The photographs of Gilles Caron are the most comprehensive and enduring record of the civil unrest in Paris during 1968.
03 May 2018 | Jordan G. Teicher | New York Times
Fifty years ago this month, France erupted. Students lobbed cobblestones at riot police in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Millions of union workers went on strike. The government of President Charles de Gaulle tottered.
Today, the events of May 1968 are generally regarded as more of a cultural milestone than a political one, a time when the ideals of a rising generation collided with the mores of an older, more powerful establishment. Fifty years later, the legacy of those historic weeks remains a subject of debate between the country’s conservative and progressive factions. It is, as the philosopher André Glucksmann described itin 2008, “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury.”
Regardless of one’s political persuasion, those who think back on the events of May 1968 are likely to conjure the images of Gilles Caron, whose photographs stand as the most comprehensive and enduring record of the period. To mark the unrest’s 50th anniversary, the Parisian government and the Gilles Caron Foundation are presenting an exhibition dedicated to the photographer from May 4 to July 28 at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.
After high school, Mr. Caron studied journalism in Paris for a year before becoming a certified parachutist. He served 28 months in the military, including nearly two years during the Algerian War. He was imprisoned for two months in Algeria after refusing to resist a coup attempt against de Gaulle in 1961.
“It’s not that surprising that he wanted to get into journalism and photography,” said Robert Pledge, the co-founder and director of Contact Press Images, who once reported alongside Mr. Caron and represented his work for decades. “He was somebody who in the army had spent more time looking and observing than being able to speak.”
By 1968, at 28, Mr. Caron was already a star, a “James Dean of photography,” according to Mr. Pledge. He’d worked on Jean-Luc Godard’s film sets, photographed the English fashion icon Twiggy, and covered the day’s most prominent conflicts, including the Six-Day War, the Vietnam War and the Biafra War. Two years before the unrest in Paris, he founded the Gamma photo agency with the photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon and others. It soon became one of the most prestigious agencies in the world.
While Mr. Caron was, according to Mr. Pledge, “always on the side of the underdog” and had expressed sympathy with the protesters, his photos of May 1968 represent the full range of parties involved in the events. He photographed Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the student assemblies at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris, where the first protests began in March. He photographed the messy consequences of the garbage collectors strike. He photographed pro-Gaullist demonstrators on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. He even photographed de Gaulle himself, during a state visit to Bucharest, Romania, that May while protests churned back home.
“Even if he had an opinion and had implicitly chosen a side he’d always try to look at all sides of an event,” Mr. Pledge said.
Mr. Caron’s photographs capture the key players, but they also contain a subject uniquely attractive to Mr. Caron: other observers. On the Rue Saint-Jacques, he photographed an artist sketching a line of police officers standing in front of the Sorbonne. On Rue du Renard, he photographed a rooftop full of photographers. In a cafe, he photographed a group of people listening to the radio.
Mr. Caron’s photographs of joyful, radiant students capture what made the unrest seem to some “a huge collective fiesta,” as the journalist Marc Kravetz once described it. But in his photographs of the turmoil in the Latin Quarter — armed riot police racing through the streets, students hurling projectiles through the air — Mr. Caron appears to be documenting nothing less than urban guerrilla warfare (much like this week’s May Day riots). In these photos, Mr. Caron’s experience as a combat photographer helped give his photos a cinematic immediacy and power that quickly made them among the most widely circulated at the time.
The protests fizzled in June, President de Gaulle remained in power, and Mr. Caron moved on to other conflicts. In 1969, he photographed the troubles in Northern Ireland and the anniversary of the Prague spring in Czechoslovakia. In 1970, he was taken hostage for a month while covering the civil war in Chad with a group including Mr. Pledge. Just a few months after their release, Mr. Caron traveled to Cambodia, where, one day, he disappeared in Khmer Rouge-controlled territory, never to be seen again. He was 30.
“The interesting thing about Caron is that, in a way, he does represent that generation, that change, that movement, that aspiration to see the world change,” Mr. Pledge said. “He used photography as a way to observe changing realities and underline the unfairness, the unbalance of situations. In those days, there was still the belief that photography could contribute to not only observing the world, to understanding it better, but that it could also contribute to making it better.”
Original Link | These Protests Defined a Generation in France 50 Years Ago