British photographer shares the frame in multicultural French suburb

·3-min read

Photographer Rip Hopkins donned the clothing and uniforms of local people in the working class town of Corbeil-Essonnes, stepping into the frame for a series of telling portraits that encouraged them to share the cultural limelight for a change.

Hopkins is one of a dozen photographers on show at the grassroots "L'Oeil Urbain" (Urban Eye) festival, held each year in the working class, multicultural town of Corbeil-Essonnes, 30 kms south of Paris.

In his project entitled "Odyssée 2022" (Odyssey), he chose to illustrate the festival’s theme of "commitment" by meeting members of the public in their places of work and leisure to highlight a sense of community and belonging.

Hopkins spent 15 days mingling with police officers, footballers, clergy and pensioners and literally "walked a mile in their shoes" as the saying goes.

Each of the 80 images tells a story, and each person "plays" their real-life role, rather like a scene from a movie. The photos appear on larger-than-life billboards and bus shelters across the town.

Hopkins says dressing up was part of the fun, but it also played an important role in the way he approaches his subjects as a photographer.

"What happens is when I wear their clothes, I take all mine off… so they can see that I don’t pose any kind of threat," he told RFI.

"There’s a French expression "mis-à-nu" [meaning] going down to the essentials, exposing yourself, in a position of fragility. It really helps with the connection you have with the people you’re photographing and you create a link with them, you become part of their group and their community very quickly, through this whole process."

Feeling legitimate

There was another motive in Hopkins’ approach: to make the experience more inclusive, especially in a town where so many are unfamiliar with this kind of cultural experience.

"The reason why I’m in each of these photographs is that in Corbeil-Essonnes you’ve got a large population of people who are from northern Africa, Turkey, central, sub-Saharan Africa and they don’t have this culture of going to museums and they actually feel illegitimate," he explains.

"When they go in front of a museum or an arts centre they say to themselves 'oh we’re not allowed to go in there because that’s for people who have some form of visual education'."

So by playing a game with them and immersing himself in their environment, he broke down some barriers, which in turn made for interesting and rewarding exchanges.

Hopkins appears like a chameleon in each scene and as in the Where’s Wally? children’s book, passersby are encouraged to spot him. He can be difficult to recognise and in the end, everyone has a laugh.

"The common denominator was that the people all felt that they existed through the fact that they were on these photographs, on these billboards and they were all saying "j’existe maintenant", as if they didn’t consider that they really existed before," he recounts, adding many came up to thank him.

Originally from the UK, Rip Hopkins is based in Brussels and is represented by the French Agence VU’. He has published a number of books.

His works are on display as part of the 10th edition of the L'Oeil Urbain Photography Festival until 22 May 2022.

The festival draws talent from around the globe – William Klein, Anne Rearick, John Trotter and Guillaume Herbaut also feature in this year's edition..

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