Friday, 10 September 2010

The World in One City: Philippe Sibelly's Photography Project

"Where are you from?" is a question photographer Philippe Sibelly has pondered a lot. Born in Marseilles, Philippe has travelled widely, living in Sydney and Ireland before settling in London.

And it's London's multiculturalism that inspired his World in One City challenge. In 2005, in the run-up to the Singapore announcement that London would host the 2012 Olympic Games, Philippe decided to capture that multiculturalism in a photography project.

A year and a half later, Philippe had a set of 202 photographs, representing each of the countries taking part in the Olympic Games at the time. (Now there are 205). The photos are all is currently on display in Rich Mix in East London. In each Polaroid picture, the subject is holding the previous photo, creating a chain, Philippe explains, like the Olympic flame. In view of our own current World in London blog project, I felt I had to go and meet him.

Philippe turned out to be a fascinating subject to interview. I was restricted by word-length on my work blog, but I'd like to give a fuller picture here. Be warned: it's a long one. If you'd rather read less: read this.

I feel like Philippe's the sort of character that should be being written about in a weekend colour supplement, and left the interview full of ideas to pitch his story around. But at the same time, I know the drill. Is it current? No. Is it unique? Not really. Are the pictures high res? Probably not. Too many barriers, and I have a full-time job and a full-time hobby that'll mean I'm unlikely to have a straightforward time if I start pitching things half-heartedly...

Anyhoo, here's a few of the things we talked about. 

"At the start [of the photography project], it was really easy," Philippe says. "I thought, 'I know people from pretty much everywhere.' I tried doing things to challenge people's perceptions. Karim from Peru, the fourth guy, is a refugee from Palestine. So he doesn't look like he's from Peru. But he is. And in the next photo, he's being held by an Israeli, Maya."

"But it became more and more difficult. It started taking so long. I spent hours on email, organising with friends, travelling around the city to meet people from different places. To New Malden to find someone from South Korea. To Woolwich to meet someone from Africa..."

"Some days, I'd travel around and only take one or two photos. It was really, really frustrating."

As well as meeting friends of friends and colleagues, Philippe says he also stopped people in the street to ask where they were from, and encourage them to join the challenge. "Very few people got annoyed," he says. "Really, despite what people say, Londoners are very open. It may be because I'm a foreigner myself, but people were open to taking part."

"Apart from people from Qatar. People from Qatar just didn't want to be photographed. I don't know why. I found one eventually." Ali from Qatar is in traditional dress, something you can spot in other photos: Karma from Bhutan wanted to be photographed in a colourful Bhutanese shirt, and Mario from Croatia in a traditional hat.

Looking through the chain of photos is fascinating. Despite the relative simplicity of the shots, there seems to be so much in each of these pictures. The little slices of London behind each subject are almost as interesting as the people themselves. Philippe seems to remember all of them, and recounts many anecdotes that stand out for him.

About Jonas, a monk from the Solomon Islands; Fredi from Mali, a footballer who played for Tottenham and West Ham; how top chef Giorgio Locatelli wanted to represent Italy, and about Magdalena from Serbia Montenegro.

Magdalena presents what Philippe finds is an interesting question. In his project, she represents a country that no longer exists. Where does she say she's "from" now? The slightly artificial construct of nationality fascinates Philippe. The boys he photographed to represent Haiti (Adam) and Pakistan (Zishaan) have never actually been to those countries. "But Adam said it would make his mother, who's from Haiti, very proud. And Zishaan, well, he thinks of himself as fully English and fully Pakistani. He said to me, 'How can I be half and half? I'm both.' I find that strong sense of nationalism, from people who've never even been to the country they say they're from, very strange."

I asked him about his young kids: part Irish, part French, living in England. "You're right. I mean, who are they going to play for, if they're sporty? If they play football?! Maybe France..." he says with a wink. Maybe they'll play cricket, I suggest. He laughs, "That would be great. I'm a cricket lover myself."

Philippe strikes me as very much an Anglophile. Or perhaps a Londonphile. We should be prouder of our food, he suggests. We're looking after our "borrobikes" better than the French. We're more open than other nationalities.

"There's something interesting in the way people respond to the photos. Londoners, you tell them someone's from Peru, but they look like a Palestinian, they're fine with that. Many other nationalities look at the pictures and they say, suspicious, he doesn't look like me, he can't be from my country. Well, how do you know? Londoners are more open to seeing difference [and accepting it]."

Of the whole list of Olympic nations (a list he chose because it's fairly neutral), Philippe only struggled to find people from about five. "For these five nations I chose someone linked in some way to this place: someone who has lived there, has family there, or even, in the case of Nauru, I settled for someone who knew where it was."

He's got one little niggle. For some reason, Philippe is confused by Darius from Tajikistan. It's almost like he can't put his finger on it, but he doubts that this one subject was telling the truth. Other people from Tajikistan have suggested this guy doesn't quite fit too. While in other cases, Philippe was pleased to challenge people's preconceptions of what different nationalities look like, there's something about this photo that stops him.

In many ways, its a classic example of everything to do with multiculturalism. Fantastic, fascinating, enriching and exciting, yes, but there's always a certain point where all that positivity stops, and something else steps in. In this case, a shrug and a slight suspicion that everything's not as crystal clear as you thought it was. And an acceptance that there will always be unknowns.

Philippe has mixed views on the complex issue of multiculturalism. "Diversity is great, but you can't be too romantic about it. It's not always a positive thing for everyone. When your local shop stops selling your sausages and starts selling samosas, it can be difficult for people to get used to.

"Europeans have lots to learn from other peoples. In the African communities, there's fantastic family cohesion: they eat all together, there's no TV, there's a real sense of respect for family members.

"The fact is, with modern developments, the world has changed. It's so easy to travel now. And communications are so much better with email and Skype. You can leave London in the morning, and be in Bulgaria by mid-afternoon. Travelling to Bulgaria now is like travelling to Guildford used to be!

"The best people can do is live with it, and get the positives out of it. Take the good."
You can see Philippe's World In One City photographs at Rich Mix, or online here.

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