When the press photographer Jérôme de Souza died in 2005 at 27 years old, it was a painful loss to all who knew him. His father, the writer Carlo de Souza took 10 years before he finally decided that he was perhaps emotionally ready to take on going through the collection of photographs that Jérôme had left behind him. And during this process, he decided, as a tribute to his son and as a way to expiate the painful mourning he and his family and friends inevitably go through after such a death (1), to publish a book of his photographs. And that was how he appealed to about 10 writers and photographers to include contributions. I was one of those appealed to for a few words (I have appended them below).
And this is how 12 years after his death, Jérôme de Souza has given us a book Brulantes Visions (Red Hot Glimpses) that captures fleeting images of life in Mauritius. The book launch was held at L’Artelier in St. Louis Street in Port Louis on Friday 10 December, in a convivial atmosphere, with photographs adorning the walls.
The photographs taken as a whole portray a sensitive anti-macho photographer. As much as they portray what is in front of his lens. Jerome has a gentle view of an often cruel world, a view that, at the same time, stands up firmly (until now, when he has been gone 12 years) for the oppressed, for the struggling, for the ordinary pleasures of ordinary people and for the poor. Yet gently. The very opposite of the macho male reality he was so often obliged to photograph.
Perhaps the most telling photograph of the whole collection is the one of the young woman in home-clothes who has come out on to the streets, standing hands on hips facing down a horde of armed Riot Police. She stands there, a woman, with nonchalent disdain, right in the middle of the police stand-off in the uprising that followed the death of another gentle soul, the singer, Kaya, killed while in police custody in 1999 and, in his death, provoking days of rebellion against the Authorities. The photograph was snapped at around the time that Berger Agathe would, in turn, be killed right near there by police. And then two young people, Gino Laurent (22 years) and Leemul Goosteea (18 years), would be killed by police officers during the same uprising in the village Ram Seegobin and I live in, Bambous, the next day. The photograph is one split-second of time that evokes, for me, all that.
Another photograph, away this time from all the action, is of two women in the Richelieu temporary longères, sitting around, lazy of an afternoon – one of them picking nits from the head of a child resting in her lap. The peacefulness of the women, their calm, in the face of extreme hardship is captured in the photograph. By chance, I know them well, from Muvman Lakaz. They were evicted from their previous lodgings. So, although the photograph is away from all the action, it has a memory of violent eviction, from before the photograph. And when these and 90 other families will enter and occupy a new housing estate during a cyclone warning, they will again have to face up to eviction. But this time around, they will unite and win! All that in one photograph of two relaxed women and a child.
And when Jerome accompanied a journalist interviewing me, he wanted me – I had hundreds of afro-plaits at the time – in front of a rough wall painting of Che Guevara on airbrick, at the LALIT offices’ back verandah. And the plaits in my hair were crafted so beautifully by my friend, the widow of Kaya, Veronique Topize – she who became so active in opposing police violence. Again, a photograph in repose, but with a chain of lives of action in it.
And he is the only photographer who captured the moment when Ram Seegobin, Serge Rayapoulle and I had been confronting police sent to spy on LALIT when we had called a preparatory meeting to plan a demonstration for when President of the USA, George W. Bush was due to come to Mauritius on a State visit (he didn’t in the end, because he started bombing Bhagdad instead). This incident – where Ram is captured in the photograph denouncing the fact that the police had sent an informer to pretend to hold a public meeting (with no public at all) at the Social Centre just so as to “justify” the police presence, that would otherwise have been illegal – would perhaps have been forgotten, but for the Police later charging Ram and me, in two separate cases, with “harassment of police officers”, when they were sent to harass us. For the record, Father Henri Souchon came to the Court as witness. And for the record, we were both found not guilty. Political cases are always hard to prove under criminal law – the law does not fit the offense, which in turn does not really “exist”. And Jérôme captures this ephemereal moment. In the case of my aquittal, the police had added an additional handicap to their case: they had misread their own handwriting, and when I had said, “moustache la?” (meaning “are you referring to the police officer with a moustache?”), they had later read their notes, when given political orders to find something to prosecute us for, misread this as me calling a police officer “moutouc la” (meaning, of all things, “the maggot”)! And Jérôme’s photograph captures the moment that now, as I write this review, brings to life all the absurdity of that moment.
