I was born in Paris in 1920, in an apartment to which I ultimately returned after spending my life under different skies. But now I’m 93, the five flights of stairs with no lift seem steeper than ever before. I was raised by my Jewish mother but I never knew my father, and I spent my youth in seriously straitened circumstances. My schooling was chaotic, and my only qualification is the diploma I got when I finished primary school.
I was eleven when a memorable event occurred: the 1931 Exposition Coloniale opened not far from my home. Every evening I could see a faithful, brilliantly illuminated replica of the magnificent temple of Angkor Vat through the kitchen window. I spent my days wandering around the monument, dreaming of jungles full of tigers and elephants..
And years later, that dream was to come true. I was indeed to explore Angkor, before being lavishly received by the King of Cambodia, and I was even to bring a tigress back to Paris. But in the meantime I would have to confront many difficulties.
I was twenty when, in 1940, I left Paris on a bicycle, caught up in the debacle of the war. To escape from the Germans, I spent the occupation in the Chantiers de Jeunesse [youth workers organization]. In 1943 I became involved with the Corps Franc Pommiès, a large resistance group in southwest France, and with them I took part in the 1944 Liberation. I felt that it was vital to experience the Liberation in the field rather than in an office. I was wounded in the Vosges, and I arrived at the officers’ training academy with my arm in a sling, nevertheless graduating to the rank of aspirant just in time to take part in the German campaign serving in the Third Algerian Infantry Division.
For obscure administrative reasons I was assigned to the Air Force in 1945 and found myself sent to the Dijon regional headquarters, where nobody knew what to do with me. To occupy my time, I decided to revive the local flying clubs that had been deserted since the war. My initiatives were noticed by the higher-ups, and I was sent to Paris to set up the air force press officers’ network. I was Jack-of-all-trades at the Air Ministry, and I even wrote a few ministerial speeches and presented the Le Bourget air show, microphone in hand. I also travelled in French Africa, but I still dreamed of Indochina. I sometimes borrowed a Rolleiflex to take holiday photos, but my salary was still modest and I couldn’t afford my own camera.
In 1951, I was at last sent to Saigon, which luckily enough is only an hour from Angkor by plane. I found war there, of course, but absolutely not the colonial war described by some.
France had agreed to grant independence to the states of Indochina: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh was received in Paris with all the honours due to a statesman. During an air show, I was even given the job of trying (in vain) to sell him French planes. But when he went home, Ho Chi Minh was hauled over the coals by the Soviets. Independence was not to be negotiated around a green baize table; instead it was to be conquered by armed conflict, in blood and flames. Just like the French Revolution. The lesson was learned, and more and more attacks were carried out in Tonkin. It was the start of the French War of Indochina, which would only end at Dien Bien Phu.
But when I got to Saigon in 1951, everything was calm. The people of South Vietnam were less politicized than those in the North, and benefited in many ways from the presence of the French – which made my job easier.
The experience I had gained in Paris allowed me to set up the press service for the Air Force in Indochina, which I visited from north to south. I was also given a weekly programme on Saigon Radio, which made me quite popular with the locals. Then General Chassin suggested I should look for a photographer in the units who might be able to put together a photo album for air service personnel. Nobody came forward. “Find a solution, Cauchetier”, he said, “Try and take the photos yourself. It can’t be that hard”.
And I thought – why not?
So I bought a Rolleiflex, the camera used in Indochina by all the war correspondents at the time, and I started to take photographs of what I saw around me. There were plenty of subjects to choose from. I took part in all the big air missions, some of them very dangerous. I had many different jobs to do, and photography was simply one more. General de Gaulle even awarded me the Legion of Honour for all the risks I’d taken. The war escalated.
To be more effective, I would get myself dropped off in the middle of entrenched encampments surrounded by Vietminh divisions: Hoa Binh, Na San, Dien Bien Phu, to bear witness, from below, using my camera and microphone, to the decisive importance of airborne support in the military operations taking place. My photos of the Battle of Na San were to become legendary, and my radio reports also made a splash. I escaped the disaster of Dien Bien Phu quite by chance, as the airstrip had been bombed and was unusable when my plane tried to land.
