Friday, 20 November 2015

Not the blog I was expecting to post this week.

Following the terrible events in Paris on Friday, my annual report from Paris Photo takes a very different tone than expected.

Like many of my photographic colleagues who were gathered in Paris last week, I was excited to spend the week immersed in a celebration of creativity and artistic diversity. At a later date, I shall post another sadly truncated blog about the work I saw.

Following the preview day on Wednesday, two full days at the fair, the Prix Pictet evening on Thursday & back to the fair for meetings on Friday afternoon, my fabulous assistant Sarah and I headed back to our apartment to prepare for a party I was providing the music for. We had a bottle of champagne each. Many good friends would be there. It looked to be a great night ahead....

Just after 10pm, the news began to trickle in. Everyone started looking at their phones and sharing what information they could. I grabbed my mobile just in time to catch it ringing - it was my mother was calling from Australia in a panic. My brother & several others had texted me. I assured my mum that I was safe and that we were not going anywhere. The relief in her voice made the gravity of the ongoing events concrete. Each person was in their own world wondering what was going on & thinking of their loved ones. I must say a huge thank you to everyone who sent me a message, called or posted on Facebook, it was much appreciated & very comforting.

We were safe on the 4th floor of an apartment building and glad to be so. As the number of dead increased throughout the night & more reports came in, the scale of the attack was not revealed until the next day. We were too close to fully comprehend what was happening. Many of us decided to stay put & not risk going out onto the streets.

(screen grab from phone)

At a minute past midnight, Facebook texted many of us. This quite unexpected amazing use of technology was much appreciated to make sure that we were safe. This was welcomed as much by my friends & family as it was by myself.

Sitting on the rooftop terrace we could hear the sirens & only pray for those exposed to the barbaric things happening in Paris below. Makeshift sleeping arrangements were made by our gracious hosts & some people left around 4.30am - with strict instructions to text me when they arrived at their hotel.

The next morning we had to leave the safety of our defiant party and face reality.

As we walked back to our apartment the streets of Paris were all but deserted. Very few pedestrians passed by. 

The stillness was eerie. In the absence of traffic, the city felt bereft of life. The sound of the city was stripped to a forlorn chorus of police & ambulance sirens. 

Once back at our apartment,  we went online to see the full details of the attacks via the BBC & Le Monde. It was shocking and surreal. Flags had been removed from the bank opposite as a mark of respect. 

By Sunday there were two armed security officers posted outside and carrying machine guns. They looked so young it was unnerving.

Like many others in the city, we spent the evening inside. 

By Sunday, we were keen to get some fresh air. The Metro was closed so we walked to the Place de la Republique to pay our respects. 

There were many tributes along the way to those whom had lost their lives & to the city.

Grafitti had appeared overnight. 

It was beautiful and touching to see.

A cross was sprayed over Marianne's lips. Fresh tributes to the victims of the attacks surrounded its base, joining those of the Charlie Hebdo attack from January. A sad reminder of how recent the city suffered at the hands of terrorists.

The sun was shining.  Camera crews were everywhere. 

We walked further to Sacré-Cœur to look out over the city before heading back. 

We stopped for a drink in Montmartre and watched the crowds of people inspect paintings on easels & those who made them trying to sell their wares. 

The events of the night before were momentarily forgotten until another group of soldiers passed by. The mood changed in an instant. A little boy tried to say hello to one of them, it was all very strange.

Heading back via the Louvre, we watched the sun go down over Paris for the last time on our trip. We were glad to have walked its streets before leaving the next day. Cafe owners had been happy to serve us, defiant in carrying on as usual. As night fell the streets returned to silence. The darkness brought with it a guarded expectancy which sent everyone inside. Watching from our apartment the street was again as deserted as the day before.

By morning, the busy energy of the working week was a welcome sight. Cars, bikes, buses, people all going about their business. There was time for one last coffee near Gare Du Nord before boarding the Eurostar. At midday, a one minute silence was announced. We sat quietly in our own thoughts, sad in the knowledge of recent events, emotions close to the surface.

Many years ago, I fell out of love with Paris when a series of mishaps ruined a visit there. Since then, I have resumed my affair year after year with one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

This time I missed many of the exhibits I had planned to see. Instead, I found myself viewing humanity of a different kind. In my case I was lucky to be surrounded by warm & friendly souls, looking out for each other & resistant in their free spirited nature toward those determined to spread their cruelty and disrespect for life.  I was privileged to see the best of the city. A city facing adversity where people were sheltering strangers in their homes.

Upon arrival at Kings Cross International reporters were poised to interview people coming through. Sarah was stopped & asked if she was someone else by a journalist. We moved on quickly. Then the monstrous Disney tree came into sight, piled high with soft toys, reminding us of the shallow nature of shameless Christmas promotions.

It was a far cry from the numerous sites around the world displaying the Tricolore.

I do hope that Paris never has to experience anything like this again. I hope the same for Gaza, for Syria, for everywhere that people have a home. The future is uncertain but the ability to show love is not. The ability to extend compassion, to offer shelter and freedom and fraternity, especially in the face of adversity and violence, is something that terrorism can never by its very nature defeat.