The collection includes a haunting photograph of Charlesia Alexis, in which there is a stare of accusation for what was done to Chagossians, right next to a ravann, representing the cultural heritage saved. Another unforgettable photograph, full of cultural references, is the man reclining on a rattanware sofa, with the textured corrugated iron walls, the stone floors, and the six sticks of beautiful old furniture, as he reads the Chinese newspaper.
There is a curious aspect to the book Brulantes Visions: a handful of photographs are included, not as photographs (maybe the negatives were not available? maybe it was a conscious choice?), but as a part of newspaper cuttings. And these are of the hard macho world. The contrast in texture is quite shocking to the reader. A cruel reminder of how difficult it is for a gentle soul to work in the world of journalism.
And while talking about the cruel world, there is one photograph that remains with one long after one has put the book down. It is of a woman. She is sitting right on the ground against nondescript palings of some sort, in short shorts, in what for women is considered an inelegant pose, almost baring her crotch, clearly unaware of being photographed. As if society treats her as disposable. She is left, as it were, to her own devices. In whatever pain she may be. That, too, Jérôme could capture.
I commend the book of photographs to everyone interested in Mauritian society, in Mauritian history, in photography, and in just plain life.
Report by Lindsey Collen
Note: (1) Jerome committed suicide
The text by Lindsey Collen in Brulantes Visions:
The Ones that Don’t Submit Never Die
School teaches us more than anything else to submit. We, creatures of the vast Savannah – used as we are, for quarter of a million years, to wandering around in large and varied groups, choosing our daily berries and fruits, digging our edible roots to roast in the embers and plucking our leaf vegetables to throw on to the roots at the very last moment; to taking an egg from the nest of three and adding honey from a hive, roasting a bird or a hedgehog, supplementing all this now-and-then with smoked kudu – taught to sit in one place at a desk for six hours a day, alongside our own class of child. Classified. Penned in. Sit still! the teacher shouts to Grade Three. Now, imprisoned, all.
All? No. Even when seeming to sit still in her own class of children, one little girl is already running wild in a motley crew of kids in her day-dreams, knowing that one day who knows maybe we’ll all be free.
So you see, it is taking the powers-that-be that have existed for a mere few thousand years, quite some time. And they still haven’t yoked us all in yet. They crucified Che, but he still runs wild. You see him glance at you from a wall here or there, look calm at you from a T-shirt, peep from the cover of a school notebook.
Yes, school teaches us to submit. We, creatures of the evening fire – used as we are, for quarter of a million years, to believing that the purpose of life is to visit people and listen to their stories, spending hours each evening weaving our own tales, witty and wistful, wishful, weird and wonderful, whimsical, and in which impish, trickster gods play unexpected pranks on us humans and in which animals move amongst us, speaking like us – taught for six hours a day to be quiet, obey orders. Stop talking! Silence! the teacher screams. Now, gagged, all.
All? No. One little boy, seeming to be doing his sums, is interpreting his dreams, writing a song on his dhal puri wrapper, passing it to a friend at the back of the class, knowing one day who knows maybe we’ll all be free.
So you see, it is taking the powers-that-be that have existed for a mere few thousand years, quite some time. And they still haven’t shut us all up yet. They killed Kaya in police cells, but his music lives on. Listen, even now! Hark! You can hear his gentle voice rising in amongst the din of village television sets.
Oh, school sure teaches us to submit. We, creatures of the magical caves up in the high places – used as we are, for a quarter of a million years, to visiting these auspicious places regularly, as the sun and moon go through their phases, as the water rises from lakes, moves into the sky, then falls down back into rivers, or just swills around hills as mist, caves that we embellish with paintings of the wildebeest hunt, with sketches of us dancing ourselves into trances, depictions coming to life as the firelight flickers over them – now kept a whole year pinned down in a place visited by no spirits, where no passion glows in dull pictures on dun walls. No, that is not “une fauteille en pailles”, the teacher shrieks, pointing at a page. Isn’t it? Now, blinkered all.
All? No. One little boy, when no-one is watching, sees. He sees a moment when the shadow of a leaf dances across the classroom wall, and he seizes it, captures it as it crosses the inside cover of his text book.
So you see, it is taking the powers-that-be that have existed for a mere few thousand years, quite some time. And they still haven’t blinkered all of us yet. And though he went and left us so young, our son, our brother, our friend, he left images for us all forever. Images that live on, making a mark, taking a stand.