Lourdes National Piglrimage

Mid-August I covered the six-day 2009 Lourdes national pilgrimage for CIRIC, the Bayard Presse photo agency. I travelled from Paris on the “White Train” chartered to transport 439 Assumptionist pilgrims -178 of which sick or disabled. It took three hours to board everyone, set-up the disabled on stretchers, stack all the wheelchairs in the restaurant wagon…

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The six-hour trip was rythmed over the train’s PA system by Father Marie-Bernard Kientz, preparing passengers for their pilgrimage with prayers and stories on Bernadette Soubirou.

In the White Train.

Lourdes is fellinian. It’s a well organized and very lucrative business. Amidst scores of cheap plastic religious memorabilia boutiques moves a crowd of tourists and pilgrims of all ages and origins. Daily processions, mass services, prayers at the Grotto, filling-up on water from the miraculous spring, stocking-up on souvenirs, the pilgrim’s day is packed with rituals. It can feel like Disneyland, trying all the rides.

But there’s obviousely more to Lourdes. During the time spent covering the pilgrimage I saw people genuinely care for each-other. A great human experience, even for a non-believer.





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On s’en foot…

Oui c’est facile, mais vu l’importance du sujet dans l’Absolu… En 2006 l’équipe de France accède en finale de la coupe du monde. La joie des supporters sur les Champs Elysées dégénère normalement en fin de Soirée.

Puis vient le jour de la finale. Des supporters vont regarder le match sur écran géant au Parc des Princes, autre grand moment offert par notre sélection nationale:

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Que mes amis footeux ne prennent pas ombrage, j’aime bien un bon match de foot de temps en temps. Reste que cela fait longtemps que Notre Equipe de France ne nous a pas fait la démonstration de son talent.

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Mon 2009 en images

C’est dans tous les journaux: nous venons de passer en 2010. L’occasion pour tous de jeter un coup d’oeil dans le rétro, de faire le bilan de l’année écoulée, de se souvenir des meilleurs moments comme des pires… vous connaissez l’usage. Je vous propose donc ici ma rétro en marronnier massif.

J’en profite pour remercier celles et ceux qui me font confiance: Nathalie Luyer, de Vis à Vis, Nathalie Claveau, Brigitte Collet et Luc Reyrolle, du Pèlerin, Sylvie Dannay, de La Croix,  Gaëlle Gauducheau, mon amie Ingrid Wimart, The Brand Union, mon ami Jean-Philippe Baltel, Geneviève Duigou d’Arte France, et enfin les super forçats des agences Sipa et CIRIC.

En 2010 rejoignez ces gens formidables en me permettant de continuer d’aller voir de ci de là comment se passent les choses autour de nous. Passez le mot, devenez fan et offrez vous un tirage!

Une belle année à toutes et tous!

Visionnez le diaporama en plein écran pour un meilleur rendu (icône en bas à droite de la fenêtre).

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It’s in the news everywhere: we’ve made it to 2010. An occasion to take a look in the rear-view mirror, assess the past year, remember the best moments and the worse… you know the drill. So here is my 2009 retrospective in pictures.

I take this opportunity to thank all those who trust me: Nathalie Luyer, of Vis à Vis, Nathalie Claveau, Brigitte Collet and Luc Reyrolle, from Le Pèlerin, Sylvie Dannay, from La Croix,  Gaëlle Gauducheau, my friend Ingrid Wimart, from The Brand Union, my friend Jean-Philippe Baltel, Geneviève Duigou of Arte France, and finally the hard-working people at Sipa and CIRIC.

In 2010 join these great people in allowing me to document what goes on around us. Spread the word, become a fan and treat yourself to a print!

A great year to all!

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William Betsch 1945-2010

Yesterday we bid our friend William Betsch a last farewell at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

William died Monday July 26th, 2010.

Nonetheless he will remain by my side, pinching me when I think to myself “well, that’ll be good enough”, nudging me to focus on details and see the signs. He will remain by my side when I’m smoking, drinking Bushmills, eating a four-pound grilled beef rib. And he will be there, smiling, each time the inevitable ass representing authority crosses my path… Good-bye William, see you around.

Photographer William Betsch pictured during his exploration of the abandonned Bobigny train station, the early stage of his work on his latest book "Drancy, ou le travail de l'oubli" published in April 2010 by Thames and Hudson. Bobigny, 2001. (William Alix/williamalix.com)
Photographer William Betsch pictured during his exploration of the abandonned Bobigny train station, the early stage of his work on his latest book “Drancy, ou le travail de l’oubli” published in April 2010 by Thames and Hudson.
Bobigny, 2001. (William Alix/williamalix.com)
Click on photo to view more

Three letters were read during the funeral. Here are the words of Carole Naggar, who wrote the text for “Le bain: cité du sang”, publisher Pierre Fanlac (1988).Early in 1980, a handsome and strange young man with a rabbi or priest’s eyeglasses, landed in Paris like an UFO, a portfolio under his arm.
American, he was coming from London where he had studied art and photography with Bill Brandt and with abstract painter Peter de Francia.
We met at Editions Contrejour. On his photographs of the Hammam Moulay Idriss in Fez, ghostly white bodies, like sensuous and poisonous flowers, arched in the steam.
William Betsch did not like to be called Bill. He lived at the time in a bedsit on Collingham Road, leading an excentric, poor and rather isolated life : cheap Indian takeout, thin slices of soap, pennies in radiators for damp winters.
Soon we were piling up the contents of his room (photographs, mainly) in my Volkswagen and William started on what would be 30 years in Paris.
He lived by night. He had brought back from Morocco a fondness for haschich and beautiful color photographs of Fez’s medieval labyrinths where abject poverty is clothed in the beauty of zelliges mosaics, fountains, ancient mosques and palaces. A Kodak Price for 1st book allowed William to go back to Fez, first working with writer Nadia Tazi, then with myself when I joined him.

