By Youssef Boudlal
Photographing the daily life of Muslims in Paris is a challenge. I discovered this by throwing myself into the project, which rapidly became a story of failed encounters, rejection and disappointment. Among the people I met, the fear of prejudice towards the Muslim world was intense, as was the worry that cliches about the community could be fueled or spread by images.
I met a good number of people as part of my investigation. The first few were in the suburbs of Paris, home to a large Muslim community. In Vitry-sur-Seine, I met four twenty-somethings of North African origin sitting outside a church. I explained my project to them and their suspicions were quickly aroused. I was asked about my job, the reasons for my project and why I was interested in them. They worried about how my images would be used. One of them took me for a spy.
Another encounter, this time at Mantes-la-Jolie, among Paris’s western suburbs. Here, a young woman in a headscarf was buying fruit and vegetables at the Val Fourre market and I decided to approach her. I explained my project in detail, and asked if she wanted to take part. She displayed no enthusiasm but no scepticism either, to the point where she asked permission from her father, a butcher she was helping for the season. I was already picturing images of this contrast. But he refused, without explanation. My arguments couldn’t sway him.
A contact put me in touch with a Salafist – a follower of a strict kind of Sunni Islam – who prayed with others in a garage at Mantes-la-Jolie. The originality of the place cried out to me. I met him, we talked through a week of long negotiations and he said the project was possible. But that was before the end of June, when the arrest of six suspected Islamists in the Ile-de-France region made the meeting difficult. In the end, I wasn’t allowed to photograph either the people or the place.
Another contact put me in touch with Chehrazad, 36, a Muslim woman of Moroccan origin, who is employed at a public notary’s office and normally wears a headscarf, but is now forced to remove it due to a law banning headscarves in the civil service. Her French husband agreed that I could follow her life for a day. I went with her to the market, to her work and home. For her, covering her head was a case of individual choice: “Wearing the veil is a personal desire to protect my modesty,” she told me.