paris under occupation

What is revolting about this image ? what makes people so upset ? what about this one ?

paris under occupation

Those the image above makes you feel like screaming foul ? Do you want to pick up your phone and tell the exhibitor to pull them down, immediately. I fear not. besides being not very good, these image seem totally harmless, don’t they ?

Well Parisians are upset, very upset. A little background info would be good here:  Theses images where taken in Paris, by a french photographer called Andre Zucca for a magazine called Signal. They are amongst some of the earliest color photographs ever taken and depict parisians going about their daily life under nazi occupation. The problem is that Signal was a nazi propaganda magazine and that Andre Zucca, a french collaborator more than happy to show that the parisians where a bunch of happy people during that time.

Not so,  said some french human rights organization and  individuals. Parisians were suffering and all doing “resistance”. However, when one visits this exhibit, it is clear that none of the images are staged. Perhaps posed, but certainly not stage. There is even photographs of the “Rue des rosiers”, in the heart of the Parisian jewish neighborhood where one can see a few people walking, albeit one man visibly wearing a yellow cross:

paris under occupation

Parisians who lived during this period do not want to be showed as happy citizen during this period. French people, in general, would rather show them heroically fighting against the occupant. Thus after many protests, the exhibitors have agreed to add some more information to go along with the images to better explain the situation.

What is interesting here is how very banal images can trigger so much heated reaction. The images themselves, quite frankly, are boring snapshots.Yet, a lot of people are up in arms saying they are insulted by these images. I found it fascinating that images can become insulting not by what they depict but rather by what they do not show. Besides resistance, they do not show the terribly difficult situation such a big city had to face in order to find the most basic food during a time of war.It doesn’t show the constant humiliation to having to live under an enemy force and arbitrary sets of rules. It doesn’t show the frustration of witnessing such violent acts and not being able to do anything about it.

Let’s face it. Not every man or woman is a hero. Not everyone is ready to pick up a gun and fight against the most powerful army at the time. And these images show part of that. The reality was far more ambiguous than be a resistant or be a collaborator. The lines were not clearly defined and certainly not simple to cross. Sometimes, just getting decent food for your family, your kids, was all a days work and no other business could occupy your mind.

It is easy for us to judge, from the comfort of our home, on a time and place we have never been close to.

These images had never been published before. The German Nazi kept color photography for war images only. Furthermore, color photography was such a difficult process at the time, it could only be taken in bright sunny days. That adds  impression  that the occupation was just a long hot sunny day. Obviously people look worst under gray or rainy days.

Finally, the photographer, who was never persecuted for helping the nazis , was not allowed to shoot sensitive areas, mostly where the Nazi lived or assembled, for security reasons. Thus, there are multiple  invisible underlying censorships in these images: the photographers eyes, the technical requirement of the film and the Nazi censorship.

The mayor of Paris has ordered fuller captions and organized debates around this exhibit of more than a thousand images. Sensibilities have to be managed as well as the truth needs to be massaged by many words, spoken or written.

We say that an image is worth a thousand words. Well, it this case, an images needs a thousand more words.

Can we consider these images photojournalism ? After all, Andre Zucca was one of the most  important war correspondent before the war, working for celebrated publication France Soir. This is what he saw, with the tools he had, and an assignment he was given. Not so much different then if Time magazine* would send a photographer in Afghanistan to shoot the daily life and asking the reporter to show the bright side of Kabhul life.

This photo exhibit has more than the eye can see and brings our comprehension of photography a step further. How we see or perceive an event, how we can sometimes feel  frustrated by its short coming, how it fixes into time who we are, and how we behave.

More info and a little sideshow here

*Time magazine, of course, is not a propaganda magazine and the American army is not the Nazi, far from it.

Author: pmelcher


  1. The pictures are interesting because they are rare. From what i see there just lovely girls that Zuca is photographing and said “give me a smile please”.
    The bhvp and organizers were so scared that they just put the minimum of text under each photo. So scared of one of the daughters who might decide to stop the exhibition if a slit word would hint that her father was an anti-Semite (from what liberation says) and worked for the nazi.
    I thing they should have signed the picture Photo “inedit non paru dans signal and then discrib the picture.(C) ZUCCA. with the date.

    What i always find amazing in france is that people wake up criticize after the event.(SMILE)

  2. Author

    Not the woman’s responsibility if her father was a collaborator. Or was she knowingly benefiting from a crime ?
    Either way, the information is outside the frame and that is what I find fascinating about these images.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.