Cartes postales du bagne

Sketches 1.

Fort Balaguier


A significant part of the project involves consideration of the visual representation and framing of penal heritage in French Guiana and New Caledonia. While we are relying on the use of photography to document the presentation of different sites and types of sites, there is the danger that photographs reproduce an aesthetics of display rather than providing an alternative critical frame.

Photographs intended to document a site objectively (despite any claim to objectivity being void) risk becoming sterile on later examination. A single image might also become too important or an attempt at producing an exhaustive set of images can end up producing an overwhelming and unmanageable plethora of images.

To off-set some of these challenges, I have started to incorporate sketches alongside my fieldnotes. The ability to draw well or at all does not seem a prerequisite amongst anthropologists which gives me a certain sense of encouragement. Most of my sketches are little more than line drawings, cartoons or doodles sometimes with some colour added depending on what is in my pencil case. Although the pen like the camera is a prosthetic device, there are nevertheless some fairly key and obvious reasons why sketching can be a useful embodied experience alongside photography.

  1. There is a tendency to focus on the capturing of objects and their labels in a museum or gallery. If it is unlikely I will get the chance to visit again, this becomes further intensified and I feel under enormous pressure to capture everything in as systematic way as possible. Although this has often proved self-defeating and physically exhausting, experience has also taught me that the things that turn out to be of greatest interest are not necessarily the ones I expected. To take some time out from this often tedious practice of capturing to draw a sketch can be quite useful and provide a necessary physical rest and chance to start reflecting.
  2. In small prison museums and exhibitions, I quite enjoy sketching out a plan of the space. Photographs don’t always do a great job of expressing layouts. A sketch can act as an aide-mémoire at the same time as obliging me to note carefully where everything is. Although written notes are probably most helpful in describing how narratives are presented across a sites, a layout sketch can also emphasize important juxtapositions between objects and other displays. So far I’ve tended to draw layout free hand with limited success. Most recently, these include a plan of the layout of the permanent exhibition on the bagnes at Fort Balaguier.
The permanent exhibition on the bagne located in the former chapel at Fort Balaguier
  1. I am also keen to learn what these might flag up retrospectively about my own selection and framing of different carceral spaces and heritage as well as my labeling techniques and how these might evolve throughout the project. SF.


Site Visit #1. Fort Balaguier Part 3

5 April 2018 – Musée Balaguier, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France

Read Part 1. “Ceinture de Fer” here

Read Part 2. The Doctor and the “plan” here

Part 3. The Chapel

The Musée Balaguier is an unusual site for a prison museum in that, despite operating as a fort, it has never been used for detention. Its link to the bagne lies instead to the proximity of the Fort to Toulon, one of the original dockyard prisons. As mentioned in an earlier post, the museum’s collection of objects from both French Guiana and New Caledonia is largely a result of doctors working in France’s colonies retiring to the South of France producing a neat circularity.

The Chapel which houses the exhibition on the bagne

The Fort’s main tower houses temporary exhibitions often linked to the region itself. The small chapel located in the grounds of the fort is where the permanent exhibition on the bagnes is located although the museum frequently loans its objects to other museums and galleries. The chapel is cool and dark and immediately creates an aura. Although the dark and musty interior is perhaps reminiscent of the interior of a stone prison cell, this effect is complicated by the evocation of the sacred space of organized religion still present in the tiny stained glass porthole and stone altar. The objects carefully crafted by convicts appear almost as sacred relics with the reproduction of leg irons used to restrain convicts at night suggesting a quasi-religious level of suffering and thus the potential for redemption.

Wooden matchboxes in the form of clogs (similar to those issued by the A.P.) made by convicts


Église Saint-Joseph, Iracoubo

The chapel as prison museum seems to constitute the apotheosis of the ongoing relationship between Church and State in matters of punishment. And this at a time when other state institutions were forcibly decoupled from the Catholic Church in France. Elsewhere the church has provided a different form of repository for convict art. Having once stolen artwork from the cathedral in Rouen, replacing it with forgeries, Francis Lagrange (also known as Flag) was later put to work painting frescoes in the chapel on Île Royale. Similarly, the church (Église Saint-Joseph) in the small town of Iracoubo (which now functions as a border control despite being an hour and half drive from French Guiana’s river border with Suriname – more on this later) features elaborate frescoes by another lesser-known convict, Pierre Huguet.

