The invisible

Bertrand Gaudillère
Bertrand GaudillèreBertrand Gaudillère is one of the founding members of the item collective. This organisation, set up in Lyon in 2001, gives him the opportunity to work within a framework that respects his photographic commitments and his convictions as a citizen. The exchange, support, and emulation of the group enable him to produce and distribute his work, which focuses on social and political issues. He questions the notions of marginality, norms, integration, equality, and acceptance, both in France and abroad. Since 2007, his work has regularly addressed the issue of migration, extreme poverty in France and the situation in prisons. He regularly contributes to the press, works with NGOs, and has published several books.
La Maison Solidaire, a refuge centre for unaccompanied minors and young adults, Saint-Étienne, France, 1 February 2023

Bertrand Gaudillère was a university student when he first grasped the power of documentary photography. During France’s university strikes in 1995, he helped set up a newspaper. He and a small team, who were as fun as they were focused on the job in hand, ran an “irregular paper” to report on current affairs. It was a venture that left him with a hunger for information and print media as well as teamwork and collaborative projects.

In 2001, encouraged by this experience and inspired by photographers who were already teaming up to invent new forms of collaboration, he co-founded Collectif Item, a space for exchanging ideas and fostering emulation where he was able to both stay true to his photographic engagement and his social convictions. Since then, this production and distribution workspace has enabled him to launch and disseminate his documentary projects. Initially very much involved with the press, in 2006 he became part of a long-term project on migration issues in France, which he remained firmly committed to until 2019. This led to several screenings and an exhibition at the Visa pour l’image Festival as well as a book Des chiffres, Un visage [Many figures, One face] published by Libel, and his participation in two collective publications: La France vue d’ici [France Seen from Here] published by La Martinière and Marche ou Rêve [Walk or Dream] published by Collectif Item. The project was also the subject of multiple press publications and acquisitions for public collections.

After a pivotal meeting with Prison Insider, an information platform on prisons worldwide, they devised together the InsideOutside project, photographic corres pondence with prison inmates all over the world. A book of the same name, compiled with his co-author Clara Grisot, will be published by Libel in November 2023. Another decisive encounter was with the Abbé-Pierre Foundation with which he created Hab(r)iter, a photographic project which has set out to publicise the living conditions of the more than four million people living in substandard housing in France. To shed some light on their precarious situation, through portraits, personal testimonials and reports in the different areas of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Bertrand Gaudillère addresses this issue from three perspectives: refuge housing, the impact of lockdown on poorly housed families, and the way in which citizens’ groups take action to make up for the State’s shortcomings when it comes to housing. He also writes about these three subjects. Over the years his skillset has broadened to include writing and video work. He currently collaborates with the press as well as with institutions and non-governmental organisations. Collectif Item remains a driving force, continuing to use images to raise the issues of marginalisation, social norms, exclusion, integration, equality and acceptance.

Photos and captions:
© Bertrand Gaudillère/item
Instagram : @bertrandgaudillere

Shelter for vulnerable households in Greater Lyon

I met these people in France, in Lyon, in the city centre and on the outskirts. Given the lack of institutional response and access to the private rental sector – even though the right to housing has existed since 2007 –, they all had to come up with their own solutions to having shelter. These men and women have all found some kind of shelter, which sometimes gives the impression of a degree of stability, but which is actually extremely precarious.

It takes me just over a week to get to meet monsieurY. We’d spoken on the phone several times and our conversations were always cordial, friendly even, but they never led to an actual meeting. Neither did our text messages. I wondered if he was going to go back on his decision to take part in the project, and then finally, after an umpteenth attempt, he suggested we meet in the Duchère neighbourhood, where his car is parked. He comes to fetch me at the bus stop and we walk and talk the short distance to the place where he sleeps. He is tall; the expression on his face is neither smiling nor closed. He is quite affable and apologises for all the hiccups, explaining that he was doing a training course… as well as his job. Working at present in mediation, he wants to switch to security or fibre optic installation, to make it easier to get a permanent job contract, “because here, if you don’t have a permanent job, you don’t have a home”. His car, a dark blue Citroën, an old model, is clean, with no dents or scratches. Unobtrusive. Not the sort of car that stands out in a carpark, especially since all his belongings are neatly stowed in the boot. You can’t notice a thing. He bought it for 400 euros when he had to leave the one-room bedsit he shared with a friend. It is not insured, the documentation is not in his name, but at least he has somewhere to sleep when he needs it. Twice or three times a week he manages to get a bed by calling the emergency number 115, or he treats himself to the odd night in a cheap hotel in the seventh arrondissement, but his monthly salary of 850euros doesn’t stretch to doing this more often. So the rest of the time he spends his nights here.

