Photographers' Blog

Remembering Verdun

Verdun, France

By Charles Platiau

Verdun was the site of one of World War I’s bloodiest battles. Hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers lost their lives in this north-eastern corner of France, where fighting raged for months in 1916.

Yesterday’s enemies are now united on the battleground. Members of French and German historical associations, all keenly interested in the First World War and all passionate about historical re-enactments, gather in Verdun every year to take part in a commemorative march.

One sunny Saturday in March, I joined up with four historical associations who took part in the event: “Le Poilu de la Marne” – from France, and “Darstellungsgruppe Suddeutches Militar”, “IG 18” and “Verein Historische Uniformen”- from Germany.

The French wore the uniforms of “Poilus” as French infantrymen in the First World War were nicknamed. The Germans wore the famous spiked helmet of the old German army. After laying a wreath in the village of Bezonvaux – one of nine villages that were completely wiped out by the fighting at Verdun – they took part in a 9 mile walk to visit the battlefield.

The Germans set out at a quick pace, as if in a race to impress the French, but as the miles wore on the two groups combined. The heat of the day took its toll and some individuals had to be helped to arrive at Fort de Vaux, their final destination.

The ghost villages of Verdun

Verdun, France
By Vincent Kessler

The year 2014 brings together the past and the future for France. It is a time of local elections, and it is also the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

The Battle of Verdun in northeastern France was the longest battle of the so-called Great War, lasting some ten months from February to December 1916. It was also one of the most murderous.


The WWI ossuary of Douaumont is seen in Douaumont near Verdun, Eastern France, March 4, 2014. The sentence reads : this tower was given to the great deads of Verdun by their friends from the US. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

After the 1870-71 war between France and Prussia, which ended with the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the Germans, Verdun was at the eastern edge of France. The city was fringed by hills – hills in which a network of forts was built to protect the border.

A taste for music

Haguenau, France

By Vincent Kessler

I love cooking and I have a passion for music. What then could please me more than an orchestra that plays music with instruments made out of vegetables?

I cannot remember when I first heard about the Vegetable Orchestra. But when I realized that they were planning to hold a concert some 40 kilometers from my home, I got in touch and was given the opportunity to watch them prepare for a performance.

Based in Vienna, Austria, the orchestra was created in 1998 by artists from a range of backgrounds, from musicians to people in visual fields like painting and design. Their website describes their sound as: “influenced by experimental contemporary, electronic music, musique concrete, noise, improvised music [and] pop music”.

France’s boy bullfighters

Nimes, south of France

By Jean-Paul Pelissier

Ask a young boy what he wants to be when he gets older and the reply is the usual “a fireman, soccer player, doctor or astronaut”. However, ask two young boys from southern France, Solal, aged 12 and Nimo, aged 10, and you’ll hear, “a bullfighter”.

At the start of the story, bullfighting was familiar to me, but full of unknowns. Familiar because living in southern France, the traditional Ferias of Nimes and Arles are well-known yearly popular festivals, attracting revellers for two or three days to the Roman arenas and parades with many dressed in local costumes. On occasion I attended bullfights with friends, followed by partying in the streets at the outdoor bars or “bodegas”.

Following the two boys I learned the language of the bullfighter, mostly Spanish in origin, that the “aficionados”, the dedicated fans use. The studied cape movements by the toreador, and the charges by the fighting bull, make for a charged confrontation between man and animal where spectators react with animated emotions.

Star of the gypsy circus

Paris, France

By Philippe Wojazer

“I want to become one of the best Flamenco dancers” said Roujenka, 13, the youngest daughter of Romanes Circus founders, Delia and Alexandre. The circus, located on the outskirts of Paris, is a small Gypsy circus and is entirely family-run. It is comprised of a tent in an enclave along this busy Parisian boulevard.

After asking her father, Roujenka became the first member of the family to go to school. Her three sisters and a brother were educated by teachers coming to the circus. “I have many problems at school”, Roujenka said. “The other pupils make fun of me because I do not dress like them. It is out of the question for me to give up my culture and wear trousers and they do not even try to understand why I wear my long and colorful dresses. It is becoming harder and harder for me to be who I am even more since my community was attacked in France. I am happy with my sisters, my brother and my parents, and the way I live. We do not harm anyone but we are always criticized.”

When I asked about her hobbies, I was expecting a simple answer, like one given by most 13-year-old girls. “I do not watch television. I do not have stuffed animals. My animals are the cats running everywhere in the circus. I do not go shopping, this is not our way of life, it’s not in our culture. The only place I go shopping is the Flamenco tailor but it is very expensive. I have three dresses, one red and white, a yellow one and a black with white spots. When I get off from school, I practice my Flamenco dancing, I sing, I rehearse, I listen to music. My sister Alexandra is a great trapeze artist and she teaches me a lot too. All this is with the goal to improve my skills.”

The ghost town of Goussainville

Goussainville-Vieux Pays, France

By Charles Platiau

Once upon a time there was a small French village called Goussainville, situated 20 kms (12 miles) north of Paris, with its town hall, its church, its 19th century manor, and only seven small streets. Early in the 20th century the only sounds to be heard came from the church bell, farm animals and the roar of thunder from a passing summer storm. Then came the Great War with the noise of canons. In May 1915 local resident Auguste Denis was killed, in November his brother Henri was killed. This followed in 1916 with the death of his brother Alfred and then in 1917 their brother Julien. A war monument was built with the four brothers’ names among the 32 soldiers from the village who lost their lives. Calm returned until the bombings of World War II. After the Liberation, German prisoners of war worked the fields and life quietly moved along until in June 1973 a Tupolev 144, performing at Le Bourget Air Show, crashed in the village, destroying fifteen homes and a school. A second sound was heard.