Can we read this in terms of an acknowledgment of redemption via artistic creativity fostered by the priests and chaplains assigned to French Guiana? This marks a notable shift from the disciplinary mechanisms found in the religious and penal institutions of 19th century England and France (as delineated in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish).

Lincoln prison museum



Or, and this is perhaps a more cynical reading, is this redirection of ‘creativity’ towards authorized sites and activities not only a means of circumventing the convict’s use of his skill or talent within the Système D but at the same time an indication of the investment of the penal administration and its chaplaincy in this system? A complicated (and slightly confused) question and one that seems to pose itself in the contemporary context of offender art as creative labour and the appropriation of this by different organisations. SF




Épailly, Eugène, Francis Lagrange: Bagnard, faussaire génial (1994).

Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Musée Balaguier – Exhibition Catalogues

 Les Artistes du bagne. Chefs d’œuvre de la debrouille (1748-1953). March 2010.

Nouvelle Calédonie. Le Bagne oublié. November 2012
Photographs by Marinette Delanné. Text by Julien Gomez-Estienne and Franck Sénateur.

Museum website:

Site visit #1. Fort Balaguer Part 2

5 April 2018 – Musée Balaguier, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France

Read Part 1. “Ceinture de fer” here

Part 2. The Doctor and the “plan”

Visites du Bagne-365

The Fort Balaguier became a national monument in the 1970s and it is at this point that another ring can be added to the circular history of the bagne. We were shown around the museum by its curator, Julien Gomez-Estienne. Julien explained how many of the items in the collection came from the personal collections belonging to doctors working in the maritime service and posted in the colonies. French Guiana was often a first posting for junior medics whereas Toulon became an area to which many former maritime doctors retired no doubt keen to retain proximity to the sea and its promise of adventure. The 1970s and 1980s it seems were a big period of discovery (in attics and trunks) of forgotten objects and photographs associated with the penal colonies. These were often sold or donated by families not quite sure what to make of them.

The role of the doctors in the production, acquisition and circulation of these souvenirs du bagne is interesting and merits further exploration. To what extent should we think of doctors as amongst the earliest ‘tourists’ to the bagne? Stationed in the penal colony the doctor’s visit is temporary and he would have enjoyed a sense of freedom not experienced by either the convicts or the penal administration responsible for them. In his memoir, Albert Clarac who was posted in French Guiana twice, describes how on first arrival in Cayenne he was treated as a minor celebrity by the local non-convict population keen to make use of his services. While initially reluctant to practice civilian medicine, Clarac recounts the necessity of this extra work given the inflated cost of living in Cayenne. Even doctors, it seems, were not exempt from the Système D [D for Débrouille] in the penal colony.

Nevertheless, a doctor’s account either oral or photographic was considered to be more objective and disinterested than that of either guard or bagnard. Yet we should perhaps think more carefully about this assumption. How, for example, might we draw comparisons between the photogrqphs taken by doctors based in the penal colony, albeit usually for recreational purposes, with Jean-Martin Charcot’s invasive and ultimately abusive use of photography in La Salpêtrière framed as it were by an unshakeable belief in the scientific rigour of the photographic method and its ability to diagnose, educate and ultimately cure? (See Didi-Huberman’s critique of Jean-Martin Charcot in Invention de l’hystérie) Yet perhaps it is less in terms of any claim to objectively document the bagne and its inhabitants that we should think about the role of the doctor here. Rather, it is the temporary, transitory relationship he has with the bagne, the knowledge of his imminent departure and the opportunities to commission and collect bagnard-made trinkets which allow for the spectacle of colonial punishment to be more widely transmitted and consumed.

Amongst the many artworks in its collection produced in either French Guiana or New Caledonia, Musée Balaguier has a series of original cartoons produced by L.K which featured alongside Albert Londres’ reports in Le Petit Parisien (subsequently reproduced as Au Bagne). A favourite for me is the image of the doctor retrieving a ‘plan’. It is very interesting to see these images in their original format and consequently recontextualised away from their best-known framing as small black and white images accompanying newspaper articles (as above). The images are larger than one expects – around A4 size and the artist has used a range of different colours (as also reproduced in the exhibition catalogue Les artistes du bagne). Londres claimed that L.K. was a convict but Julien suggested that it was more likely to have been a doctor or a guard keen to remain anonymous. Firstly, the artist has access to decent materials including different colours. Secondly, they seem to have access to sites from which bagnards would have been excluded. Another interesting aspect of these images is that some of them (including that of the doctor and the plan) appear in multiple versions each with different captions. There are, Julien told us, at least three different versions of the doctor and the plan. I think these multiple versions (in a similar way to the different versions of Londres’ reporting) affirm the double sense of légende [legend and caption] to borrow from Didi-Huberman that defines the bagne and its representation. SF

Read Part 3. The Chapel here


Clarac, Albert, Mémoires d’un médecin de la marine et des colonies. 1854-1934 (Vincennes: Service historique de la marine, 1994)

Didi-Huberman, Georges, Invention de l’hystérie: Charcot et l’iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (Paris: Éditions Macula, 1982).

