Cartes postales du bagne

Postcard #4. A (postcard) history of Cayenne

Today while looking for a post box that wasn’t defunct I walked past the town hall in Cayenne. There are often outdoor exhibitions attached to the railings which surround the mairie. Featured currently is a short exhibition of historic images representing Cayenne. Most of these are postcards and the exhibition brings together multiple archives and collections including the Archives Départementales, the Société des Amis des Archives et de l’Histoire de Guyane (SAAHG) and the Musée des Cultures Guyanais.


This mini-exhibition made me realise two (fairly obvious) things about the postcard. First, that its role as visual marker of history cannot be underestimated especially in places like French Guiana where access to photographic equipment and film was more restricted than in mainland Europe during the early days of photography. And second that there are two, if not three, histories being presented on the railings – the history of the town, Cayenne, the history of its representation to the world beyond and, finally, the history of each postcard as it travelled from sender to recipient to collector and ultimately to the archives and museums back in French Guiana.


There is also something interesting visually about presenting enlarged images of the town just minutes from the actual sites featured. You only need to turn the corner or walk another block and you are confronted with an updated view of the postcard image that you’ve just seen. SF



Bad maps. An inaccurate guide to tracing one’s steps

Île des Pins
23-24 July 2018

Île des Pins is an island located to the South of the mainland and is part of the South Province. It is about a 20-minute flight from Magenta Airport in Nouméa. The island was the site where political deportees were sent both from France but also the Kabyle rebels. As the commune located the furthest away from Paris, the exile of the communards to Ile des Pins after 1871 bears enormous symbolic as well as geographical weight. Rélégués (recidivists sent to the penal colony) were subsequently sent to the island between 1887 and 1910. The island became an indigenous reserve once more in 1913.


Today there are a number of vestiges associated with the bagne. We were grateful for the blog Un jour en Calédonie which provided a fair amount of useful information on where to find various ruins on the island. Most notably there are those found in Ouro, the restored doctor’s house and gendarmerie on the Baie de Kuto and also the neat and carefully maintained Cimetière des Déportés near Ouro. Some of the ruins at Ouro are located on private land and you have to ask permission from the épicerie built within the old walls of the ruins.

During our visit we focused our attention on the ruins across the road from the épicerie and in particular on those contained by a large perimeter wall. This was partly due to the odd opening hours of the épicerie and partly due to intermittent rain. Although there is a brown heritage sign indicating the vestiges, there are no panels here (details about the sites were found at the Itinéraire Bagne panel located at the Baie de Kuto). This means there is a certain amount of guesswork as to the original function of the buildings. On entering the interior of the walled space, we found 4 brick buildings. Two seemed to have held dormitories and it was still possible to see hooks for hammocks on the walls. Two were slightly smaller buildings containing 10 individual cells. This suggests (prior to checking on any plans) that the site was a quartier de réclusion as the cell system was only really used in the bagne as a form of punishment. In a recent guide, it suggests that this was the ‘prison’ for rélégués at Ouro, a closed space distinct to other sites such as the ateliers and hospital.

A grumpy bull provided a useful reference point.

Exploring the site, the vegetation made it easy to become disorientated. We both decided it might be easier to get a clearer understanding of the space by creating mini maps or plans of the layout. There is something exciting about how ruins allow one to get lost and disorientated whilst speculating on the stories of the space. There is a greater sense of freedom perhaps than at a site which has been carefully restored and heavily signposted. Ruins offer the possibility of exploration even if what we discover is limited to a very personal engagement with a space. It is an engagement that relies heavily on the tactile, touching walls, negotiating brambles and nettles.

Different pathways amongst the vegetation leading to the different buildings

The attempt to come up with a map of the space was an attempt to move beyond this tactile experience and to produce an understanding of the layout that wouldn’t easily be transmitted by a series of photos. I also wanted to experiment with diy methods of getting the scale right.

A first attempt at a plan of the ‘vestiges’

My first attempt freestyle had to be scribbled over and redrawn, showing the inadequacies of my ability to think spatially. So I decided to note down the distances between key points as well as the dimensions of each building using my stride as a measure. The next day I redrew the map using the strides as a very rough guide. The result is neater but I feel more attached to the original draft sketch with all its scribbles. Still as I was to find out…I was still way out.

