I made a short return trip to French Guiana in March 2019. Although I didn’t take a lot of photos, there were things I noticed at sites that I hadn’t seen or at least noticed previously.
For example, on this visit to the Bagne des Annamites in Montsinery, I had time to continue along the trail to the creek which is a popular picnic spot. As it was half-term there were a number of families swimming and picnicking. I took a photo of the creek using my smartphone rather than my Nikon but was nevertheless careful not to be invasive of people’s privacy. The image shows people swimming but you cannot make out any clear details. Nevertheless I decided not to post the photo on instagram despite thinking how it contests dominant images of former prison sites. By which I mean images which fetishize certain aspects of architecture such as windows with bars, cells, instruments of torture and restraint and so on. The creek was integral to life in the camp and provided a form of transportation via the river network at a time when there was no road to Cayenne. One of the roles of the camp was to create a network between the other sites at Saut Tigre and near Apatou where Annamite (Vietnamese) prisoners had been sent.
But in not reproducing the photo, I am also caught up in the processes of cropping, framing and excluding which allow us to present penal heritage as empty and abandoned. This seems to me a similar practice as the production of images of the pristine, empty beach. Such images evoke notions of blank, deserted space awaiting the arrival of the tourist to project his or her neocolonial fantasies and pathologies. The enlightened amateur (or indeed professional) historian or anthropologist exploring the vestiges of the bagne is perhaps no different here to the gap year traveller looking for Leonardo DiCaprio’s beach. So instead of reproducing the image I took of families enjoying the creek, I will offer up a different yet comparable image – a postcard on sale in the gift shop on the Iles du Salut.
I have taken care to reproduce this as an object rather than an image for copyright reasons. The postcard shows a similar bathing scene but this time at what came to be known as the ‘piscine des bagnards’ on Ile Royale, the largest island of the Iles du Salut archipelago. The postcard whose date is unknown probably dates from the end of the 1990s, early 2000s when AGAMIS (whose stamp appears on the back) took over the management of the Iles on behalf of CNES. However, the image itself seems to capture an aesthetic belonging to an earlier moment, itself located between the vintage reproductions of images taken during the operation of the penal colony and more recent photography which offers us a conventional aesthetic of ruins and nature abandoned of messy human presence. It reminds me of tourist guides dating from the 1970s and 80s during which the Iles du Salut were being reimagined as a site of leisure within a wider agenda intended to energise the department’s tourist industry precisely by moving beyond rather than celebrating its dark past.
Today the two activities appear less mutually exclusive although for some there is something inappropriate about reimagining a site of suffering as a site of pleasure. The stakes are complex not least the various discourses aimed at controlling and often excluding the use of different sites by local communities. SF