But during those years I also discovered the astonishing human and cultural wealth of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I befriended not only farmers in the rice fields, but also Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, and Bao Dai, Emperor of Vietnam. These countries, which Paris still considered with benevolent condescendence, were in reality bursting with contained energy. When you look back over the centuries, their history is dazzling and their creative genius just as strong as that of medieval Europe. As soon as I had some free time, I would take photographs of towns, people and landscapes, packing them into boxes.
In 1954, just when I’d been promoted to the rank of capitaine after Dien Bien Phu, I left the army. The war was over. I stayed in Indochina and tried to embark on a career as a photographer. I knew a little about photography itself, but nothing about the world of photography. At the beginning, though, things went well. My first album, Ciel de Guerre en Indochine, was very successful. The 10,000 copies printed were all sold on subscription, and all the royalties went to Air Force charities. Also, to my great surprise, the Japanese, who had just discovered my photos of Saigon, hailed me as one of the greatest photographers of the time. The magazine Asahi Camera gave me sixteen pages. One of the top American museums, the Smithsonian Institution, organized an exhibition of my photos of Vietnam, Faces of Viet Nam, which travelled around the States for several years.
I came back to Paris full of hope. I dreamed of working for Paris-Match and of learning my new profession at last. I managed to get an interview and arrived with my published albums and a selection of my best photos. The editor rejected them disdainfully. “Nowadays, Monsieur, everyone takes good photos. The only thing that matters is who recommended you!” I wasn’t recommendable, so I left.
And yet I wasn’t forgotten in Japan. When he came to Paris, the most famous Japanese photographer, Ihei Kimura, mentioned me to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who suggested I work for Magnum. I was just about to leave for Indochina again, and gladly agreed.
I arrived in Saigon during the elections. The Americans were plotting to make sure their favourite, Ngo Dinh Diem, would replace Emperor Bao Dai, who was too favourable to France. My photos show the various phases of the campaign, which was violent and pitiless. I sent them to Magnum straight away, but received no answer. A little disappointed, I left Saigon and went to Cambodia, where the Angkor temples still awaited me.
It was only much later that I found out why my photos did not find favour with Magnum. It wasn’t because they weren’t good enough, but because they had been taken with my old 6X6 cm Rollei, whereas the Magnum lab, sponsored by Leica, was only equipped to process 24×36 mm photos. They were eventually published, but I was kindly but firmly urged to get a new camera. I refused, and that’s why I only really worked for Magnum for a day.
So I went back to work in Angkor. That’s where, in 1956, I got a telegram from the producer Jean-Paul Guibert, who asked me to take photos for the film Mort en Fraude, which Marcel Camus was about to make in Indochina based on a book by my friend Jean Hougron. It wasn’t because I was (possibly) talented, but because it was cheaper than bringing over a photographer from Paris.
That’s how I started working in film, little knowing that I would later, in my own way, illustrate the revolution of New Wave cinema.
At the time, set photographers were technicians with ill-defined jobs. They were mostly asked to take a photo from the spot where the movie camera was standing at the end of a scene, and then to make themselves scarce. They got in everyone’s way and cost the producers money as every minute had to be used profitably. Their role as button-pushers brought them a meagre salary that was aligned with that of junior machine operators. Besides, nobody really knew what to do with the photos, which only really interested the script girl trying to get the continuity right.
But that was when Jean-Luc Godard appeared, beginning to film Breathless. The wind of change was starting to blow in the world of cinema. The producer was indignant when he saw Godard writing dialogues in a café and sending the film crew home because he didn’t have any ideas that morning. The sacrosanct rules of traditional cinema had been thrown out of the window.
I covered this upheaval from day to day, but I was careful not to talk about how successful my work had been in Indochina. I still had everything to learn about the world of film, where I was still unknown. Besides which, I bothered people. I was severely criticized for my initiatives and my ‘reporter’ style that was so far removed from standard set photography. One day, in 1961, they stopped using me to please a cameraman who was eager to give the job to one of his friends. Nobody’s perfect.