Second attempt. Still wrong.

Claire’s map, as will become apparent, is more accurate. The reference to ‘shit building’ is because she stumbled (almost) across some human excrement in one of the cells there. She has opted to denote the bull as a vortex.

CR’s map

After drawing our own plans, we came across a bird’s eye view photo of the site taken from one of the nearby hills. It is clear the original or earlier organisation of the buildings and walls was different and had undergone some significant developments to constitute the layout we encountered. For example, in one photo I’ve seen there was a small hut or ‘kiosk’ located in the centre of the space which has now completely disappeared. Today I came across an aerial view from 2000 featured in a short guide produced in 2014. The vegetation at that point has been completely cleared from around the buildings although they all seem to have trees growing inside. This is the reverse to the current state of the ruins which also suggests that the roofs have been replaced on all except one building in the inner compound. The photo makes the symmetry of the buildings much clearer. The positioning of the two cell buildings at diagonals is something that was obscured by the vegetation and the wiggly paths leading to each building. SF (& CR)

Detail from aerial view taken in 2000. From Angleviel (2014)



‘Les Vestiges du bagne de l’Ile des Pins’. Un Jour en Calédonie. Blog. 7 February 2016. Available: Last Accessed 3 August 2018.

Frédéric Angleviel, Le pays Kunié: Déportation, Bagne et Patrimoine Pénitentiaire (Marie des Ile des Pins & Éditions du GRHOC, 2014).

Sketch #4. Ile des Pins

23 July 2018

A few raggedy sketches of buildings I did as an aide memoire. These relate to the four buildings enclosed by a surrounding wall at Ouro on Ile des Pins. Building five is outside the interior wall and was most likely for guards. Buildings 1-4 seem to be sleeping quarters with two buildings composed of individual cells. Due to all the vegetation at the site, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to distinguish different structures retrospectively especially after a certain amount of time had passed. Taking some to do these also made me think more about the architecture as well as the different points at which the lines and frames of the buildings had been disrupted or eroded.




Le patrimoine ‘gris’

Notes towards a definition of (French) penal heritage
July 2018

Earlier this year, Monumental: Revue Scientifique et technique des monuments historique, dedicated an issue to ‘le patrimoine de l’enfermement’. This is significant as there has until very recently been a reluctance in France to commemorate sites of incarceration and, more notably, of detention and internment that has lagged behind other European initiatives to acknowledge these sites and the role they have played in different histories. The review is an excellent resource and includes a plethora of short articles by experts on the state of play at various sites in both mainland France and its overseas departments. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the extensive work that has been done and is ongoing in both French Guiana and New Caledonia together with the frustrations experienced by those committed to the memoire du bagne is well-documented within the publication.

While I was, of course, interested to see how the patrimoine du bagne was presented within the ideological framework of the issue published by the Centre National des Monuments, my attention was equally drawn to an introductory interview with radical prison historian, Philippe Artières, who has done some excellent work in presenting histories of incarceration that contest existing representations. Notable here is his edited collection of images and documents from the Nancy prison riots of 1972.

In the interview given for the issue of Monumental, Artières makes some important statements around the importance and relevance of prison heritage. One of the things he suggests is that:

‘Entre le patrimoine doré et le patrimoine industriel, il y a un patrimoine gris qui doit faire l’objet d’une attention et d’un questionnement.’

This suggestion resonates with the recent work by others, such as Charles Forsdick (2018), in identifying the absence of sites of incarceration from Pierre Nora’s epic Lieux de mémoire project. At the same time, the idea of penal heritage as constituting ‘un patrimoine gris’ is also worth some closer attention.

