The images capture a different Paris from the one beloved by tourists: refuse in a garbage bag that could be mistaken for a bloom on water; a dank tunnel opening onto a light-filled avenue of trees; a longhaired figure in a heavy coat silhouetted in a window, deeply alone, reports The New York Times.
That they are exhibited at eye level on the iron grille that surrounds the historic mayor’s offices in central Paris is no surprise in an international capital of photography.
What is unusual is that, thanks to a quintessentially French set of crosscutting interests, the photographers are homeless men and women who were given cameras and technical guidance by a charity. Their portrait of Paris is surprisingly beautiful, touched less by the artists’ painful circumstances than by a longing for respite from bleak lives.
“It’s the negative and the positive,” said Lorenzo, 55, one of the photographers, who, like most of those interviewed, declined to give his last name.
He was speaking of one of his most arresting photos: an image shot from inside a shadowy underpass that opens onto an avenue of trees shedding their leaves. The alternating shadow and light, obscurity and possibility, the curve of the underpass roof and the straightness of the tree trunks recall the contrasts captured by another impoverished Parisian photographer, albeit one long dead, Eugène Atget.
The city hall exhibition, which includes 27 images, is just the latest example of how politics and art can interweave in France. French politicians have long gained luster through their backing of arts institutions — museums and libraries, theaters and cultural centers — and many artists earn a living through government-financed cultural programs.
In the United States, a mayor’s office might be less likely to showcase art that draws attention to one of its more intractable problems. But in Paris that is apparently not a concern, especially because these are not photographs of the homeless, but by the homeless, giving them at least temporarily the status of artists.
It also helps that the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has made building more low-income housing a central goal and has openly expressed concern about the growing numbers of inhabitants who sleep on blankets piled in doorways and drift from park to park in one of the most elegant and wealthy cities in the world. There are 11,000 to 12,000 homeless people in Paris; roughly two-thirds of them in temporary housing and one-third living on the streets, said Dominique Versini, a deputy mayor who oversees care for the most vulnerable, including children and the elderly.
The photography project was the brainchild of Elisabeth Tiberghien, a retired professor who decided to act on a long-running desire to help the homeless. First she volunteered at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Roman Catholic lay charity that is dedicated to aiding the poor, and then she started an organization of her own, called Deuxième Marche, or Second Step. She corralled friends and acquaintances to serve on her board and opened a small storefront from which the group has so far helped 150 people get off the street and into subsidized housing.
With help from a board member, she teamed up with Wipplay.com, a website for photography that, in collaboration with Olympus, agreed to provide her with digital cameras, Olympus point-and-shoots, for homeless people who wanted to try taking pictures. She contacted those she worked with or knew through other organizations for the poor, and 15 men and women volunteered to take the cameras and shoot for a month. Only two did not finish the project.
Ms. Tiberghien also persuaded a professional photographer, Jean-Paul Lozouet, who usually focuses on the performing arts, to mentor the photographers, many of whom are struggling with mental illness and, in some cases, alcoholism. Most of them now have some kind of shelter through the help of Deuxième Marche.
The participants were asked to shoot from November 17th until December 20th; then Mr. Lozouet downloaded the photos to his computer and did an initial cut, winnowing thousands of photos to a few hundred. Wipplay, which runs photography competitions, asked web visitors to vote for their favorite images. A jury that included photography experts, artists and a representative from the mayor’s office selected the 27 photographs for the show.
Deuxième Marche has been selling prints of the photographs winnowed by Mr. Lozoyuet, giving half of the proceeds to the photographers and using the rest to repay Wipplay for overseeing the online voting and to cover the costs of the exhibition. So far, about 40 prints have been sold; the larger ones go for about $250, and the smaller ones for $150. Corporate sponsors also made donations to the project.
Several of the homeless photographers said they liked going to the square near the mayor’s office and quietly watching passers-by look at their pictures. “It warms you to see all these reactions, truly,” said Lorenzo, a tall, lean man who wears worn bluejeans and has longish hair.