Londres, Albert, Au Bagne (Paris: Albin Michel, 1923)

[NB. Londres’ accounts originally appeared in Le Petit Parisien before being reproduced on book form for which there have been numerous editions.]

 Musée Balaguier – Exhibition Catalogues

 Les Artistes du bagne. Chefs d’œuvre de la debrouille (1748-1953). March 2010.

Nouvelle Calédonie. Le Bagne oublié. November 2012
Photographs by Marinette Delanné. Text by Julien Gomez-Estienne and Franck Sénateur.

Museum website:

Site visit #1. Fort Balaguier Part 1

Thursday 5 April 2018 – Musée Balaguier, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France

Part 1. Ceinture de fer

In Île-prison: bagne et déportation, Eric Fougère identifies the strong links between France’s military strategy and its bagne not least in the importance of the sea in defining both. The history of the bagne begins, perhaps, with the sentencing of convicts to forced labour on the galleys in the 16th and 17th centuries. Where initially galley slaves were prisoners of war, the practice became more widespread during the reign of Louis XIV as he sought to grow his fleet. The practice continued in peacetime but the galley slaves were ultimately sent to work carrying out other forms of hard labour on the dockyards in Toulon, Brest and Rochefort often kept in chains linking them to the floating prison hulks where they were locked up at night. The term bagne, comes from the Italian bagno referring to an old slave prison in Rome once used as public baths.

At the same time as convicts were being pressed into the service of France’s military and commercial maritime infrastructure, the French coastline and the multiple tiny islands located around it became increasingly marked by structures intended both for defense and incarceration. One notable example is the Île d’If part of the Frioul archipelago a short boat ride from Marseille. Château d’If was first constructed as a fort in 1529 to defend the Marseille coastline from attack. Prisoners were held in the Château from 1540 onwards. It became a Prison d’État in the 18th Century when over 3,500 Protestants were imprisoned followed in the mid-19th Century by Republican political prisoners including Auguste Blanqui.

This link between the sea and the prison is also something which has played a key role in the framing of former prisons, in France, its overseas departments, and elsewhere (Alcatraz, Robben Island etc.) as sites of historical and geographical interest. Where, as Alain Corbin has written, the sea once produced a natural limit in the fear and reverence it produced amongst sailors, fishermen, artists, writers and city dwellers alike, from the mid-18th century onwards it came to be associated with a growing culture of leisure and travel increasingly open to all classes. The sense of awe and adventure inspired by the sea or the ocean undoubtedly imposes itself upon the carceral spaces it bounds and frames.


Fort Balaguier, it seems was never a prison, or at least not in official history. Yet as a fort located on the Côte d’Azur, it nevertheless affirms this link between sea and prison. Located about 10 km from Toulon, between La Seyne-sur-Mer and the small neighbourhood of Tamaris, it was constructed in 1636 and as such predates the extensive fortification project known as the “Ceinture de fer” undertaken by Vauban during the 1650s and 1660s. Despite not operating as a prison, there is a strange and oddly neat circularity at work in that the site now houses one of the most important collections of objects linked to France’s overseas penal colonies along with items from the earlier bagne along the coast at Toulon where traces of the dockyard penitentiary have all but vanished. SF

Read Part 2. The doctor and the plan here


Corbin, Alain, Le Territoire du vide. L’Occident et le désir du rivage. 1750-1840 (Paris: Flammarion, 1990). Translated as The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside, 1750-1840, translated by Jocelyn Phelps (London: Penguin, 1995).

Fougère, Eric, Île-prison. Bagne et deportation (Paris: Harmattan, 2003).

Musée Balaguier – Exhibition Catalogues

Les Artistes du bagne. Chefs d’œuvre de la debrouille (1748-1953). March 2010.

Nouvelle Calédonie. Le Bagne oublié. November 2012.
Photographs by Marinette Delanné. Text by Julien Gomez-Estienne and Franck Sénateur.

Museum website: