Accès rapide :

The workings of a time machine

Anne Chounet-Cambas - Quai d’Orsay, Paris, France - 17 mars 2014

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Remember this interactive map produced for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, France Diplomatie, a few months back ? You can see the façades of different French Embassies worldwide, before and after.

Here it is :

To carry out this project, we started from photos dug up in the collections of the French Diplomatic Archives. Then we asked all our Embassies to send us their own photos, taken from the same angle, to match the original photo as closely as possible. The two shots had to be superposed as closely as possible for the “slider” action to be fluid.

We helped them from afar, from Paris, and discussed perspective :

Photo de la résidence de France à Nouakchott en 1960 | Photo : MAE
Photo de l’ambassade de France à Nouakchott en 2013, où on explique pourquoi ça ne colle pas et pourquoi il faut la refaire… | Photo : MAE

Sometimes, taking a photograph from exactly the same angle was simply impossible. In Nouakchott, the photograph was not selected, as the photographer could not step far enough back.

In other places, it was impossible because new buildings had sprung up.

Other photographs – despite being interesting – could not be superposed with the old photograph. In Cyprus, for example, the historic Embassy building is in the current buffer zone. It has therefore been abandoned since 1974, like all buildings in the zone.

  • image diaporama - Bâtiment historique de l'ambassade de France à (...)
    Bâtiment historique de l’ambassade de France à Chypre
  • image diaporama - Bâtiment historique de l'ambassade de France à (...)
    Bâtiment historique de l’ambassade de France à Chypre
  • image diaporama - Bâtiment historique de l'ambassade de France à (...)
    Bâtiment historique de l’ambassade de France à Chypre
  • image diaporama - Bâtiment historique de l'ambassade de France à (...)
    Bâtiment historique de l’ambassade de France à Chypre

In Somalia, our Embassy in Mogadishu was evacuated in 1991 because of the civil war that has plagued the country in recent decades and the failure of the State. The Embassy and Residence premises were pillaged. For more than 20 years, they have been squatted by hundreds of families. Children have even been born there.

Our Embassy in Kenya has therefore been competence for Somalia since 1991. (By the way, to find out more about France’s assistance to the Somalian population and the reconstruction of the rule of law, have a look at the Somalia country file on France Diplomatie).

Here is an archive photograph of the former Residence of the Ambassador to Somalia, from 1960.

Résidence de l’ambassadeur de France en Somalie, 1960 | Photo : MAE

Twenty years on, with the war and the lack of land registration, it is difficult to find the buildings, not to mention that the area is still inaccessible for security reasons. Initially, France had several grounds, including the Residence you can see here, the cultural centre and the Embassy. Today, only the Embassy can be identified with certainty. And here are the photos, taken in 1989 :

  • Bâtiment de l'ambassade de France en Somalie | (...)

    Bâtiment de l’ambassade de France en Somalie | Photo : MAE

  • Bâtiment de l'ambassade de France en Somalie | (...)

    Bâtiment de l’ambassade de France en Somalie | Photo : MAE

  • Bâtiment de l'ambassade de France en Somalie | (...)

    Bâtiment de l’ambassade de France en Somalie | Photo : MAE

And in 2001 :

  • Bâtiment de l'ambassade de France en Somalie, (...)

    Bâtiment de l’ambassade de France en Somalie, 1989 | Photo : MAE

  • Bâtiment de l'ambassade de France en Somalie, (...)

    Bâtiment de l’ambassade de France en Somalie, 1989 | Photo : MAE

  • Bâtiment de l'ambassade de France en Somalie, (...)

    Bâtiment de l’ambassade de France en Somalie, 1989 | Photo : MAE

Needless to say, the “before and after“ effect we were looking for was difficult to get for Somalia…

In any case, I found these photographs very moving. They reminded me of the articles on the fascination modern ruins hold for us. And how sometimes a photograph is enough to express the impermanence of things and the course of History.

As Sean O’Hagan put it in his article on modern ruins in The Observer, cited in Arrêt sur images : “But it is the people that left who are the real context for these photographs. Without that human context, they are just bleakly and romantically beautiful, visually seductive but empty of real meaning.”

Next time, I will write about something more cheerful…

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