Taken in its material sense, ‘gris’ makes direct reference to the grey stone and later concrete structures that define most prison architecture. It also evokes a form of architecture that inhabits a grey zone since it suggests both the quotidian banality of the prison experience for many as well as the moral paradoxes of a form of punishment that is often seen as being all at once too cruel, too gentle, too generalized, too expensive and too ineffectual. Former sites of incarceration and internment can be presented in terms of a rupture with the past – examples of processes of decareration or former political regimes that have since been dismantled. But they also invite us to make connections with present systems and their continued use of practices such as solitary confinement and physical restraint. Indeed, Artières goes on to argue that the value of prison heritage lies as much in the role of the sites as producing knowledge [savoir] about those being held as it does in presenting us with a history of bodily constraint. This is of course a direct reference to the stakes of Michel Foucault’s Surveiller et punir but which goes unacknowledged. Interestingly, however, it perhaps does more to make a case for a return to Foucault’s work on institutional power than much recent scholarship on prison tourism and heritage which offers a lacklustre, uncritical reading of Foucault which does little to advance his scholarship or develop an adequate conceptual framework for thinking about the role of the prison museum in contemporary society.

Artière’s concludes his interview by insisting that the prison must be considered as part of France’s (but, I imagine, this also applies globally) “Grande Histoire” rather than being considered as an exceptional, marginal history. In the context of his earlier comments this is significant because it implies he considers penal heritage as having the potential to engage visitors in more general debates around the persistence and future of prison as a response to illegal activity. The idea that incarceration cannot be seen as separate to the wider socioeconomic structures defining the history of capitalism and colonialism seems incredibly important and urgent. At the same time, I cannot help but notice how this idea of “Grande Histoire” seems at odds with other attempts to explore the impact of incarceration outside of the grand narratives of its inception and even the stories of criminal geniuses, political heroes and falsely accused yet resourceful escapees that frame most historic sites of incarceration. It is this framing that Chamoiseau contests in his evocation of the traces-mémoires in relation to the ruins of the bagne on the Îles du Salut and the Camp de la Transportation at Saint Laurent du Maroni. More and ongoing work is needed, perhaps, to bring these positions, that of Artières and of Chamoiseau, together in such a way that not only provides a richer retelling of the history of prison and penal colonies but a retelling that is predicated on a future which ceases to take imprisonment as a given.

Beyond ‘grey’
Pursuing the notion of ‘patrimoine gris’, I decided to find out if the term had any purchase beyond Artières’ use of the expression. Some cursory googling suggested that it is not an established term but I did find a reference to ‘tourisme gris’ in a 2011 article “Le patrimoine, c’est un truc pour les vieux…” by André Suchet et Michel Raspaud. Suchet and Raspaud translate ‘tourism gris’ directly from the English ‘grey tourism’ referring to the growing senior citizen market for tourism organised around museums and heritage sites over above beach and adventure tourism.

The article focused on the case of the Vallée d’Abondance in the Northern Alps where poor ski seasons led to a shift in focus towards cultural heritage. The article concludes that this strategy is risky since the economic benefits are highly limited and the cultural heritage is not necessarily valued by the local population themselves. Their main point of reference for the term ‘grey tourism’ is the work of Ashworth and Tunbridge (2005) who use the term in relation to a shifting agenda in Malta during the 2000s.

Artières’ use of the term ‘gris’ is both situated within an understanding of heritage or ‘patrimoine’ as a form of ‘grey tourism’ but also implies a different almost oppositional and certainly more specific use. It also might be argued that prison tourism is a key form of cultural heritage that appeals to a wider age demographic due to being a form of ‘dark tourism’. Dark tourism does not translate well into French but taken in this sense, we might also read ‘gris’ as suggesting a shadowy history yet one that is lighter (indeed prison museums often engage in a humour not found in museums associated with genocide or atrocity) than is found or represented at other sites of suffering.

But what if we take this notion of ‘grey’ heritage less as a metonym for grey-haired baby boomers enjoying their retirement amongst the ruins of civilization or even as a philosophical (and frequently moralizing) concept which positions it on an imagined spectrum of darkness and instead think more about the prison as a form of ‘grey’ architecture? To reduce penal heritage to the greyness of the crumbling architectural structures of former prisons, cells and dungeons is to reduce prison to a lack of colour, to play into an aesthetic which is all too familiar but which allows us to remain all too distant. It is to encourage a lack of imagination similar to the one which edits out the sounds and smells of prison life. Yet even when the stripy uniforms and coloured bedsheets have been cleared away and the cheap municipal paint job peeled and faded, the prison is still a site of enormous colour.