Family M. has been living in a tent for several months when I meet them. They’re not the only people living on this plot of land sandwiched between a high wall and the tram tracks. There are three or four other tents, and a car which is home to another family. Monsieur M., who arranges to meet me at the “Gare de Villeurbanne” stop, tells me about the others straightaway, explaining that they haven’t been there long, but they are not nice people. The man is violent. He himself is calm. From his wheelchair, bumping over the gravel and the wet grass, he thanks me for being there. Several times he says to me: “Something needs to be done, it can’t be right”. I explain to him, as I do to the others, that all I can do is publicise their predicament. He thanks me, then opens the tent to show me that this is where the three of them live: him, his wife and their 9-year-old son who is at school when I meet them. He goes to school about 20 minutes from here. He has to take the tram first and then walk, but it is the school he attended when they first arrived in Lyon and where the parents of the other pupils are aware of the family’s vulnerable situation, so he’s staying there. They accompany him there and back. Madame M., who has just joined us, agrees in silence. She looks gentle. A gentleness that could be natural or is maybe the result of exhaustion or resignation. They show me the sodden mattress, the damp sleeping bags. I imagine the rain, the night, the tapping on the canvas, the discomfort, the cold, the waiting, the sense of powerlessness and then no doubt the rage that they have to swallow if they want to keep going.

The lock-up is nine square metres. There is no electricity. No water. The room is bathed in a faint light, just enough to make out two beds on the right and the stove at the back. There’s also an old sofa and a small table. Monsieur H. has lived here for eight months with his wife and his youngest son who is 14 and not yet going to school. The two other sons, 22 and 24, are married and have children of their own. The family has been in France for five years. They have lived in Paris, Toulouse, Toulon, and now they are in Lyon, or more exactly in Feyzin, in a former garage, a squat occupied by twenty or so families. When he asks me what the photos are for, I tell him how I want to use the pictures to show all the types of precarious housing people are living in not meant to be homes. Cars, for example. He smiles: they lived in a car for a while, but they no longer have one. They get around by bus. The number 70 with its terminus just nearby. A few stops to the supermarket and a few more to go as far as Lyon, where he works on the markets from time to time. They go shopping, which is often for water because the water here is not drinkable. They tried drinking it when they first got here, but it made them ill. The tap is outside. It drips nonstop. They use it by heating it on the stove they have cobbled together from an old oil barrel. This is their cooker and their heating. They cook pasta, sometimes chicken, and potatoes.

I meet up with madame J. at Lyon-Part-Dieu train station. She is sitting in front of the ticket offices. Where others wait for their train, she is waiting for late afternoon and for it to be time for her to start work. In a way, the station is one big break room for her. It is here that every day she stays in the warm between her morning and evening cleaning jobs. She works a thirty-two-hour week for a cleaning company. Despite having an employment contract, she cannot find anywhere to live, so she sits there, a bag at her feet, waiting without complaining with the passengers around her. She came to Lyon to find work because in the region she left the state of the job market meant she couldn’t find employment. Here it is easier, she tells me, and everything would be fine if she could find somewhere to live! She has completed all the necessary formalities and in the meantime she calls 115 every day. She shows me on her phone. She also wants to show me what she has in her bag and laughs when talking about the cream slice it contains. She eats what she can, whatever is inexpensive and does not need any cooking.

Poorly housed in lockdown

January 2020. The emergence of Covid-19, the beginning of the pandemic… In March, lockdown came. It was as if our lives had been put on hold, everyone was affected. Though it impacted everyone, everyone’s experience was individual. Restrictions don’t have the same impact on daily life when you are in substandard housing.

