Bombed by Laëtitia Donval

The photographs that Laëtitia Donval proposes in this thin but memorable photobook represent urban landscapes, portraits and daily life scenes in a number of ports along the coastline of northern Europe. Most images are bathing in a cold and cheerless atmosphere. The locals she has protrayed seem to share a subdued charisma. We see a number of tired looking elderly strolling around the streets with an old plastic bag. Regulars in stuffy pubs are absently staring into the void, sipping from one of their beers. Young boys and girls are also present, but they seem to ask themselves the same question as we do: “What are we doing here, in these empty streets, shaped by the blind walls of hangars?” ,”Real life is elswhere, isn’t it?”

© Laëtitia Donval

Despite the subdued figures and the cheerless spaces, one cannot help feeling captivated by Laëtitia’s story right away. We are wondering. Why is it that Saint-Nazaire or Rotterdam are not bustling in this book? These port cities are supposed to be lively commercial hubs, just like Antwerp and Le Havre. At least the Reeperbahn in Hamburg should be full of excitement, oder? Something else is going on, but what is it? I am thinking about Diane Arbus’ famous quote “A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you, the less you know.

© Laëtitia Donval

The title of the book – “Bombed” – which is as short as powerful as can be gives us a clue. Then there is the very first picture (the only one in full page). It suggests an aerial view of a landscape, after a war bomber crew did its sinister job. Another clue is given by the author herself in the back of her book: In the autumn of 2011 and in the spring of 2012, Laëtitia set out to Saint-Nazaire, Lorient, Brest, Le Havre, Dunkerque, Antwerp, Rotterdam or Hamburg to photograph “cities that have been rebuilt” (i.e. after the last world war). Wikipedia explains why these cities had to be rebuilt: US and UK bombers made 42.600 civilian casualties in Hamburg, 936 in Antwerp-Mortsel, 884 in Rotterdam in their strategy to defeat Nazi Germany. There were 2.000 civilian casualties after the strategic bombing of Le Havre. In Saint-Nazaire, not a single house was left upright.

© Laëtitia Donval

Except for the picture of the war veteran holding the national flag, the war is never mentioned. True, the book talks about the reconstruction after the war. But throughout the book, an inconvenient question regarding the relationship of these rebuilt port cities with the war is raised: What happened to historical awareness? Why is it that those tenthousands of civilian victims of the war are subject to oblivion? Does the oblivion have a function in the post war reality?

© Laëtitia Donval

Let’s have another look at the book. There is a photograph made somewhere in a no man’s land in the port of Antwerp. Pylons are transporting electrical power to the city. It’s a very beautiful image. It is as if you can hear the power humming. The infrastructures of the new, globalized economy look solid. However, the book does nowhere offer much comfort or hope. In the Keroman port of Lorient, old brick warehouses are waiting to be torn down. Somewhere else, in a quiet arm of the sea, old ships are falling apart by themselves. In the Rue de Gouesnou in Brest, anonymous appartments are waiting for their inhabitants to come home after a day in the office. Bad luck for them today, the tramline is interrupted! My impressions of the images may be anecdotical but -together- they function as meaningful signs. What the book suggests very well is that the destruction and mutation of the old ports have been so radical that they are still marking the inhabitants. Can we ever grasp what has happened to them?

© Laëtitia Donval

The reason why I wanted to write about this book is the most touching text (“Dirty old town”) by Davy Roussel at the end. For me it is a perfect example of how a text can add an extra value to a story in photographs without even mentioning them. “Dirty old town” is a fictional story about Kadour, an outsider boy (son of indigenous Norman father and a certain Fatima who has disappeared from his life) who has the balls to say that Le Havre (“LH like the Americans called it“) “is born from a dysentery of steel and fire offerd by yesterday’s victors“. He, a new European, is the one who sees what is going on and who decides to awake his old co-citizens with the truth about their reality.

© Laëtitia Donval

In an inaccessible zone of the port of Brest, blue and red cranes are building a brand new naval marine destroyer. Definitely, it is time to wake up. Strong stuff, this book!

Filigranes Editions, 2013.