The yellow sandstone on Cockatoo Island

At Saint Laurent du Maroni, the Camp de la Transportation was painted once every four years frequently in a bright shade of pink. Today there is a strip on display which shows as many layers as could be successfully excavated. 12 out of a possible 24 or 25.

It is the red bricks and not the grey cell walls (although these exist too) that have become metonym for the bagne in Saint Laurent. Their presence in front of other buildings throughout the town marks the continuity between the quartier pénitentiaire and the quartier administratif. Elsewhere such as Cockatoo Island in Sydney, the prison cells are defined not by a ‘greyness’ but the light yellow of the sandstone that was mined on site.

Liberes relegues
Camp de la Transportation. Saint Laurent du Maroni. The pink plaster was redone for the film L’Affaire Seznec

This is not to romanticize the presence of colour. There is no doubt that the regular sight of pink plaster at Saint Laurent was as depressing as that of grey concrete. This coupled with the implacable greenness of the forest and the brutal cruelty of the blue sky above. The synthesis of natural and built environment which plays out so visibly in the ruins at sites like Ile Saint Joseph in French Guiana and Prony Village in New Caledonia was just as much an integral part of the penal colony during its operation.

Prony Village

The biggest irony of all in defining penal heritage as ‘gris’ perhaps comes with the repatriation of the last batches of bagnards in 1952 and 1953. While there was little reason to stay in Saint Laurent, many found the grey, cold skies and buildings of France difficult to adjust too. As Danielle Donet-Vincent writes in La fin du bagne citing an account from M. Durand of the Armée du Salut:

‘[L]es libérés arrivaient le plus souvent avec leur chapeau de paille, une chemise ou une maigre veste. Tous avaient froid. Beaucoup de ceux qui débarquaient en hiver regardaient le paysage, consternés: “Mais qu’est-ce qu’il s’est passé ici?…tout est noir… il n’y a plus de feuilles aux arbres… Il n’y a eu le feu partout?… Ces homes qui sortaient de la moiteur équatoriale, de la luxuriance des forets qui conjugaient tous les tons de vert, du soleil qui faisait chanter chaque écaille des ailes des “morphos”, chaque battement d’aile des oiseaux-mouches, ne se souvenaient plus des hivers dénudant les arbres, du ciel bas et du froid.’


Artières, Philippe (ed.), La Révolte de la prison de Nancy. 15 janvier 1972 (Paris: Le Point du Jour, 2013).

Artières, Philippe, ‘Entretien avec Philippe Artières’ in ‘Le Patrimoine de l’enfermement’, Monumental: Revue scientifique et technique des monuments historiques, Semestriel 1 (2018).

Ashworth, Gregory J. and John E. Tunbridge, ‘Moving from blue to grey tourism: reinventing Malta’, Tourism Recreation Research 30,:1 (2005) pp. 45-54.

Chamoiseau, Patrick and Rodolphe Hammadi, Guyane: Traces Mémoires du Bagne (Paris: Editions du Patrimoine Centre des monuments nationaux, 1994).

Donet-Vincent, Danielle, La Fin du Bagne: 1923-1953 (Éditions Ouest-France, 1992).

Forsdick, Charles, ‘Postcolonialising the Bagne’, French Studies 72:2 (2018), 237-255.

Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Suchet, André and Michel Raspaud, ‘“Le patrimoine, c’est un truc pour les vieux…”’, Mondes du Tourisme [En ligne], 4 | 2011, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2015, consulté le 30 septembre 2016. URL :

Map #3. The two hemispheres

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney
15 July 2018

As with other penal heritage sites especially those related to convict transportation and the role of convict labour in colonial development, Hyde Park Barracks makes extensive use of maps throughout its exhibition. Notably there are huge floor maps on the ground floor which work to explain how present day Sydney evolved from its earlier function within the penal colony. This is a similar approach to the one taken at the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni with its ‘La Ville en chantier’ exhibition. The intention here is, to some extent, to validate convict labour in the making of the contemporary town and its infrastructure. The use of floor maps is also interesting in that they demand visitors to literal ‘walk over’ the re-presented history of the space Borges-style.

