Fighting for the truth with pen and photography — Blind Magazine

“On the Pirate Coast. I was photographing them… My camera was shaking. The words, hanging from the end of the pen, were written by Albert Londres during a trip to Saudi Arabia, in his report pearl divers [Pearl Divers]. The word becomes an image. Born in 1884, London wrote like you pull a trigger, the tip hits the mark. “A journalist’s job is not to please or hurt; it’s pointing the pen at the wound,” he said.

The great French reporter, with his neat beard and well-cut suit, told the story of the world until he tragically perished in the fire of the ship which brought him back from a mission to China, on May 16 1932. He was 47 years old.

Ninety years later, the annual Bayeux Calvados-Normandie prize, which rewards photojournalists and war correspondents from all over the world, pays tribute to this illustrious ambassador of the profession through a little-known facet of his work: his photographs. Because, if his well-crafted reports are the gold standard, his photos, precious documents of history, have long been forgotten.

He’s in Saudi Arabia, he’s going to write a book called “Pearl Fishers”. Below the photo, he writes: “On the pirate coast. I photographed them… my camera shook. © Albert London Prize Archives
© Albert London Prize Archives
© Albert London Prize Archives

Casablanca, souk and mysterious envelope

“It had been staring us in the face for quite a while. It’s incredible that it took us so long to take a closer look at Albert Londres’ relationship to the image,” says Hervé Brusini, curator of the exhibition and president of the annual Albert Londres Prize, which rewards best French-language reports (the press, audiovisual and book prizes).

The exhibition of part of the Albert Londres collection, comprising nearly 800 prints, is unprecedented. This is all the more true since a large number of photographs were found in circumstances worthy of a novel. In the 1960s, a young French teacher, Didier Folléas, came across a mysterious envelope in a souk in Casablanka. It contained 150 photos. On the back, a signature: “London”. By cross-checking the reporter’s writings, Folléas is sure: these are indeed photographs taken by London during his trip to Africa in 1928.

The photographs denounced the death of 17,000 Africans during the construction of the Congo Ocean railway by the French construction company Batignolles. “If the Colonial Minister does not believe me, I will make the photos available to him,” he wrote to the French government official. Thus the image becomes proof of the inhuman working conditions.

However, as the exhibition Albert London and the Image shows us, the man and his time had a rather tense relationship with photography. “London’s first writing was a glove thrown at photography,” says Hervé Brusini.

Albert Londres denounces the death of 17,000 blacks during the construction of the Congo Ocean Railway;
Albert Londres denounces the death of 17,000 blacks during the construction of the Congo Ocean Railway; “If the Colonial Secretary doesn’t believe me, I have the photos available to him.” © Albert London Prize Archives
Albert traveled the Jewish world from Europe to Jerusalem,
Albert toured the Jewish world from Europe to Jerusalem, in “The Wandering Jew Has Arrived,” he says of the photo: “I cocked my camera and sprang into action. Did you throw a stone at a group of sparrows? I hunted them with my instrument. Some ran, others covered their faces with their hands, the most daring showed me their fists. “It doesn’t eat men,” I shouted at them, “it’s painless! “. © Albert London Prize Archives

Photography, the unloved

September 19, 1914: Reims Cathedral is bombed by the Germans. London, then a political journalist in Paris, is dispatched to the scene. His report is heartbreaking. It was his first feat. “London was a poet who made the reader see things, his writing is very pictorial. He photographed with his pen,” says the curator.

At one point, the reporter jotted down these lines: “The photographs will tell you nothing of his condition. Photographs won’t give you the skin tone of the dead. You will only truly cry in the face of [the cathedral of Reims]when you come here on pilgrimage.

© Albert London Prize Archives
© Albert London Prize Archives

These words reflect a time when photography did not have good press. “It was in 1914: people thought that the photo generated by a camera, a machine, was an image without any added value. While a draftsman transmitted his vision through his artistic gesture, the photographer only took the photo; after all, anyone could do it”, explains Hervé Brusini.

People were wary of the image, especially since retouching services already existed. “With gouache and Indian ink, retouching heightened the contrast of the photograph, but also removed elements of the image.” The front pages of newspapers, like The morning, The Little Parisian, The Excelsior, hello public…were filled with drawings. In the field, London was most often accompanied by his friend, designer Georges Rouquayrol.

But photography gradually took the place of drawing. Some newspapers, like The Excelsior, began using photographic images, promising not only to “tell the news, but also to show it”. The weight of the words was reinforced by the shock of the photos. Albert Londres came to understand the importance of images. He wanted to travel with several cameramen to film his subjects. The cameras were too bulky, too expensive, he was told. Ahead of his time, he turned to the camera: lighter, more practical, more discreet.

© Albert London Prize Archives
Albert London. © Albert London Prize Archives

The image as “evidence”

A camera around his neck, we see Albert Londres running on the deck of a boat. This scene was immortalized in a film shot in December 1919 off the coast of Beirut. This is the first time that we have seen a journalist using a camera. The published report included fifteen photos featured on the front page of The Excelsior, subtitled “photos of our special correspondent”. Who introduced Albert Londres to photography? We do not know. What camera did he use? According to Hervé Brusini, “probably a Kodak Vest Pocket, it was the easiest camera to use at the time”.

© Albert London Prize Archives
© Albert London Prize Archives
© Albert London Prize Archives
© Albert London Prize Archives

Albert Londres’ reportage is oriented towards investigation and photography becomes a witness. “Albert Londres’ work has turned into a commitment and a fight for the truth. And in this fight, the image would end up playing a decisive role”, affirms the president of the Albert Londres Prize. “For Albert Londres, photography is both an image-taking of notes and an image-proof.”

Glass plates taken by photographer Jeannin show the journalist at work in French Guiana, notebook in hand and his clothes unwrinkled. Largely thanks to the photos taken on the spot, London then denounces the horrors of the penal colony of Cayenne.

© Atelier Albert London
© Atelier Albert London

The vintage equipment exhibited in Bayeux tells the story of war reporting in the early 20th century. “It was a time when the profession wanted to orient itself towards the instantaneous image in real time, but without having the means to do so, explains Hervé Brusini. London seizes the potential of the image. His contemporary, the writer Pierre Mac Orlan, similarly prophesied in 1928, “in 25 years, all reporters will know how to handle a camera”.

This photographic journey to the origins of the report is very moving: rare snapshots of remote corners of the world captured by the eye and the pen of London. These images inevitably bring us back to the current age of distrust of information. “We are very destabilized by digital technologies, and even distrustful of the job of journalist, of the veracity and the very necessity of information. These are deadly questions for democracy,” notes Hervé Brusini. “This exhibition aims to show that, already for Albert Londres, the image and the word had the same objective, a shared ambition to serve the truth.

Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Prize Festival. “Albert London and the image”, Exhibition until November 13, 2022.

© Albert London Prize Archives
“The Georges Philippar on fire. This is where Albert Londres perished while returning from China on May 16, 1932. » © Archives Prix Albert Londres

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