Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Paris Under Occupation" Photos: Evil Made Normal

Smiling, shopping, well-fed fashion-conscious Parisians look at us contentedly from out the past in a new exhibition of 250 wartime color photographs currently on display at the City Hall Library in Paris.

Originally framed by collaborationist photographer André Zucca for the nazi "Signal" periodical, the scenes have been re-framed once again by the gallery's organizers, as scarce historical context is provided for confused visitors to the exhibition.

France24 puts the controversy in perspective:
Under a clear blue sky in the summer of 1942, a smiling woman in sunglasses lounges in the Luxembourg Gardens. At outdoor cafes or in pleasantly illuminated interiors, life seems quite rosy in wartime Paris.These unedited images, taken by a 24/36 Leica, were taken between 1942 to 1945, the height of the German occupation. The absence of any explanation about the propaganda element in the exhibit is striking.

Most of the photos contrast sharply with the history books recalling the Vel d'hiver roundup and deportation in July 1942. Where are the snaking lines outside food stores? Where are the witnesses of the occupation? Rare are the photos where a yellow star sewn on coat lapels is seen on passers-by. This unexpected take on "German France" does not leave one indifferent.
Without questioning their beauty, the photos are disturbing. Even worse, the very title of the exhibit is rather shocking, due to its inaccuracy. Christophe Girard, the Parisian deputy mayor in charge of culture, is quite clear. "We should stop this exhibit!" Girard, an elected representative in the district where the photos are on display, was quoted saying to the French weekly newspaper, the Journal du Dimanche. "Frankly, it’s unbearable. All this disgusts me."

Girard saw the exhibit on its opening night in March. "I was so ill at ease that I had to leave the opening," he explains. "But if one had clearly explained that these were propaganda photos, the exhibit could have been very interesting."

The mayor's office now concedes that the exhibit lacked "pedagogical material" and is working to correct this. "We have added historical explanations which had been lacking," they added.Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë says the incident was "badly managed", and is trying to put things right. He preferred not to ban the exhibit to avoid accusations of censorship, but removed the posters advertising the show.

A sampling of the controversial photographs can be seen at the French 20 Minutes website.

What little historical context that is offered in the printed materials associated with the exhibition itself seems to be of questionable accuracy.

One example is provided by the French site Rue89 [my translation]:
As to the actions the photographer undertook following Liberation, [the exhibition's organizers] clearly try to minimize them: "Arrested in October 1944, he is quickly released and rejoins the 1st Army of General de Lattre de Tassigny. His dossier is filed away in 1945", one may read in the exposition.

In reality, [historian Jean-Pierre] Azema clarifies that [the photographer] was pursued and imprisoned for his collaboration with the occupiers and considered in 1945 worthy of being made the object of a trial of national indignity; he reacted to the situation by fleeing Paris and living near Dreux where he would long reside under a pseudonym. As to the expression "rejoined the 1st Army of General de Lattre de Tassigny", this seems to suggest a reconciliation that didn't [actually] take place.

Maybe the lack of forethought given to explaining the context for the photographs is a blessing in disguise. Coming face to face with such obvious lies, maybe the visitors can leave carrying a question as to just where the lies and mis-shaped information stops… does it end when they leave the exhibition, or are their minds regularly filled with mistaken beliefs by those who profess to be exhibiting the "truth"?

The French media sites are full of commenters complaining of bias and omission when it comes to how their media and their academics are reframing current events to suit the elites' agendas. Yet often these same commenters feel no hesitation to accept as Gospel Truth any slur against Israel or the United States which these same disreputable sources trumpet in their headlines. Is it really likely that one story, so close to home, could be so baldly transformed in the biased retelling, yet events taking place so far away are to be reported free of the same distorting bias..?

All personal communication has elements of persuasion within it, which infers manipulation through selection. When a photographer decides upon a subject they wish to frame as a focal point, they accompany that choice with a decision on what to exclude, what to leave out. Whether it's salutory holiday snapshots of family crowded around the dinner table, or stoic Parisians holding up under Nazi occupation, there is inclusion and omission, a selection process taking place.

“The camera doesn’t lie”, but the photographer sure can.

Maybe the experience of this photographic exposition can contribute to French visitors thinking a second time about what they have been told about the world around them...

... and what is being left out of the picture.


truepeers said...

Perhaps it's more evidence for the theory that the EUtopian project is just the realization of Hitler's dream; the French are now allies in tow to German leaders.

On the other hand, there has long been in France a difficulty living up to the reality of French collaboration with the Nazis, which was widespread. Many French were happy accomplices of the Third Reich. And when this subject was first seriously raised by non-French historians, questioning the preferred narratives of the Resistance, the French (in the 1980s) reacted with a lot of hostility. It seems there is still a lot of resistance to taking on the responsibility seriously to frame France's war time experience.

Dag said...

I've been writing for a while now about the European tendency to liken the Israelis to the Nazis as a European way of dampening their guilt in the war: yes, the Germans did to the Jews, and yes others assisted or were even worse, (Letts, for example); but one can see that those who did so weren't really so bad after all because it now turns out that the Jews are even worse than the Nazis; hence, killing the Jews would have been even better had they all died at the hands of Europeans because then the Jews, who are worse than the Nazis wouldn't be doing now to the Palestinians.

My first thought as i was reading the piece above is that it was a clever concept, showing the people how devious were the Nazi collaborators, how sophisticated are those today who see the unseen without having to be told the obvious. But then I began to realize the Europeans don't know their own recent history at all, being so wrapped up in madness that they can't see beyond the lies of the Kultur-machine that is their own corruption.