I Am – Paradox Identity

“Europe is changing and these women are at the forefront, increasingly taking on a new identity. They are also Europe’s new faces. How does Europe conceive its identity in terms of definition, but also in terms of imagery? This is a timely and continuous process becoming all the more conscious to a larger public with each day passing.

The fact that – speaking of Muslim women and their presumptuous identity, a strong stigma arises enhanced through a diversity of journalistic media outlets, television and social media (today) whence – seen from a political point of view, wearing the ‘hijab’ or a veil has become an issue of public debate in many European societies, even in Turkey at the time.

Instead of focusing merely on one’s representation of culture and religion regarding the way a woman dresses, either behaves, nonetheless the real discussion should be about one’s identity and to what extent identity is shaped within one’s proper perception. Since I started to work seriously on the topic of migration, identity and exile from 1999 onwards, I’m keen to explore how Europe is dealing with its Muslim community.

As I began following young Muslim women – and men too, in Paris’ banlieues – back in 2003 and well before the riots in 2005 started in Clichy-sous-Bois, photographing, interviewing and filming on many recurring visits, it had made me understand more clearly that Western society somehow seems to have forgotten that it should – especially these days, redefine its own identity and take a closer look at the true nature of problems arising from social isolation, negligence and non-tolerance. Social change could be used to create an open society, not afraid of these changes, rather adapting to them: We all belong to our future.” – 2008/2018, Ilse Frech.

The project I Am – Paradox Identity entails photography and filming, interviews, personal selfie-collections and audioreportage, created in collaboration with the women in the following cities: Asnières-sur-Seine, Argenteuil, Bobigny, Bondy, Aulney-sous-Bois, Clichy-sous-Bois, La Courneuve, Evry, Grigny, Garges-les-Gonèsse, Gennevilliers, Melun, Mantes-la-Jolie, Les Mureaux, Meaux, Montfermeil, Montreuil, Sarcelles, Stains, Saint-Denis, Pierrefitte, Nanterre, Vitry-sur-Seine, Les Ulis. Photography & Concept © by Ilse Frech, 2003, 2005-2008.

Filmstill from I Am. My Islam. My France (48', 2008) Documentary by Ilse Frech.

I Am. My Islam. My  France  A colorful mosaic of five young Muslim women offering a glance through the façade of concrete, intimately set against the backdrop of Paris’ banlieues, situated in the projects of Clichy-sous-Bois, Grigny, Garges-les-Gonèsse, Mantes-la-Jolie, Meaux. The women, conscious of their participatory role, create their own myth and cliché; a timely document relating to the present, observing the personal behind the political.


J’ai l’impression d’avoir créé ma propre relation avec Dieu. On est obligé de réfléchir sur sa religion en fonction de l’endroit où l’on vit et des personnes avec lesquelles on vit.

Quand je portais le voile, j’avais des amies qui ne le portaient pas, mais je les trouvais tout de même très croyantes intérieurement. Et pourtant, elles ne l’affichent pas. Et j’ai trouvé ça admirable.

Diahala, Clichy-sous-Bois

I Am – Paradox Identity assembles the portraits of young women in Paris’ banlieues, linked through their Muslim culture, in the age between 17 and 27. I wanted to reveal an image more true to her recognition as an independent young woman, in charge of managing her life to her standards and beliefs, being a young European woman knowing to deal with her paradox identity. Therefore I was curious to know her intimate thoughts, her perception on her identity, her culture and religion, her ambition. This dialogue established itself through our encounter, as I tried to reveal that what I saw in her as a person, her inner-strength, her beliefs, her beauty, all reflected through her gaze, her posture, her voice. Having divers backgrounds and origins, as well as having different lives and personal interests, these women have been portrayed in their intimate surroundings, captured in a gaze a far, yet so nearby and out-of-life, as if you could easily be with her in the same room, or passing her by like that in the streets. Her participation in this long-term project, was as important in the creation of the portraits hence presenting herself , so I could interpret her image naturally.

I Am – Paradox Identity was first conceived in 2003. Being participant of the Joop Swart Masterclass in 2003, I had worked in several banlieues – suburbs, of Paris with Muslim adolescents, foremost with young women. These six weeks during Paris’ tropical heatwave, sparked the beginning of an in-depth research–  and photography project as the encounters proved to be the basis for the decision to create a longterm documentary project about young Muslim women, whence I decided to live in Paris. From 2005 onwards, at first during a one-year residency at Atelier Holsboer at the Cité Internationale in Paris,  I worked in the banlieues around Paris, years following, from East to West, from North to South.

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The documentary project as well as the Monograph: I Am – Paradox Identity, had their première at the opening of the exhibition I Am – Identités Pluri-Elles, held at the Institut Néerlandais in Paris, programmed during the Mois de la Photo, Paris 2008.

I Am – Paradox Identity was exhibited at several French Photography festivals and in Switzerland between 2009-2011.

The show was curated in collaboration with Gabriel Bauret (Paris). A soundscape based upon my audio-recordings, Cela Va Sans Dire, was created by Olivier Tirmarche.

The documentary feature I Am. My Islam. My France. is a vivid mosaic displaying intimate moments of five Muslim women in their daily life, peeking through Paris’ suburban façade of concrete, unveiling an image between humor and self-irony behind the stereotype of marginalised women. The film premiered at the South Korean IWAB – Incheon Women Artists’ Biennal at The Tuning exhibition titled: “ The 21st Century, The Feminine Century and the Century of Diversity and Hope”.

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The concept regarding the monograph, originated from the idea I had in mind that all intimate spheres and lives of these Muslim women portrayed, within this physical presentation of a book,‘meet’ and cross each other. As all lives are connected in a certain way when merging in and out of private spheres and biographies traversing from suburb to suburb, as I had experienced.

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