“I became a photographer because I have no memory. Photography has allowed me to reconstruct family albums I never had,” wrote Patrick Zachmann. The absence of images in the house where he grew up, as well as the silence of his parents, spurred him on his path. He is haunted by the silence of his father, a Polish Ashkenazi Jew born in France, whose both parents were deported and murdered in 1942, and of his mother, a Sephardic Jew from Algeria, “eager to forget the misery of her family in colonial North Africa,” according to Paul Salmona, co-curator (in tandem with the photographer) of the introspective exhibition “Journeys of Memory”, which runs until March 6, 2022, at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme in Paris. This is “my most important work,” said Patrick Zachmann.
When the photographer set out in 1979 to cover his first story, on Orthodox Jews, the Hassidim, or the “visible Jews,” he knew little or nothing about his family history or about Judaism. Patrick Zachmann was born and raised in France in a secular household. At home, his father spoke neither Hebrew nor Yiddish to him. They did not celebrate Shabbat or Yom Kippur. “My mother, although religious, wasn’t practicing at all, and cooked ‘French’: not home-made couscous, but still the shakshouka and her famous dumplings. My father, a fervent atheist, inwardly felt he was Jewish, of course, but was proud to be French. He loved France and Paris.” In the eyes of Patrick Zachmann, Orthodox Jews are the Jews; he isn’t.
Having covered this community, the photographer went to Israel to photograph Shoah survivors during the first world gathering of survivors in Jerusalem. The photographer was not yet aware that he was following in his grandparents’ footsteps. “To start with, I take photographs, I am attracted to a subject and want to explore it.” It was during the editing process, a moment that the photographer particularly likes, that he began making connections. Sometimes it might be years before he realizes what led him to photograph a given subject. One image evokes another, and the photograph becomes revealing. “Through its silence, photography has managed to make me express what I was unable to express. Photography is very potent in saying the unsayable.”
Over time, Patrick Zachmann continued his quest for identity: he photographed members of Jewish extremist groups in Paris, went to meet old Ashkenazi men who get together in the Buttes-Chaumont park every day, and frequented dances, inspired by Diane Arbus’s portraits from the 1950s and 1960s, and by Jean-Daniel Pollet’s short film As Long as You Get Drunk (Pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse), where the photographer loved the dance-hall atmosphere and the actor Claude Melki’s performance.
Having started by exploring the “visible” identity of the Hassidim, he went on to make portraits of all kinds of Jews: religious, non-believers, artists, shopkeepers, rich, poor… “I wanted to deconstruct certain stereotypes and paint a subjective portrait of Jews in France that would show their diversity and, ultimately, their multiple identities.”
These series resonate with Zachmann’s personal history. “I intuitively moved from one identity to another to get closer to my own by negation, excluding those identities in which I did not recognize myself,” he recalled. “Photography is a fabulous mirror that, by way of others, anonymous or neighbors, sends you back to your own image. After weddings, bar mitzvahs, Jewish celebrations at home, childbirths, full-length or seated portraits, Patrick Zachmann ended up photographing his own loved ones, and discovered family on his mother’s side he had known little about. He has an extended Sephardic family: cousins, great-aunts. In 1987, he published the book Enquête d’identité (Identity Survey), a selection of images taken during all these years on and around Jewish identity.
Patrick Zachmann became a full-fledged member of the Magnum agency in 1990 (he had joined in 1985) and covered countless stories outside France. “I am a photographer and a journalist, but never both at the same time,” he said. In 1990, his work took him to South Africa: he was eager to experience first-hand the historic moment of Nelson Mandela’s release. He found himself at a demonstration of Afrikaners waving Nazi flags. In 1999, he went to Chile in search of traces of political prison camps in the Atacama Desert: “I discovered a country whose amnesia stunned me, but which attracted me all the more because I felt that it was a confused reminder of my own struggles with memory. I quickly understood that the essential lies beneath, that the aftermath of the regime is hidden from view.”
Six years after the Tutsi genocide, he traveled to Rwanda, returning with portraits of survivors and images of ossuaries that implacably conjure up the mass scale of the committed crimes. The same year, he visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his paternal grandparents were murdered. This last journey was almost coerced. “I had always thought I would avoid going to Auschwitz. It was for me the site of memory par excellence. It existed, I knew it. It was essential, and that was enough for me.” It was a film director friend who asked him to replace him chaperoning a high school trip. “Going to Auschwitz in someone else’s place: the idea made us smile, but no thanks, I don’t think I will,” Zachmann thought at first, but finally accepted and did not regret it. He brought back chilling panoramic images of the camps and of the remnants of the crematoria the Nazis had destroyed following their defeat.
What was silenced in private became public knowledge through the camera of Patrick Zachmann, who is also a film director. He would film his family members, one after the other; he asked his father to talk about his murdered parents in a moving video La Mémoire de mon père, and his mother about her past in Algeria, in Mare Mater, which made the photographer juxtapose his own family history and the stories of today’s migrants. Throughout the exhibition, we follow the photographer investigating history, remembrance, and buried memories. He seeks to lend a voice to silence, absence, and lacunae. Patrick Zachmann brings memory, whether Jewish or not, to light: he makes us remember our own and others’ history.
By Sabyl Ghoussoub
Born in Paris in 1988 into a Lebanese family, Sabyl Ghoussoub is a writer, columnist and curator. His second novel, Beyrouth entre parenthèses [Beirut in Parentheses] was released by Antilope editions in August 2020.
Patrick Zachmann, Journeys in Memory, December 2, 2021–March 6, 2022, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris.
Patrick Zachmann, Voyages de Mémoire, Atelier EXB / MAHJ, 224pp., €39.