Huge floor map with key at Hyde Park Barracks

But the map that I found most striking at the Barracks was a large re-presentation of a map made in 1800 depicting the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Hemispheres. The map is used to mark the different European uses of convict transportation at various locations. This is interesting because it is possible to see French penal transportation in relation to other European colonial powers. Of course the main purpose is to emphasize the extent of transportation to Australia.

Western Hemisphere featuring references to transportation to French Guiana and New Caledonia

Adventures in Instagram #2

Having recently completed a month of fieldwork in French Guiana, it seems like a good moment to take first stock of how Instagram has accompanied other forms of photography and the presentation of images so far.
There are a few things worth commenting on briefly:
1. Photography is a key aspect of the project and Claire’s role has involved extensive photographic documentation of the various penal heritage sites we have explored. One of the things we intend to analyse via these images, their cataloguing, storage and presentation is how these enable us to reconstruct our visits as well as allow a certain degree of reflexivity on how we ‘frame’ and ‘capture’ objects, landscapes etc at these former sites of incarceration and forced labour. Another aim of the project is to explore how these images might be re-presented as part of an artistic project (again led by Claire) that emphasize the various layers of colonial and penal history at the sites together with the different infrastructures and networks that link these sites physically and virtually. What this had meant during site visits is that I have spent less time taking photographs which has allowed me a different engagement and experience of the spaces to previous visits to other prison museums and penal heritage sites. At the same time this has given me more time to use my Instax camera (more on this to follow) to varying degrees of success and also take and upload images to Instagram using my mobile phone. Switching between devices is less easy when using a larger camera.
2. Phone and data coverage has generally been good in French Guiana. Added to which as a French overseas department, it is a part of the EU which means no extra data roaming costs. That said, we have avoided providing an incessant commentary of our visits on Twitter and Instagram usually bookending our visits with an update on our way to or from a site. However, it is often on longer journeys to more remote sites that phone coverage is more sporadic. Instead I have found these journeys a useful time to prepare blog posts using the notes app on my phone. There is a fine line it seems between a post or upload which emphasizes the present moment and one which risks substituting that moment.
3. In relation to the previous point, we have been attentive to the fact that our project involves visits to a number of sites promoted as tourist destinations. In exploring the different stakes of penal tourism and other forms of heritage, any so-called ‘live’ commentary risks simply reproducing a tourist narrative and aesthetics. This is particularly true in French Guiana given the luscious beauty of its forests and its traditional Creole architecture. This will also be an issue in New Caledonia. A simple google image search for ‘New Caledonia’ reveals a dominant aesthetic of white sandy beaches and turquoise waters. It is difficult not to be seduced into reproducing this aesthetic uncritically. As we both have personal Instagram accounts, we have an outlet for sharing this type of image.
Palm tree aesthetics
4. Our main concern around using Instagram to document the project is the generally positive aesthetics of Instagram as a celebration of the visual. While there are Instagram accounts and projects such as Blue Bag Life (@bluebaglife) which use the platform to provide a critical look at contemporary images of incarceration and addiction, these tend to include longer commentaries. As we are producing a project blog where images play a more illustrative role and are carefully contextualised, Instagram seems to offer an opportunity to do something different more in line with more widespread uses of the platform. As a result, the practice of not presenting images directly associated with the penal colony – cells, manacles, mug shots etc has emerged over the course of the project so far. Instead a set of different images are presented which hopefully provide a different appreciation of the spaces we are exploring. One particular example here is the image I took of the broken shells that make up the beach on Île Saint Joseph. Île Saint Joseph was the island where convicts were placed in solitary confinement. To get sent to the Îles du Salut [Salvation Islands] was usually punishment for attempted escape. To get sent to Île Saint Joseph usually meant further punishment. The island was, in a sense, the prison within a prison within a prison.
Broken shell beach on Île Saint Joseph
Where many of the buildings belonging to the penal administration have been restored on Île Royale, those on Île Saint Joseph have been maintained as ruins. The relationship between the former buildings and the natural environment, the trees, moss, spider webs, agoutis, iguanas which have reclaimed the space, has been captured in various photography projects including Rodolphe Hammadi’s images produced as part of his collaboration with Patrick Chamoiseau in 1994.
I chose the shell image instead as a way of presenting the island differently avoiding both the aesthetic of ruins and the prolific palm trees that frame all views from the island. Regardless of how visitors opt to explore the island during the short time they have (tours usually drop visitors by dinghy after lunch with the catamaran returning to Kourou around 3.30/4pm), most end up on the shell beach. The beach is next to the cemetery where guards and their families were buried. The broken shells seem to tell a comparable story to the forgotten, and irreparably broken lives washed up on the island during its time as a penal colony. The image, I feel, is also inspired by some of the work featured in Edmund Clark’s In Place of Hate exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham earlier this year which I wrote about here. Clark eschewed a traditional aesthetic of incarceration in the exhibition and strikingly the first things one sees are films of a fish tank and a glass display of pressed flowers arranged around a space the size of a cell.
The broken shell beach. Île Saint Joseph
It is important to look for ways to challenge an oversimplified depiction of incarceration which relies too heavily on traditional prison architecture and the mug shots of those sentenced. However, what purpose does a series of alternative images play? Do these risk becoming too abstract? Or allow for a romanticisation that fills the gap of the fetishisation of the prison cell both past and present?
Chamoiseau, Patrick and Rodolphe Hammadi, Guyane: Traces-Mémoires du Bagne (Paris: CNMHS, 1994).