Two books came out of a long and complex adventure that lasted several years : Le Bain ( Fanlac publishers), a meditation on bodies and mortality, combined photographs from abattoirs with those of the hammam. The book would also become the base for a short film De Doute et de Grâce, with Delphine Seyrig reading the texts.

His second book The Hakima : a Tragedy in Fez(Aperture) was published thanks to Mark Holborn with a preface by Paul Bowles .The book tells the tale of a young Fassi woman who jumped from a roof because she had lost her viriginity and was to be married off. It is a palimpsest of interviews, quotes, diaries and photographs which attempt to recreate the chaos, repression, humor and beauty of a town an its inhabitants.

Then we chose different paths. William explored the theme of burnt books, inspired by the famous phrase of German poet Heine : « They burn books ; they will also, in the end, burn people. »

Thus the themes of Nazism, the camps, Judaism, made an oblique entry into his work. Using again the multi-layered structure of The Hakima, his book Drancy ou le travail d’oubli (march 2010) was published in Paris and London ( Thames & Hudson). The book questions memory and the repressed ; with texts and photographs taken in 1999, William ponders the pencil and chalk graffiti, in French and Hebrew, that the condemned prisoners have left on the walls of the too-well named Cité de la Muette. He quotes the survivors of this sinister transit camp and takes snapshots of the life of the Cité’s contemporary dwelllers.

Like Brandt, Brassai or Joel-Peter Witkin, William Betsch was a photographer of the night, night of the bodies and of the souls; he attempted to communicate the invisible: stutters of memory, stutters of the repressed, like the charred and fragile pages of burnt books…

But we shall also remember his great, childish laugh, his enthusiasms, his endless letters on onionskin paper, his delirious orchestrations of the souk Sebbaghine’s dyers, jumping above colored wells.

He was seen questioning a Moroccan mountain witch about his future, circulating in Paris suburbs, examining the Sybils’ mosaics in Sienna’s Cathedral, the mists of dawn at Mont Saint-Michel, sheep and beef carcasses in the abattoirs, war’s ruins in Sarajevo.

He leaves important work, with multiple secrets that remain to be deciphered.

May his work’s rays touch the future, as the light of certain dead stars.

Carole Naggar

New York, 7 août 2010.


Peter de Francia, William’s Professor at the Royal College of Art in London:

My recollections of first meeting Bill Betsch (as he then liked to be called) are extremely dim, but I do remember that the distinguished American art historian Dore Ashton spoke to me about a student of hers who was thinking of applying to the Royal College, where I was Professor of Painting. He came and we spoke. It is important to stress that Betsch was not a painter in the strict sense of the word: at that time he was, as I remember, doing constructions involving a board perforated with small holes into which pegs were inserted. He impressed me with his lucid humour and lively intelligence. So I took him into the School, where he thrived. He made an important contribution to the diversification of the School which I sought.

That the time he spent at the College was so successful was largely due to the enthusiasm which he invested in his projects, notably in the pioneering work he did in the systematic cataloguing of the scores of drinking fountains, many of them very small but richly decorated, in the city of Fez in Morocco.

The imagination and quality of his published work since amply justifies our faith in him.


Peter de Francia


And here is a text by his friend Nicholas Kamm, AFP photographer in Washington, DC.

William et moi avons été tres proches pendant de nombreuses années, puis nous nous sommes brouillés pour des sottises. Mais je l’ai toujours considéré comme mon ami, malgré tout, meme si nous ne nous parlions plus.

Sa mort m’a profondemment ému et m’a rappelé tous les moments que nous avions passés ensemble: les heures interminables au desk, les heures que j’ai passé a developer ses films de Croatie et de Bosnie bien des années après qu’il les avait shooté car il n’avait pas l’argent pour le faire, ainsi que quelques rouleaux de son travail remarquable sur Drancy, les batailles syndicales a l”AFP, la journée que nous avions passé a Drancy, les pots au Vaudeville, le nouvel an qu’il etait venu passer chez nous a Chartres, les heures que nous passions au téléphone quand j’étais a Nicosie.

Tous ces moments étaient des moments d’éducation. On apprenait toujours quelque chose avec William. Si ce n‘etait pas un fait, un concept philosophique ou une vision differente du monde qui nous entoure, c’était sur la psychologie tres complexe de William lui-même. Rien n’etait simple avec lui et c’est ça qui le rendait a la fois tellement attachant, pour ceux et celles a qui il avait accordé son amitié, et si rebutant pour les autres. J’ai eu la chance de compter parmi ses amis et jamais n’y a-t-il eu d’ami plus loyal.

Je suis heureux qu’il ai pu publier son travail sur Drancy avant de nous quitter. Cet ouvrage est un testament de l’obstination et des principes que William a toujours eu et a défendu toute sa vie. Je suis fier d’y avoir participé d’une certaine façon.

Bizarement, il y a quelques semaines, j’ai essayé de le joindre au téléphone parce qu’il me manquait, ignorant tout de sa maladie. Mais je n’ai pas réussi a l’avoir. Je suis triste de ne pas avoir pu lui parler une dernière fois pour qu’il sache qu’il était toujours mon ami.

Nicholas Kamm

Washington, Août 2010.

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