Cartes postales du bagne

Adventures in Instagram #3

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

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

site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni pt6

Part 6. The bibliobus

An important focus of this project is how the multiple sites associated with the penal administration’s 100 year presence in French Guiana can and might provide the potential for greater community engagement. During our stay in Saint Laurent du Maroni we came and visited a series of sites associated with the bagne. The town of Saint Laurent itself bears strong references to the A.P. and many of the buildings such as the Treasury building in the original Quartier Officiel have continued to play a municipal role.


Elsewhere the existence of various ruins is something that for now only historians and archaeologists have any sustained interest in. The ruins are not necessarily invisible or obscured by vegetation but the story of the bagne is also not necessarily one most people feel an attachment to or a desire to dwell on.

Case 3 formerly housed the Camp’s library and is now home to CIAP’s archives

Inside the Camp de la Transportation, the scale of the space (although much smaller than Saint Jean which is now a military barracks) and its multiple buildings have meant that the story of the bagne has been explored and presented in many different ways from museum to tour to archives to exhibitions. But the space also houses a theatre group, multimedia lab and the municipal library.

The library is most interesting in that it offers a thread from the bagne to present day via the figure of Icek Baron. Icek Baron was a convict from Varsovie sent to Saint Laurent in the 1930s. Although his dossier suggest he was beyond redemption, towards the end of his sentence he became prison librarian and then, when the bagne closed, he worked as a librarian at the hospital in Saint Laurent. Many people still remember him with great affection.

Icek Baron featuring in a short documentary on the Camp de la Transportation

The library has the collection of books from Baron’s hospital library (though sadly not from the prison library) and it is touching to see his spidery penmanship on the opening pages of the books marking his personal classification system. Some of the books have been lovingly recovered, no doubt the cheap paperbacks defining the collection didn’t fare too well in the humidity.

The public library was inaugurated in its current building (formerly the building where the Portes Clés slept) in 2007. Previously it has been housed in the opposite building, which used to be the infirmary, that now houses the CIAP reception and offices. I was very lucky to meet the library director, Martine, who worked in the library for two decades and has seen its evolution from small community led lending association set up at the end of the 1989s to, as she put it, the most beautiful library in French Guiana today.

But despite the sitedness of the library in the Camp and the interweaving of its history with that of the bagne, I think it’s important to also think about the role of the library within the greater infrastructure of present day Saint Laurent and its surrounds. The library now operates a bibliobus, a library bus that visits the surrounding neighbourhoods encouraging people who might not get to the camp to borrow and read. The bus bears the name of Icek Baron and in a sense provides a present day reminder of the idea of the bagne as form of infrastructure as much as a fixed site of imprisonment. Martine suggested people might avoid the library in the camp for two reasons. First, they may not like visiting the site due to its dark history. This is perhaps becoming less of an issue given the numerous different activities taking place there. Second, libraries even when they are as charming and welcoming as the Bibliothèque Icek Baron can be alienating, intimidating places for people whose daily lives require little reading and/or who use languages and dialects not often transcribed and printed. This is definitely the case along the Maroni river yet at the same time there seems to be everywhere a strong interest in knowledge and learning. The bus as well as the carbets de lecture [small huts with informal lending libraries found in hamlets and villages around the area] seem to attend to this tension.

The small library at Apatou

site visit #13. Iracoubo

30 June 2018

Église Saint Joseph

We’re on our way back from Saint Laurent du Maroni. We stopped for lunch at Iracoubo, a small town between Saint Laurent and Kourou on the N1. It functions as a border point so we were asked for our passports by the gendarmes. The border is here because it would be impossible for the French authorities to police the Maroni. It also exposes the problem of national, and indeed colonial, borders in a location such as French Guiana where there are multiple populations whose existence requires crossing these arbitrary lines drawn up on maps by people elsewhere. The Maroni river is a powerful example of this.

Office du tourisme, Iracoubo

I made use of the post box at Iracoubo to send a postcard and spent some time inside its little church. The church, Saint Joseph, is significant because its murals were painted by a bagnard, Pierre Huget in 1892. He was released in 1909. The church became classed as a historical monument in 1978.

Compared to the murals in the church on Île Royale painted by Francis Lagrange which despite restoration have fallen into disrepair again, the murals in the Église Saint Joseph are in excellent condition no doubt due to the church’s ongoing function at the centre of Iracoubo life.

Murals by bagnard Pierre Huget

site visit #11. Sparouine

27 June 2018

On our way back to Saint Laurent du Maroni from Apatou and the Camp de la Forestière, we turned off down a side road to the small hamlet of Sparouine. This is one of the former but lesser known sites located along the Maroni river where vestiges of the penal colony are still visible.

Our guide Manon has family in Sparouine and she also spent a year living in the hamlet. Although the ruins are not hidden and easy to locate on the river bank and although everybody knows about the bagne, it is still possible to forget that they are there. I had expected them to be located in the forest in accordance with an aesthetics of ruins based on some of the other sites we have seen where the vestiges have been abandoned.

Site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt3

Part 3. Guess who

La Ville en chantier exhibition

Case 12, Camp de la Transportation, 22 June 2018

Saint Laurent du Maroni did not exist as a colonial town before the arrival of the Administration Penitentiaire. This is, of course, not to imply an absence of life or community but rather better understand the legacy of the bagne on the area’s present-day infrastructure. As will be discussed in several posts about SLM, the Camp de la Transportation is a complex site which perhaps provides a starting point for understanding penal heritage as multi-sited not exceptional. The Camp de la Transportation is a hub for multiple different community-led activities which exist both separately from but also draw on the site’s history. This is especially clear in the history of the library.

Another example is the ‘La Ville en chantier’ exhibition located in Case 12. The exhibition is located on the two floors of the Case, one of the former dormitories where convicts sent out to work in and around SLM and neighbouring forest camps would return to sleep at night. The exhibition charts the evolution of the town and the surrounding area from before the arrival of the A.P. until (almost) present day (2011). The exhibition uses a range of different but low-fi techniques to visualise the space including giant floor maps and scale models (more on this from CR).

My attention was drawn to a customised ‘Guess Who’ game. Instead of people, each card featured a different building. We had been discussing how different activities and indeed games might constitute a way to explain the multisited and complex nature of the bagne to different audiences. I’ve been toying with the idea of a Top Trumps style card game of famous and less famous convicts, guards, doctors and other individuals associated with the history of the penal colony in French Guiana. I’ve also been thinking a bit about a board game charting the journey of the bagnards from deportation to repatriation via failed escapes, réclusion and doublage. This draws on conversations I’ve had with various colleagues in French Studies around colonial board games. However, the idea of Guess Who didn’t occur to me and yet now seems like a great way to engage people of different ages both local and visitors from elsewhere in thinking about architecture and looking more closely at buildings one might pass by or take for granted. The type of questions one might ask one’s opponent would vary according to your collective knowledge and thus range from the basic visual markers shown on the photographs to more complex historical and personal references. If we have time to revisit the exhibition before we leave French Guiana at the end of next week then I will challenge CR to a game!

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.