Michel is 59. He lives in a hut with no water or electricity in Grignan, in the Drôme department. He has owned the plot of land since 1992. He first built a shelter on it for his horses, then a shed. It is a very rudimentary structure with four walls, two small rooms, a roof, and a lean-to for storing equipment. When in August 2020 Michel was evicted from his flat for rent arrears, he naturally took refuge on this small patch of land where his geese, hens, cats and two of his dogs already lived and which he visited every day. Less than two kilometres from the centre of Grignan where he’d lived up until then, this shed meant he didn’t have to relocate or fall into worse debt. It also allowed him to stay near his daughter, whose house he goes to regularly to take a shower. The small building, situated on land prone to flooding, is not connected to the electricity grid or water mains. Michel doesn’t understand why the mayor refuses to allow him this convenience which would make his life so much easier. The days are also difficult for this former builder, left disabled by a fall from scaffolding. When he can afford it, he buys a bag of cement and does a little work, but never on his own, because the breezeblocks are now too heavy for his back. In a few days his daughter will come to help him pile up a few that he will then seal with the cement his friends bought him for his birthday. It is stored in what should be a bedroom for his son who lives a little further away, in Grenoble.

“Lockdown? It was awful, awful. It was horrendous. The kids had no room to play, they squabbled the whole time. With my husband, things weren’t going well, and we ended up separating, and my mother died in April. It was a really difficult time. After my mother died, I lost my grip on monitoring the children’s schooling, I had a complete mental breakdown and got into debt shopping online to fill the gap left by my loss. That’s what my shrink tells me.” Staring blankly into space, Nabila (next page) speaks in a monotone betraying her exhaustion. She has lost fourteen kilos. She lists the many problems in her flat: the faulty plumbing, the damp walls, her daughter’s bedroom next door to where the dustbins are kept, the smells that go with that and the mice starting to overrun the place, the rubbish the neighbours throw out of the windows which piles up just under her windows, the bedbugs that arrived during lockdown… “There were no good times, I wouldn’t want anyone to live through all that in these conditions, and on top of all that, I was terrified. I followed all the guidelines, washing my hands all the time, putting my clothes in the machine when I got home from doing the shopping. I wouldn’t go to the big Auchan, I did my shopping down there, even though it was more expensive. It was really tough.”

Paul lives with his family on a site with no toilets near Clermont-Ferrand. “The worst thing was not seeing the grandchildren. They were about twenty kilometres away, but because of the health restrictions, we weren’t allowed to go there. That was really the hardest thing. Family is really important to us because that’s all we have. Everywhere else, you can demean us, but that’s something you can’t take from us. And their smiles, you can’t put a price on that.” That is what Paul remembers of the first lockdown. He is from the Traveller community. The one that exists only in these facile words that tell nothing of the complex reality of life for “Travellers”. He experiences this humiliation all too often. He can neither read nor write. He often needs someone to help him. For giving quotes in his role as a self-employed contractor, or for administrative procedures. Even more since these have been carried out via apps on a phone. To get round this problem, he goes to the offices when it’s still possible. There, he explains his situation. The last time, they told him he had to write a letter so they could consider his request for help, so he just went away again, resigned. He’s not even angry anymore. Has he ever been? He speaks in the same calm manner about what constituted his education, sitting at the back of the class, drawing pictures. “The teachers weren’t mean, but they couldn’t really do much with us because we were only there for a few days or weeks. Afterwards, we left. Nantes, St Malo…we were always moving, so, learning to read…”

Imen, a young woman, and her family live in Villeurbanne. There are eight of them in an apartment measuring about fifty square metres. On the right as you come in are the bedroom, toilet and kitchen. The bathroom is opposite. And on the left, is the living room which overlooks the tram lines. If you open the window, you can practically touch the tracks. I imagine the days of lockdown, punctuated by the noise each time a tram passed by, with eight of them in this room. This doesn’t seem to disturb the younger ones. M., 5 years old, is drawing without it seems any awareness of what is going on around him. He shows me his little notebook, ghosts on several pages, drawn with a shaky hand but the meaning unmistakable and unconsciously malevolent. They are used to the lack of comfort. That is what the mother and her eldest daughter, Imen, 19, explain to me. Four years ago, when they arrived from Spain, the urgent need was to find somewhere to live. They thought this would just be a transition to something else, until the mother found a job and they could rent somewhere bigger. Now she’s losing hope. She’s got mental health issues. She regrets sacrificing everything for a dream that hasn’t come true. Coming to France meant being sure that the children could get a good education and then not find themselves in the same situation. They were eager to relocate despite the language barrier. They had no idea how difficult it would be to find a place to live, nor how much rent they would have to pay for a substandard apartment. Nearly 1,000 euros for a two-room flat where the bedroom is unusable. Moisture seeps from the walls, covering them in mould. During those all too many weeks of lockdown, everyday life was carried out in the living room, the only healthy space with Wi-Fi access. They had to come up with a daily routine which allowed them to get by without stepping on each other’s toes.