Then technicians installed speakers and turned up the sound, to demonstrate to the village residents what to expect with the opening of the future international airport, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle. Too much noise with the runways only 3 kms (2 miles) from the village, added to the fear of potential air crashes. Many residents moved away to a new village, bearing the same name, Goussainville, with a new cemetery. They called the village, “Le Vieux Pays” (Old Settlement), the houses were boarded up, the church closed its doors, the bells silenced, the cemetery would no longer see funerals, and only the rare visitors. Practically a ghost town, frozen in time, where only several die-hards, continue to live. Among them a book store owner, the only shop doing business in the village.

In 1997 the village tried to reawaken, to transform itself into a village of books and crafts, but today Nicolas Mahieu remains the only bookseller, no one came to join in his adventure. Often a day goes by without a single customer in his shop, although business goes on via the internet.

Destroying the heart of the village

Geste, France

By Stephane Mahe

The villages of rural France are faced with decreasing numbers of residents. In addition to the closure of bakeries and shops, they are seeing rising costs to maintain the religious and social heart of these communities, the local church. The village of Gesté and its church, Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, has witnessed this first-hand.

Local media reported the final phase of the “deconstruction” of a neo-Gothic church in the village of Gesté, and its 2,600 residents. The municipal council was unable to allocate the funds, some 3 million euros ($4.05 million) in 2007, needed for repairs and upkeep. With some research I discovered that since 2000, more than twenty village churches had faced the demolition ball. Apparently 250 churches in France are threatened with the same fate as municipalities are faced with extremely high costs to repair and maintain them, costs that are higher than the cost of tearing them down.

I appeared on site to discover the Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens church, built between 1854 and 1864, with workmen and cranes tearing down the walls of the church, leaving the bell tower and the crypt intact. People stopped to gather behind barriers to watch as heavy machines partially brought down the church.

Postcards from the capital of romance

Paris, France

By Christian Hartmann

In 2012, more than 15 million tourists visited the French capital, with its reputation for spots charged with history. They are also drawn by its eternal charm and landscape which appears to leap from a movie set like an invite for a romantic stroll.

Just a year ago I left the Zurich lake-front where I had spent nearly six years on assignment, covering principally sports and economic stories. Upon arrival in Switzerland, I was impressed by the potential beauty around the lake where residents gathered once the warm days of Spring arrived offering photographers interesting possibilities. Naturally, the new Parisian that I am, I headed to the banks of the Seine River this summer to capture moments that define the charm of Paris. Who hasn’t seen the famous photograph of a couple kissing in front of the Paris City Hall in 1950? Ever since, generations of lovers have kissed in the four corners of the city.

First stop, the Pont des Arts, the bridge which links the Louvre Museum with the Institute of France on Paris’ Left Bank. Since 2008 couples have attached padlocks to the fencing on the bridge in a symbol of their eternal love, as they take in the spectacular view of the Ile de la Cite, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the series of bridges which cross the Seine River, linking the city. At the end of the summer, a dark cloud appeared over the bridge in the form of the additional weight from the padlocks of love. There was concern that entire fencing sections could fall from the bridge, threatening the “bateaux mouches” (excursion boats) which transport tourists daily along the river. The question was raised whether these symbols of love would be removed.

Naked exposure

Montalivet, France

By Regis Duvignau

Montalivet: It’s a long beach of fine white sand, pine forest, traditional markets and naturists.

A stone’s throw away from my office, the Helio-Marin Centre’s,”live better, live naked” slogan is one I have known for a long time. So I decided to adopt Adam’s attire and become a true naturist for the duration of this assignment and melt into the crowd of 14,000 holiday makers at the nudist campsite during the busy summer season. The vacation center’s fences open to a quite “natural” landscape, hiding nothing from the eye either of human beauty or nature’s small faults.

I took up my own challenge to live for several days among naturists, shedding my own clothes along with pre-conceived ideas. I discovered the beach in the morning, naked as the day I was born. I encountered Jean Pierre who played a dance tune on his accordion while standing in the sea. Jean Pierre practices on the beach so as not to annoy vacationers in nearby bungalows with his wrong notes.

The choice for Mali

Timbuktu, Mali

By Joe Penney

As Mali went to the polls July 28 for the first round of presidential elections meant to restore peace and stability in the vast, landlocked West African country, I traveled from the capital Bamako to the dusty northern city of Timbuktu.

Elections in northern cities like Timbuktu, the storied Saharan trading post and scholarly center around since the early 14th century, were always going to be difficult to organize. The city is roughly 1000 km (620 miles) by road from the capital Bamako, but it takes 20 hours along dirt tracks and extremely potholed pavements to get there. During the rainy season, flooding renders the dirt track from Douentza to Timbuktu nearly impassable.

Since French and Malian forces took back control of the city from militant Jihadists in late January, electricity has been running only five hours a day, from 7 pm to midnight, provided by aid organizations and not the Malian government. Economic activity grinds to a halt during daytime hours, when scorching temperatures reach 45° C (113° F) at midday and not a fan moves among the 70,000 residents. Drinking water becomes like drinking tea without the tea bags, but that doesn’t matter much to the population of Timbuktu, the vast majority of which is currently fasting for Ramadan.