When asked to choose one photo by his friend Gilles Caron, Robert Pledge didn’t pick an iconic image from Northern Ireland, Vietnam, or Biafra. He would rather talk about a picture of young lovers kissing. He holds it up as a proof of the great sensibility of the French photographer, a far cry from the inferno of war that marked Caron’s short but exceptional career before his death in Cambodia in April 1970.
Gilles Caron was present on all the fronts, covering every major conflict of his time. He did it with unwavering intensity and unflinching will to see and to show, to bear witness in the most humane way. “There is no apparent reason why I should take it upon myself and, to the best of my abilities, try to improve this imperfect and boring world that was given to me at birth. One always suffers, but in different ways. Doing nothing is hopeless. Playing a part means taking your century in hand, being steeped in it, through and through,” Caron wrote in a letter to his mother in May 1960, having reluctantly completed thirty months of his National service in Algeria as a paratrooper.
The human face of the struggle
This fierce sense of responsibility is foregrounded in the traveling exhibition, Gilles Caron, Un monde imparfait, on view in Cherbourg from April 24 through October 3, 2021, featuring 150 prints, some fifty documents, and three videos… The exhibition took two years to assemble. Half a century after his death, Gilles Caron’s photography still strikes a chord. Many may not know his name, but everyone knows his photos: like the portrait of Daniel Cohn Bendit smiling defiantly at a policeman in May ’68. “Caron is visually at ease enough in a crowd to pick a face capable of embodying the struggle,” explains Guillaume Blanc, who has curated the exhibition with Clara Bouveresse and Isabella Seniuta.
But who really was Gilles Caron? What was his work like in field? “He was an uncompromising individual, thoroughly honest, serious. He was an exceptional human being,” replies Robert Pledge. A great specialist in photography, co-founder of the agency Contact Press Images in New York, which represents Don McCullin and David Burnett among others, Robert Pledge understood “that photography matters,” because of Gilles Caron.
The Chad misadventure
How did they meet? Robert Pledge wanted to cover the events in Chad in 1969. The country was in the throes of a rebellion, and France supported militarily the besieged government’s army against the “Toubou insurgents.” “At the time, no one was interested. A friend told me: ‘You can write whatever you want, but if you don’t bring back photos or films, it’s useless.’” Pledge tried to get in touch with the newly founded photo agency Gamma, launched by Gilles Caron, Raymond Depardon, and a few others. The contact was made through the TV reporter, Michel Honorin. The first meeting was a fiasco. But Depardon did finally get back in touch. They were in business.
Robert Pledge remembers his first exchanges with Caron: “He wouldn’t say much, he was observing me with his light blue eyes. He was not a talkative person. He spoke in short sentences, asking practical questions.” Preparations for the expedition went underway. On January 12, 1970, Pledge met up with Depardon, Caron, and Honorin at Le Bourget airport in Paris. They headed for Libya, then onward to Chad’s Tibesti mountains to meet up with the rebels. Gilles Caron’s contact sheets make the photographs of the expedition look almost look like a friendly road trip, as the foursome drove Land Rover across the Libyan desert. Except that the adventure was about to take a more dramatic turn.
“This time we’re screwed, we’re really screwed.”
The group made contact with the rebels at the border. They drove on to the village of Aouzou, an oasis in the north of the Tibesti region. Early one morning, Pledge found himself with Caron in an abandoned, roofless bombed-out school building. They were unaware they had been followed for some time by an auxiliary unit of goumiers from the Chadian army. “Suddenly, Caron calls out, ‘We’re being shot at, we’re being shot at!’ I see him grab his cameras and literally dive into the building. I’m right behind. I could hear bullets ricocheting,” recounts Robert Pledge.
He and Caron were trapped with a few rebels who were accompanying them. The shooting lasted several hours. “Next to me, an old combatant’s teeth were chattering. As their leader ordered the man to take a position, he stood up, took three steps, and caught a bullet in the neck. He spun around, fell backward, and bled to death. For me, the moment was unreal and I said to myself ‘barely ten days ago we were in Saint-Germain-des-Prés,’” Pledge recalls. Caron, stuck in a corner with his camera, said only: “This time we’re screwed, we’re really screwed.”
“A cinematic approach to photography”
The four men were taken prisoner. They were detained for a week in the former colonial fort in Bardaï, before spending three weeks as detainees in the capital Fort Lamy, today N’Djamena. Miraculously, Gilles Caron managed to smuggle out the films he had hidden in his socks and underwear. Robert Pledge recounts: “Thanks to a French chief sergeant, the films were passed on to a pilot of a Nord Noratlas military supply plane that was on its way to Fort Lamy. He then gave them to a pilot of the French civilian airline UTA, who in turn handed them over to a stewardess, who, upon arrival in Paris, phoned Gamma.”
That’s how their disappearance became known. Gilles Caron’s photos of the ambush were splashed over the pages of the weekly Paris Match and the daily L’Humanité. On the evening of their release, Caron confided in Pledge: “For two hours, he talked to me about his life. He said, ‘this time I’ve had enough. I’m done. I have my family, Marianne and my two daughters, I’ve taken too many chances.” A friendship was forged.
A few weeks later, they dined together. Gilles Caron told Robert Pledge that he was going back to Cambodia. “He said, ‘I will be very cautious.’ He didn’t want me to think that he had lied to me. He went back to Cambodia because he was curious, because he was a journalist, and felt a sense of responsibility.” Gilles Caron disappeared a few days later, in early April 1970, on Route 1 between Phnom Penh and Saigon. His friend read the news in Le Monde.
President for many years of the Gilles Caron Association he co-founded, Pledge sums up his friend’s photography as follows: “It is a body work that has not aged. Caron is both modern and deeply honest in his approach. You can pick up his photographs fifty years later, and they still convey the feeling they were taken yesterday. There is something so clear and translucent about his work that is without equal.”
Whether on the barricades in May 68 in Paris or in the hills of Dak To, in the Vietnam inferno, Gilles Caron’s camera aimed from all angles, with combined rigor and formidable freedom. “He had a cinematic approach to photography. He could spin around, dart back and forth with fluidity, because of his small stature. He had a light touch,” explains the director of Contact Presse Images. Gilles Caron’s brief, intense career left a legacy of dynamic framing and great humanity, when a face, a glance, becomes the symbol of a struggle, the iconic representation of a period in history that the photographer wanted to witness and show to others.
By Michaël Naulin
Michaël Naulin is a journalist. Having worked for regional and national press, he is above all passionate about photography and, more specifically, about photo reporting.
Gilles Caron, Un Monde Imparfait
Texts by Guillaume Blanc, Clara Bouveresse, and Isabella Seniuta.
112 pages, 70 B&W and color photographs
Book available here.
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