German occupation photo exhibit causes scandal

A controversial new photography exhibit entitled, “Parisians Under Occupation" shows scenes of daily life that contrast sharply with the reality of the German occupation from 1940 to 1945. (Report : J. André)


A new photography exhibition, “Parisians Under Occupation" at the City Hall Library in Paris features 250 color photographs by French photographer André Zucca taken for the Nazi propaganda daily, “Signal”. On display from March 20 to July 1, the show has set off alarms in French intellectual circles.


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.


“We should stop this exhibit!”


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 digusts 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.”


Interesting maybe. Sensitive, certainly. The exhibition has now become a thorny issue for officials. Should it be maintained? Did passions flare inside city hall? Christophe Girard, who declined to respond to FRANCE 24’s questions, is said to have apologized for his sharp words.


The heritage bureau of the Paris mayoral office, which works under the supervision the city's cultural services, is sticking to its guns. “Independent commissioners, [including film-maker Jean Baronnet], approved the show and the historian Jean-Pierre Azéma was involved in its organisation.”

City hall admits "a lack"

A spokesperson from the Paris city hall is also making some clarifications. "Of all the photographs certain shown in the exhibit, not one of them was published in the Nazi magazine." The photographer, André Zucca (1897 – 1973), was a war correspondant for France Soir in 1939, and was called by the Germans in 1941 to work on the propaganda magazine "Signal". This bimonthly, available in occupied countries, reserved its color stock for battle photography, not civilian life. At Liberation, André Zucca was denied a press card and could no longer work as a journalist.

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. Organisers are also planning a debate titled “Is the camera an objective witness?” in a last-minute attempt to correct their early mistakes.


Paris Under Occupation : André Zucca. Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris, 22, rue Malher, 4th arrondissement. Tel.: 01 44 59 29 60. Open every day except Monday 11h to 19h. Through July 1st .

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