They both live in the Tarentaize district of Saint-Étienne, with their families. Hishem has just completed a vocational diploma in landscape gardening while Malek is looking for work experience as part of his vocational baccalaureate course in retail. They are both 17. They spent lockdown in their respective four-roomed family apartments, with six brothers and sisters for Hishem, and seven for Malek – tough to live in such overcrowded conditions at such a time. The bedrooms are shared, and the noise is constant. For Hishem who is not very keen on video games nor overly interested in his phone it was really hard. Too difficult to stay in all time. “If we were in a house, I’d have respected lockdown, but here, as you can see, it was impossible to keep it up. Usually I’m outside all the time, even when doing my homework, I go to do it at the centre. So I went out and got fined, 135 euros each time. I’ve appealed the fines, I’m waiting to see.” Malek said the same thing, and he didn’t get away without any fines either. “I needed to go out to breathe, feel the sun, all that… being outside is a sort of freedom.” When they weren’t in the streets in their neighbourhood, they watched films and TV series. Malek spent whole nights in front of his PlayStation. Hishem read a little. As he didn’t have much homework, he took the opportunity of learning more about his religion. Neither of them feels they have missed out on anything because of lockdown, apart from the first work placements they should have done. They just found the time long and slow, with the impression that the days weren’t “the same length as usual”. So when May came, it felt like a liberation. Malek was able to return to his old life while Hishem took the opportunity to go out and do sport.

Ghizlane is 42 years old and has been homeless for the last three years, in Grenoble. Between the ages of 25 and 39, Ghizlane had a series of contracts as a manager for a large hotel group. Morocco, Turkey, China… All was going well until the day when, between flights, she had a stroke at Roissy airport. Rushed to hospital. Rehabilitation. She had to relearn everything. A physiotherapist to walk, a speech therapist to talk, a challenge she threw herself at. Her cousin in Paris helped her when she left hospital. She wanted to return to her children in Morocco where her mother was looking after them and sign a new contract to have some job security. But instead she had another stroke. Her treatment plan took her to Grenoble where she had major surgery, but she didn’t know anybody there. She was scheduled to leave hospital just when the first lockdown started. During her stay in hospital, she made a “friend”. He housed her. “It lasted three months, it wasn’t planned like that, it was difficult, not always very nice. We didn’t really know each other, and it was complicated for me to depend on someone else as I’d always managed on my own two feet, with my mother… and I was tired. I was always afraid of ending up on the street.” During that time, she did all she could to look after herself, but at the end of lockdown her “friend” threw her out. She was on the street for the first time. “With Covid and everything I needed to do for my health, I wasn’t able to look for organisations for the homeless like le Local des femmes or Point d’eau. I began to sleep in parks when there was no space after calling the 115 number. When it’s too cold, someone I know takes me in. But no-one helps you for nothing. Sometimes he abuses me, sometimes he doesn’t.”

Housing the most excluded: when local citizens get involved

They are called L’Ouvre Porte, Les Vertaccueillants, Cent pour un toit, Sorosa, la Maison Solidaire, or Jamais sans toit. Behind these names, there is the same impulse, the same shared commitment to remedying the shortcomings of the State in certain problem areas of reception and housing. In their own way each organisation rallies round in support of those the institutions no longer include on their books. Charity, citizens’ collective or informal group, it doesn’t matter, they are adaptable, they are there to defend a cause, take up a fight, that of sheltering those who have no roof over their heads and not really any rights. For this, none of them, men and women, employees or volunteers, count the hours they put in.