Peripheral vision

DSC_1433 blog

Editing the photos I took on my first visit to Ile St Joseph, I’m glad – in spite of the pressure of having a backlog of editing to do – to have had some time between taking them and now editing. These weren’t easy pictures to take. We keep using the phrase ‘documenting’ and I keep wondering about what it is that I am documenting. I am making documents, in one sense, photographs about which I will be able to claim ‘this shows the ruins at Ile St Joseph on 10 June 2018, this is how they were on that day, on that afternoon, at the moment I stood in that place’. But the thing I am wondering about primarily is what my role is, what do I have to offer to other people by having been in this place and taken photographs? Mainly, the answer should be, my skill at taking photos – fine. Not everyone has a feeling for composition. Fine. But what did I see, and what relationship is there between what I saw and the ‘documents’ I am in the process of making? I am thinking about light and about sadness. I am aware of an idea I have of ‘good photography’ or a good single photograph. And I’m not interested in simply knee-jerk reacting against that and saying it’s a tyranny (of what, anyway). A good photograph – what does this involve? Composition – where your verticals are, are you using symmetry, is there one main subject of the photograph or do you have two or three, which elements in the photograph get to be whole and which will be cut off at the edges of the frame? Have you balanced your dark and light bits or do you want more darkness or lightness to predominate – and why? People, expressions and movement – not applicable here. Colour – range, balance. How did you see the colours? How vivid were they when you looked? If you looked at noon or 1pm, where they perhaps rather bleached out, not much contrast, do you find yourself reaching for the ‘dehaze’ slider in your photo editing software and thinking ‘this is more like what I saw’? Yes, yes and yes. And I don’t want to follow this to an overly pedantic end – but I saw all of this through my glasses and the longer I am photographing in the muggy sweaty heat, the more sweat is present on my face, the more traces and droplets get smeared onto my glasses from my face by pressing the viewfinder up to my glasses, I must pause and locate in my bag a clean cloth (none of my clothing will serve, it is no longer clean) and the more I find myself wondering how things were for the shortsighted among the prisoners here, what could they see? My task is to use an extremely complex and expensive device, that feels very alien here, to record the light that exists in this place, this place where the light is sometimes so stark in the heat that it is hard to see the edges of the tree canopy, or the walls, I squint a lot and wonder how much to turn down the highlights and turn up the shadows, how much to ‘dehaze’. I pause to clean all the glass surfaces between my eyes and the ruins, and resume.