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Gilles Caron: Through the eyes of a photojournalist

Gilles Caron: Through the eyes of a photojournalist

In his documentary Histoire d’un Regard: À la recherche de Gilles Garon, the filmmaker Mariana Otero delves into the the French photographer’s archives. Although her quest is sometimes disjointed, she must be commended for digging out some forgotten gems by a reporter who died suddenly in Cambodia in 1970, at the age of thirty.

© Fondation Gilles Caron / Clermes 

A grey box takes up the passenger seat in Mariana Otero’s car: it is Gilles Caron’s “black box,” a hard drive containing 100,000 pictures, entrusted to her by the photographer’s family. In Histoire d’un Regard: À la recherche de Gilles Caron (History of a Vision: In Search of Gilles Caron), the filmmaker looks back at the meteoric career of the photojournalist. Otero links this tragic death with the fate of the reporter’s mother, an artist, who also passed away at thirty.

A six-month-long investigation

The aspiring researcher begins her investigation with a period she knows very well: May ’68. To the clicking sound of her mouse, she scrolls through contact sheets. One picture catches her attention: it’s the iconic photo of Cohn-Bendit smiling arrogantly at a policeman. Mariana Otero provides a voice-over commentary to her film, addresses Gilles Caron using the familiar second-person singular, and conducts quasi-archeological excavations to retrace his steps and understand his vision. It took six months to sort these archives, often numbered in a random fashion.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit devant la Sorbonne, 6 mai 1968 © Fondation Gilles Caron / Clermes 

To cover Caron’s first major photo story, done in Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, the filmmaker reconstructs, with the help of a historian, the reporter’s tour of the holy city. There is a beautiful moment: the soundtrack includes one of Gilles Caron’s few voice recordings from a radio or TV interview. With nearly nonchalant composure, he we hear him relate the first feat of arms. He “found himself in the thick of war, just like that, plonk!” He would be one of the few to capture Israeli soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall. This was his first scoop. “A lucky break!,” admitted Caron.

From Olympia to the hell of Biafra

In-between assignments, Gilles Caron could be found at the frontlines of the political and cultural life in Paris. “There isn’t all that much difference between covering war in Israel and a premiere at Olympia. It’s all the same to me,” he confessed. Giscard, De Gaulle, Chirac, Brel, Piccoli… Caron elbowed his way among paparazzi, pushed to the front, or made it behind the scenes during the latest Truffaut movie set in order to “find an anecdote, so-and-so with such-and-such.”

Soldat Américan, guerre du Vietnam, Janvier 1967 © Fondation Gilles Caron / Clermes 

But fieldwork would catch up with him. Caron went where cohorts of journalists would go: Vietnam. He covered the battle of Dak To, one of the bloodiest in the history of the conflict. In napalm-incinerated forests, Caron took photos by the hundred. He shot 3,000 photos in the midst of the carnage: he was right in the heart of it all, immortalizing the scared faces of dejected soldiers. He was always calm, his lips curved into a smile. Over the course of six years, Caron was present wherever things were happening. In a TV interview, with a childish pout on his face, he struggled to talk about the horrors of Biafra (1968): massacres, famine, men bedecked with weapons, starved children. He wanted to see everything.

The private life of Gilles Caron

North Ireland, 1969: this was another of Gilles Caron’s big stories. Mariana Otero traveled to the location and found those whom the photographer had captured in his pictures during the Irish Troubles. They were kids then, wielding Molotov cocktails and pavestones against armored police vehicles: a young girl in her skirt and mary-janes in a field of rubble; another youngster wearing a gas mask—that one made the front page of Paris Match. In Ireland, too, these photos have become symbols. 

After an assignment in Chad gone bad in February 1970, Caron thought of giving it up. He rediscovered the quiet pleasures alongside his father, stretched out on the lawn, photographing children. When he was asked to do a story on Cambodia, he went only reluctantly. “I am all about family life now, and Gamma needs to find a replacement for me,” he wrote to his wife. He would be dead on April 5, 1970.

Emeutes du Bogside, Août 1969 © Fondation Gilles Caron / Clermes 

© Fondation Gilles Caron / Clermes 

Portrait de Gilles Caron, Décembre 1968 © Fondation Gilles Caron / Clermes 

Par Michaël Naulin

Histoire d’un Regard: À la recherche de Gilles Caron

Documentary film, dir. Mariana Otero

Release date: January 29, 2020 (1hr 33min)

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