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

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).

Site visit #4. Îles du Salut

10 June 2018

Restricted Access. Some reflections.

En route to the Îles du Salut

Tourism is often presented as a means of galvanising a community through economic development and, where tangible heritage is concerned, preservation and conservation initiatives. But tourism can also be divisive and maintain existing social inequalities. Tourism posited as heritage – natural, cultural, tangible, intangible, whatever… can often only be accessed by the elite, wealthy visitor with the time and money to do so.

I have been thinking a lot about these things following my third visit to the Îles du Salut last Sunday. Perhaps this attests to a three visit rule. The first visit I was simply excited to finally visit a space, or multiple spaces, that have been so heavily mythologized in the cultural and popular history of the penal colony. But there was not enough time especially on Île Saint Joseph and I left with the sense of having missed a lot of stuff. On the second trip I redressed that in part but I also learned more about the difficulties of managing penal heritage at sites like Île Royale and the futility and meaninglessness of seeking an exhaustive experience of the space. On the third trip almost a year since I made the last visit, the weather was less conducive to extensive exploration of the space. But things on Île Royale had also changed again. The chapel, which had been covered in scaffolding the year before, was now open again. The small museum housed in the restored Director’s House was also open where it was closed on my previous visit. These changes made the visit worthwhile from a documentary perspective but the main conclusions I have drawn concern the major limitations of a site like the Îles du Salut for both a critical engagement with the ruins of a former penal system and, at the same time, for sustained community engagement with the space. I also wonder the extent to which this might apply to other island sites once housing prisons that have since been turned into luxury resorts for wealthy tourists from elsewhere? Is this something that can be challenged?

The chapel on Île Royale with a new coat of paint

Prison as island or island as prison perpetuates the idea of prison as an exceptional space which has little interaction with the everyday spaces occupied and traversed by the rest of society. If exile and abandonment is the overriding ideology of such spaces, there is also an obfuscation of the infrastructures and economies which link such spaces (even when located at a remove) to the mainland. To what extent does visiting a former prison island allow us to bracket out the idea of imprisonment as something exceptional and, especially in the case of the Îles du Salut, extreme rather than routine, banal, ubiquitous?

Access to the Îles du Salut is mainly by catamaran. There are two main tour operators that go there on a daily basis. The return trip is around €50. However, it is also possible to charter an entire boat for the day which costs about €1500. On previous visits I have observed school groups who have done overnight trips to Île Royale. There is an auberge at the top of Île Royale where it is possible to get a room. There are also spaces where you can hang hammocks although camping is prohibited on the island. On my first and third trips, the tour group was almost exclusively white and there were only a couple of children. Half of the thirty visitors on the first trip were a group of young men aged between 25 and 35 and possibly stationed at the army base in Kourou. There was a different ethnic mix of visitors on the second trip which I took in early July 2017 and a couple of families on board the catamaran had children and small babies. All this really shows is that the demographic can vary significantly from trip to trip. However, speaking to people based in both Cayenne and Saint Laurent du Maroni, I have got the impression that the islands are a site visited exceptionally rather than regularly or even annually especially for people living in Saint Laurent.

Large cruise ships no longer visit the islands. There is no access to Île du Diable due to the condition of the coastline. There is a helicopter landing pad on Île Royale but I have not come across private helicopter tours presently operating. This therefore seems to be primarily for CNES activities. The Centre National des Études Spatiales took over jurisdiction of the islands in the 1960s when the original kineotheodolite telescope was installed (replaced in 1995 by a cinetelescope). It is from Île Royale that the CSG (Centre Spatial Guyanais) rocket launches which occur roughly once a month are watched and recorded. As the rockets pass directly over the islands, they are evacuated for launches.

Welcome sign on Île Saint Joseph

There is no longer a jetty on Île Saint Joseph. This means access is either by dinghy or swimming from the catamaran. Not all tour operators will take you there and my overall impression is that access especially to Saint Joseph will become increasingly limited in future, reserved for the military barracks and the CNES operations based there. SF