Ben Partridge visits Paris to compare strike photography in 1936 and 1968

This trip to Paris was a central part of the archival research for my PhD, an entangled comparison of the strike photography of 1936 and 1968. I will analyse the common threads running through the representation of both movements, but also how the medium contributed to the substantial legacies and mythologies each has taken on, and how this responded to their changing historiographies. It has felt like an especially apt time to be researching labour history in France, with the ongoing dispute over labour law spilling out into strikes and mass street demonstrations. These movements have prominently contributed to the legacy of worker’s rights which is again subject to contestation, but I am also seeking to explore how participants visualised their own protest. I hoped that the archives would reveal alternative views of the movements, beyond the iconic images endlessly repeated in the media

Picture of the Hotel de Ville, Paris
Exhibition at the Hotel de Ville, Paris

Timing was key for another reason. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Popular Front, the Musée de l’Histoire Vivante and the Hôtel de Ville both hosted extensive exhibitions, exploring the key role of photography in the period. Both drew on the work of a generation of pioneering photojournalists, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Willy Ronis and others, who formed an iconic presentation of the era. However, anonymous and previously unseen material was also used, the Musée de l’Histoire Vivante in particular captured a wide range of images from across France, highlighting the movement beyond Paris and beyond professional journalists. They also provided a perfect example of photography’s centrality in building narratives of the movement’s memory, and its entanglement with the present. One particularly pertinent example was the penultimate section of the Hôtel de Ville exhibition, focusing on images of refugees from the Spanish Civil War which appeared all too contemporary.

The Elie Kagan collection at the BDIC spans the career of a photographer who relentlessly catalogued strikes and demonstrations in the Paris region throughout the 1960s and 70s. After spotting Kagan atop the Lion statue at Place Denfert-Rochereau, photographing the demonstration in both the Bibliothèque Nationale and Saint-Denis archives, it was rewarding to see what he was shooting, and the presence of contact sheets shed more light on the photographer’s working process. There was a surreal moment coming across images of the Bibliothèque Nationale on strike, where I’d been a few days prior and which was again on strike days several times through my visit.

Photographer Elie Kagan atop the Lion statue at Place Denfert-Rochereau
Elie Kagan atop the statue. Recueil de photographies de l’Ecole de Vaugirard, 1968, Bibliotheque Nationale, EP-5248-BOITE FOL

The Bibliothèque Nationale provided an excellent source of material from lesser known photographers of ’68: female photographers such as Annette Lèna, Michèle Brabo and Janine Niepce, as well as material from the Ecole de Vaugirard collective. The Police Archives also unveiled some surprising new perspectives. Photographs showing evidence of the aftermath of the Night of the barricades, when students and police fought running street battles were accompanied by a collection of aerial photography showing barricades crossing the Latin Quarter. These examples highlight how lesser-seen photography in the archives differ starkly from the clichéd images of student protest comprising May 68 in the popular imagination.

But the stand out was the photographic records of communist newspaper L’Humanité, held at the Archives Départementales de la Seine-Saint-Denis. After reading about the exhibition held for the 40th anniversary of May 68 in 2008, I’ve always wanted to see the largely unpublished material, and it did not disappoint. It contains the paper’s own photography as well as photography submitted by correspondants – activists trained to document strikes and demonstrations, rather than professional journalists – and some material from photographic agencies (with original press releases still attached), in both prints and negatives. This huge collection provides a great counterpoint to the focus on students (though there is some coverage of student demonstrations). In documenting the strike action at various workplaces across Paris, its surrounding towns, and as far afield as Bordeaux, Lyon and Nantes, it refocuses on the labour dimensions of the strike in all its diversity. As well as the interiors of occupied factories, it shows the strike at railways, department stores and theatres and demonstrations of state television employees, taxi drivers and even psychiatric nurses.

The archival material and exhibitions will form key pillars in the construction of my thesis, adding to already published material and online collections. They not only illuminate how photographs characterise the movements, but also carry and shape their memory and are used to form new, contemporary resonances.

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