As far as organisation is concerned, they sometimes have offices, some of them provide standby services, others have no premises strictly speaking, but they do the rounds, going from one place to another, a borrowed room, a bar, the living room or kitchens of the activists. Whether they are in Valence, Lyon, Bourg-en-Bresse, Grenoble, or a bit higher up on the Vercors plateau, all of them provide practical responses for those who have fallen through the cracks in the system in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. These volunteers improvise solutions to fit each case, bounce back after the refusal of applications from those who they will support from now on. Often migrants, whatever their administrative status, whether minors or adults. Sometimes they have provided support to individuals for years although they expected it to be temporary. The arrangements cobbled together by intuition have to be continued, following the principle of once taken in, no return to the streets. It’s not easy to keep this responsibility up in the long run, as confirmed by nearly all of those who agreed to talk. They speak for themselves but also for the group or charity they work for. These are not the words of a representative or leader, they are just saying what they have observed on the job. There is exhaustion and burnout. It is difficult to stay motivated, wherever the drive comes from. Whether the activist’s incentive is political or charitable –the need to help others. There is a form of fatigue in the face of the violence of the situations that must be dealt with. It’s difficult to find the words which explain without discouraging, testify without betraying. It’s a matter of not exaggerating, yet not downplaying the testimonials either, but how can you be fair in just a few words? How can you not need to go back over the whole story of your involvement, from the start of collective action to its first results, and first misgivings too. To explain the stumbling blocks you run into, the roundabout ways you have to take to reach your goals. To speak of the successes and the joy they bring, making you want to carry on, that keep at bay, to some extent, the brutality, the injustices, and remind you that in the grand scheme of things, help is still possible.

Arian arrived in France in 2011. “I was a minor, I was fifteen. My mother dealt with the procedures for our documents. Then when I was 18, I had to apply for asylum for myself. After three years, I was granted subsidiary protection and so got the right to work. The trouble was we were living in squats, we had nothing, we didn’t know how to get work even if we were entitled to it. We didn’t know how to live in fact. It was then that I began to meet people from Cent pour un toit, Bernadette, Ghislaine, and lots of others, who helped me write a CV, find odd jobs, work experience… and then they housed us, my mother, my two brothers, and me for two or three years. Thanks to them, I was able to get back into education. Today, I’m 27, I’m a student, I’m studying for a diploma in management of small and medium-sized businesses on a work/study scheme, I share a flat with my girlfriend, Noémie, who also supported me a lot so I could carry on with my studies. It’s a second chance. Before that, I went to high school and took a vocational baccalaureate to be a refrigeration technician. I could do that because the school had decided to help me by releasing funds so I could board, otherwise it would have been difficult. After that, I did odd jobs without really knowing what I wanted to do with my life. And then, above all, there was the housing problem. Either we went from squat to squat, or we were housed by volunteers, but that was in the countryside. I didn’t have a driving licence, or a bike, and couldn’t afford to get around because everything was expensive for me at that time. When we got the flat, I could be near work. Without accommodation, I don’t think I would have been able to make it so quickly and so well. Today, I can see things a bit more clearly. I realise all the stages we have been through. The three years in the CADA [Reception centre for asylum seekers] in Culoz, the rejection of my mother’s asylum application, finding ourselves on the street the next day, arriving in Bourg-en-Bresse to be near the prefecture that was dealing with our case, eviction from the first squat by around a hundred police officers after a few months, negotiating with the council to have access to the campsite, the long period spent living in a bottom-of-the-range Decathlon tent. The rain, the cold. Then a new squat, being evicted again. Then being housed by a series of different volunteers, separately. The family split up… my mother suffering from depression… and then finally the flat from Cent pour un toit. In fact, I find it absurd, this issue of housing. We are told to integrate, make our lives here, except we aren’t given a place to settle down in. How do you expect children to get a stable education? School is complicated when you live in a squat, you only live with people like you, you don’t really make friends outside… It was difficult, all that, but it was a good lesson for life, at least for me anyway. It encouraged me to get an education, to become someone and not just an immigrant who ‘does nothing and expects everything from others’, as the image is conveyed at times. Even if it’s an image that doesn’t exist. We all do our best to integrate, to get our papers, to work. When it’s really tough, we feel helpless, but we just put up with it. Even when we have our papers, we’re still scared, we don’t feel secure. These days, I live in a flat with my girlfriend. The status of my two brothers has been legalised. One is married, he has a baby and he owns his own place! I’ve applied for French nationality. I’ve submitted my application. I’m waiting for the decision. My mother is still without legal status and housed by Cent pour un toit.”

Translated from the French by Fay Guerry

The three aspects of this photographic work are the subject of three books of the same name accompanied by texts to explain and analyse the different situations described here. They can be viewed, downloaded and ordered free of charge on the website

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