French court bans Yan Morvan’s latest photobook

Yan Morvan has been documenting gangs in France’s suburbs for 40 years, he’s followed the Hell’s Angels, Skinheads and even serial killer Guy Georges, who took him hostage in 1995 and tortured him for three weeks. This experience forced Morvan to call it quits but, in 2000, he released the book Gangs Story, providing a retrospective of his work.

In the book, Morvan includes the portrait of “Petit Mathieu”, a 17-year-old far-right activist who posed with a flare gun and a hammer – two weapons that were not outlawed in France at the time and which he could use in street fights. Sued by his subject, Morvan was forced to remove the image from the book.


In 2013, after Morvan partnered with Kizo, a former gang member, on the production of a new documentary about France’s suburbs, the book publisher La Manufacture de Livres re-edited Gangs Story, adding a new series of images shot between 2009 and 2012. Also included in the final edit was Mathieu’s portrait.

Earlier this month, Mathieu, whose full name has been withheld, brought a second lawsuit against the photographer and his publisher, claiming that the photograph didn’t represent his current beliefs and that he should own the rights to his own image. The court found in his favour, ordering the photographer to pay a €5000 fine and the book publisher to withdraw the book immediately.

“Basically, in this case, two opposing rights were pitted against one another – the right to control your own image and the right to inform,” Morvan tells BJP in a phone interview. “In this case, the right to control your own image, which was introduced by French minister Elisabeth Guigou in 2000, won over the right to inform. There are 250 images in this book, what this sentence means is that 250 people could sue me. In essence, this sentence is a ban on a photographer’s right to work.”

He adds: “I had warned the book publisher that we could face legal issues with Mathieu’s photograph. Yet, that photograph was taken more than 20 years ago. Mathieu is now 43, you can’t recognise him and his name is nowhere to be seen in the book.”

Morvan doesn’t plan to appeal the court’s decision – “I didn’t have the money to pay for a lawyer and I don’t have the money to appeal,” he tells BJP. “This decision is representative of France’s cultural exception: ‘There’s nothing to see in France, there’s nothing to photograph’.”

BJP understands that Gangs Story will be available until 31 July. For more details about the book, visit the publisher’s website.

The court’s decision comes a few months after another photographer, Christian Lutz, saw his book In Jesus’ Name banned when 21 people he featured filed legal proceedings arguing that they had never granted Lutz the right to use their image – a fact the photographer denies.