The exhibit that I liked the best while I was in Paris this summer was Paris Libéré, Paris Photographie, Paris Exhibé at the musée Carnavalet in the Marais. Although it’s particularly pertinent right now, as Paris was liberated 70 years ago on August 25, it’s on until February 8, 2015. I had written about this exhibit before going to France this summer, but it had a different impact on me than I had expected.
On one level, the exhibit recreated one that took place immediately after the liberation of Paris. But on another level, it really pushed the viewer to consider the role that photography plays in history. For example, the exhibit looked at images of the occupying German troops posed in front of Parisian landmarks that where juxtaposed with pictures of the liberating American troops posed in exactly the same way.
The rooms had provocative questions written on the walls in French, German, and English. One of those questions wondered what happens if there are no photos of an event or a group. Did the event really happen or was the group really there? There were no photos in the original exhibit of women or people of color as combatants even though both groups had actively participated in the liberation. There was footage of one female Resistance fighter disarming a soldier and then receiving a commendation for bravery. Women were only shown kissing soldiers in the initial exhibit. The contributions of both African-American and North African soldiers were figuratively whitewashed out of the photographic record because the American commander wanted an all-white liberation.
For me, the most chilling photograph was a room in Paris lined in asbestos that was used as an incineration chamber. The heat softened the asbestos and the photo trapped the hand prints of victims trying to claw their way out of the room. But the kicker was that this room was used both by the Gestapo AND the French authorities who collaborated with them.
Near the end of the exhibit, a video interview with geneticist Axel Kahn delved into philosophical questions about image and reality. What “wins” when a photograph conflicts with a memory? Which is real? He also talked about how stress, such as living in an occupied city during a war, changes people at a genetic level – even two generations later! It was fascinating stuff.
Today’s expression, un aide-mémoire (uhn ed maym-wahr), means a memory-aid or a reminder. The exhibit does an amazing job of discussing the role of photographs as propaganda as well a memory-prop. It was the most intellectually stimulating museum exhibit I’ve ever experienced and I highly recommend it to you.