where he was born. It was his project on “ninety-three,” as the department is commonly known, that revealed Marvin Bonheur as one of the most promising photographers of his generation: his photos full of human kindness, melancholy, and humor broke the stereotype of a so-called “problem neighborhoods.” Based in Paris, Marvin Bonheur often passes through the train station on his way to his parents, as well as to whatever destination his photographic projects take him: London or northern France. It was therefore natural that he accepted the invitation from StatioNord and Dysturb, and focused on the place that has been such a presence in his life: “The project has allowed me to communicate ideas that speak to me and to throw a spotlight on the travelers,” explains the photographer.
Last October, the photographer spent three days crisscrossing the station with the goal of finding a representative sample of some 700,000 people who pass daily through the Gare du Nord. He inquired about their relationship to the station and about their journey: each photo is accompanied by a personal story. The result is thirty-five unvarnished portraits, ranging from poetic to whimsical, each bearing Marvin Bonheur’s unmistakable touch: his humanity and compassion that transcend urban landscapes. The spotlight is on passersby’s astonishing beauty, including the most eccentric and the most inconspicuous.
Marvin Bonheur felt it was important to have a cast of characters as inclusive as possible in terms of age, skin color, style of dress, and social background. The question of representativeness is always at the heart of his work: “It all goes back to Seine-Saint-Denis. From the start, my relationship to photography has reflected my experience as a black man and revolved around the less represented and less visible members of the population.”
With this project, the photographer seized the opportunity to send a love letter to his beloved Paris, outside the walls of the train station. Marvin Bonheur’s vibrant and cosmopolitan city has often been overshadowed by the image of Parisian chic. “In London, the United States, and Canada, I came across this stereotypical idea of a white man’s Paris. I don’t want to deconstruct everything, but Paris has evolved a great deal. Abroad, this misperception has stuck, whereas Paris draws its energy from its cosmopolitanism and the diversity of its residents.” Marvin Bonheur submits the most entrenched stereotypes about Paris and its suburbs to the scrutiny of his pluralist, vibrant photography, whose subjects elude any preconceived discourse. He uses photographs to counter a one-sided story.
Inclusive in terms of its subjects, the exhibition is also inclusive in its installation: it is free for all and set up outside the walls of galleries visited only by photography enthusiasts. Marvin Bonheur’s photos thus reach a wider audience who might not spontaneously venture into a dedicated art space. According to Pierre Terdjman, member of the Dysturb collective which has created the installation, the idea is to bring democratic, accessible visual creations to urban space, with a splash of color on top. “We seek an infusion of color, joy, and dynamism.”
By Joy Majdalani
Joy Majdalani is a Paris-based editor and Lebanese content creator. She specializes in technology, art, culture, and social issues.