Some people’s lives are like a novel: rich in travel and discovery, but guided by an impulse, a common thread. For Anita Conti, this guiding thread is the sea. Her writing and her photographs are bathed in brine, which propels her encounters and observations, feeds her ideas. It is the story of this unshakable connection that is told by Laurent Girault-Conti, Anita’s adoptive son, in Anita Conti et la Bretagne, published by Filigranes. The book offers a glimpse into an archive of some 50,000 photos which the oceanographer and photographer had accumulated during her long life. This archive has been entrusted to the town of Lorient in Brittany. However, it’s not just Anita Conti’s color and black-and-white photos that went into the book, it is also her words, or better yet, her handwritten notes. Some are descriptive, like the name of a ship, a technical term, others are more like haikus, but all are exquisite, like rare caviar that leaves an aftertaste of poetry.
As you browse, you will marvel at the modern quality of this extraordinary woman who navigated across the twentieth century. Born into a wealthy family in 1899, she first enjoyed success as an art bookbinder. Then she heard the call of the sea. She joined the French Office of Fisheries in 1934 and had never stopped observing fishermen at work. In this eminently masculine world, she gained the respect of these hardworking men. She photographed them with their caps screwed on their heads and their rolled-up sleeves revealing their muscular arms as they hoisted fish-filled trawls onto the deck.
Anita Conti soon realized that the resources they were pulling out of the sea were not inexhaustible. In a series of reports on oysters published in the newspaper La République in the mid-1930s, she wondered: “Don’t the marine fields need respite, the way rural land does?” With the development of modern fishing techniques, the phenomenon intensified. She was always opposed to the use of the term “production”: “Fishing is not production, it is extraction. When excessive, is it not breaking a thousand-year-old balance between man and the sea?” She concluded: “We have deregulated this mechanism, believing it to be to our advantage.”
Since the 1960s, when ecology and sustainable development were not yet topical, Anita Conti had worked to limit waste — thousands of fish thrown back into the water, pointlessly harmed because considered unsellable. “The sailors might have been offended that she was denouncing the excesses of their trade and their negligence when they had admitted her into their inner circle. But they also knew that she was defending the integrity of their work as artisans in the face of the agri-food industry, which was already upsetting the fragile balance, and that her argument made it possible to fight against what was already industrial fishing,” writes Laurent Girault-Conti. The photos of his adoptive mother make the sailors’ confidence clear: she captured their work, but also moments of relaxation on board of ever more-modern trawlers. The images follow the movement of the waves. All that is missing is the salt of the sea mist and the smell.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and former member of the editorial team at Polka and ARTE.
Anita Conti et la Bretagne, photos by Anita Conti and text by Laurent Girault-Conti. Édition Filigranes, 144 pages, € 25. In French.