Photographers' Blog

On the French poverty precipice

November 15, 2012

Juan Les Pins, France

By Eric Gaillard

Several days prior to the winter truce for evictions in France for people who are behind on their rent, I asked myself how I could illustrate and make contacts with people who could help. The local associations I spoke with seeking help to make contact with those in precarious living situations were not helpful as they saw this as voyeurism, that these individuals were ashamed and would not permit a photographer to follow them.

Thinking that the story idea had hit a dead end, a local elected official from Antibes, 30 kms (18 miles) from Nice, informed me that he took care of people in precarious situations. At their local offices I studied their listing to learn that a man was living in an underground carpark in nearby Juan Les Pins. The official and I contacted Paul to explain the reason of my reportage. He accepted my invitation to meet.

Paul and I met along the beachfront of this chic summer holiday tourist city on the French Riviera where he explained his story. In 2005 he suffered an injury, followed by an operation, which resulted in disability, forcing him out of work. Then his wife, who continued to work to support the couple, died. Without resources to pay his rent, he was evicted.

Paul was currently sleeping in a carkpark, where he had been living for the last four months, in one of the twenty locked parking boxes that a resident generously allowed him to squat. He agreed to let me follow him the following Saturday when he had the electronic beeper to access the carpark that a resident loaned him on weekends. He did not want to be recognized, so making portraits was out of the question. We met along the beachfront before heading to his rough sleeping quarters.

As I followed him, Paul was visibly nervous. He explained that we had to be discreet, not make noise or been seen by residents of the building as there was a risk of him being thrown out. We entered the carpark, and Paul opened the space where he lived. He entered, lit a candle, and then quickly stretched out on the concrete floor due to his handicap. I took several photos, but he quickly became nervous from the camera’s shutter which added to noise from the garage. Often I had to go inside the car box, caught between the parked automobile and the garage door to hide from passing residents.

Not satisfied with the photos from this first encounter, I again contacted Paul and learned that through the generosity of people who knew of his situation, he was going to move from his carpark to a three-room apartment. He agreed to let me follow him into his new temporary lodgings, only for the winter months. Again I could not show the outside of the building, or do portraits of him to give a more personalized feel to my reportage.

To my surprise Paul took me to his temporary living quarters, a three-room apartment, with heat, television and a balcony view overlooking the French Riviera beachfront. He unpacked his things in one room and hung his clothes to dry in another. Paul invited me to share a meal of spaghetti that he wanted to prepare to celebrate the occasion.

During our lunch I continued to make photographs as Paul spoke about the associations, the lack of power of the local public officials to resolve the problems of individuals in precarious circumstances. He spoke also of the generosity of people who have helped him, even if only with temporary solutions that keep him off the streets.

Paul has found this temporary lodging while waiting to rent a 600 euro ($761) studio, which will be partially funded by others. This three-room apartment on the French Riviera, costs 2,000 euros ($2,537) a week during the summer holidays.

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