It’s an uncharacteristically chilly winter afternoon when we meet Laurence Bonvin in Cairo as she wraps up her latest periurban photography project with three Egyptian local photographers. Urban and suburban landscapes and the built environment might seem like an unusual muse for many artists, but it has been the cornerstone of her ever-growing portfolio for nearly a decade now. Entitled Pyscho Cairo, the latest workshop saw Bonvin challenge the photographers selected to find meaning in the newest and most sterile suburban districts of the Egyptian megacity. “I was surprised by the very large number of new, rather empty housing developments in the 6th of October City and the 5th Settlement. And despite this, quite a large number of construction sites are still underway,” says the Swiss snapper. “I could sense a tendency to try to solve urban issues by relocating people outside, in new sites, far away from downtown Cairo.” The age-old saying about photos and words clearly rings true for Bonvin, who’s able to convey as much about governance as she can about lifestyles through a single photo. “Urban landscapes and infrastructures are highly evocative forms, as they are very much linked with power, economy and politics. People are a more informal factor – I’m very interested in how people use and eventually appropriate the infrastructures and transform them into something else, something alive.”
Perhaps first cementing Bonvin as one of the most foremost urban photographers was her project in Istanbul in 2008, and its related exhibition and book entitled On the Edges of Paradise. “The paradise I refer to in the title of my work is an ideal place that doesn’t really exist,” she explains of the series of hauntingly perfect scenes capturing both the sterility and grandeur of sprawling villas in private compounds on the peripheries of the Turkish city. “Gated communities are advertised as paradises by the developers, but to me they are poor and sterile substitutes that lack complexity and variety of a real urban fabric. They are more like distressing deserted film sets. It’s this dystopia that interests me; that which doesn’t quite work as intended.”
“I very often felt a sense of emptiness, isolation and segregation in urban peripheries, as well as a sense of becoming, of new possibilities, which is an exciting aspect,” continues the photographer who is on the field as much as she in the classroom at Switzerland’s ECAL University of Art and Design where she has held a position as photography professor since 2001. “These are places that we should be very carefully and intelligently managing, because they represent the future of our cities. Because photography is about still and silent compositions, it allows for aesthetic emotions that can eventually create a consciousness and sense of common responsibility about specific issues.”
With Friezeit, however, Bonvin departs from the suburbs and heads into the ever-evolving urban landscape in former East Berlin, focusing on citizen interaction with historical sites and monuments that populate the creative city. The 2009 book published after her six month residency at Atelier Schönhauser in Berlin shows that “monuments are used like urban furniture for urban activities, free time and photo shoots… Public spaces are essential to a city; they are the hearts and lungs, the spaces where people can meet and appropriate the city.” Her ability to capture citizen’s sentiment towards their city is truly uncanny, thanks to her eye for framing and moments that would otherwise go unnoticed. “Photography is a very good medium to convey a sense of everyday life, the realities that each of us can easily connect with. What makes any place vibrant is the diversity of the population and activities, the many layers that constitute the urban fabric, the history and the transformations: what one might not see, but can feel,” she describes. “In some projects, depending on what I wanted to convey, I also deliberately decided not to include images of people, because their absence was actually more evocative.”
“The nature of documentation – or more precisely, documentary photography or film – is an important issue for me. Is documentary a simple genre? I really don’t believe so,” continues Bonvin. “I try to reach some kind of global meaning through vernacular subjects and to penetrate each subject beyond the obvious.” Her work on peripheries of Cape Town and Johannesburg does just that, the former capturing a newly built and largely remote government housing project near the airport and the latter showcasing a semi-urban landscape occupied by squatters’ camps and building sites alike. Both display a sense of displacement and development at the same time, and speak volumes of the politics at play in South Africa where forced relocation and poor planning have left hundreds of thousands with a roof over their heads, but nowhere to call home. “Even the best experiments can fail, such as Brasilia – a brilliant aesthetic and experimental planned city – in its inability to include growth. Utopia doesn’t exist without dystopia,” says Bonvin on the shortfalls of planned cities, as opposed to organic ones.
With a documentary film on Cairo’s satellite cities in the works, Bonvin shows no signs of slowing down, nor changing her focus. Though she doesn’t let us in on too many details, she does leave us with a piece of advice, targeting city officials: “decision-makers should avoid creating social and spatial segregation and isolation. New cities must be inclusive, in order to be heterogeneous, and they must be well connected.” And given her years of experience of immersing herself in environments that do the very opposite of that, we think she’s on to something.
Find out more about Laurence Bonvin and her work here.