As for my pictures, which belonged to the production company, they stayed in boxes for fifty years. When they’d finished filming Breathless, Jean Seberg introduced me to Romain Gary. We got on really well and talked a little about film and books, but a lot about aviation. He had been in the Air Force in the Middle East, as I had in the Far East. We would often compare the attractions and dangers of our respective air missions.
But I had to get another job. I offered my services to François Truffaut, who welcomed me with open arms. I took part in the filming of some unforgettable films. But the set photographer’s salary was set by the trade unions and remained as low as ever, and I became tired of this and ended up leaving the cinema world altogether.
The publisher Dargaud gave me what seemed like a golden handshake after the paltry salaries in film: they asked me to edit a series of photonovels – a format that was very popular at the time. I learned the technique from Hubert Serra, one of the people who created the genre in France. I was thrilled: I could write the storyboards, select and direct the actors, and do the lighting for the shots myself. I adapted Balzac, Maupassant, Zola and Chekhov. It was like film, except that there were no movie cameras or sound engineers. Instead of spotlights, we had flashes bouncing off walls. This lighting method was used faithfully in the New Wave films, and the critics, who had never opened a photonovel in their lives, proclaimed it as a stroke of genius.
Within a few years I was back on an even keel financially, until Dargaud sold the thriving magazine to a greedy Belgian publishing house, which ruined its distribution and killed it off within a few months.
There was nothing to keep me in France any more. In 1967 I was able to go back to Indochina, where Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, who loved the photos in my Saigon album, asked me to take photographs of his country as part of a tourist promotion. I was given everything I needed: cars, planes, helicopters. It was like a dream! For two months I travelled the length and breadth of Cambodia, without a single day’s rest. I was a little worried, because I had never taken on such responsibilities before. But when the King saw my work he loved it, decorated me with one of the highest Khmer honours, and asked me to set up a National School of Photography in Cambodia.
But I turned down this lavish offer. I was too fond of my freedom. Besides, I believe that photography can’t be learned at school. It’s something you feel. The elementary rules can be learned in a few minutes. After that, it’s all about the way you look at things. Claude Chabrol said to me ‘”It took me a morning to learn everything you need to know to make films. Then I improved with experience.” Photography is hardly more complicated than that.
In any case, the King of Cambodia had a special air-conditioned safe made to protect my slides and negatives from the tropical climate.
Little did he know that a coup was in the offing, and that in 1970 one of his generals, Lon Nol, inspired by the CIA, would depose him while he was on one of his trips to France. The victory was short-lived. The Khmers Rouges, which Sihanouk had kept in check, were unleashed on Cambodia and embarked on a reign of terror. They took Phnom Penh in 1975 and occupied the Royal Palace. They found the safe with the photos in it and, believing it to be full of jewels, blew it up with dynamite. Everything it contained was burnt to ashes: nothing remained of my 3,000 photos.
But in 1967 when I finished my work and returned to France, I was far from being able to predict all that. I stopped off in Moscow, where I decided to stay for a week as a simple tourist. But as usual the unexpected happened. A series of improbable events allowed me to take close-up photographs of secret Korolev rockets at a display that was under tight surveillance, before they were taken to their launch base at Baïkonour. Amazingly, everything went well, except that the next day the Russian police arrested me at the airport. I thought I was for the gulag, or worse.
But having been held for two hours in a gloomy office in Moscow, they let me go without the slightest explanation. And I still had the compromising film rolls in my pocket. So I was able to fly calmly back to Paris. I later tried to find a reason for what had happened, but it remains unclear. True, my photos didn’t reveal the technical secrets of Soviet aerospace technology, but Brejnev was in power and the Cold War was in full swing. It would have been possible for the Soviets to take a very dim view of my reckless curiosity. But once again, luck was on my side that day.
When I got back to Paris I offered my photos to Paris Match, but they thought it was a practical joke and didn’t even respond. Other magazines also turned a deaf ear, and ultimately a newspaper for young readers, J 2, published a photo of the rocket on its front page. Otherwise nobody would believe me today.
That was when Rizzoli asked me to do some reportage work as part of a series on the world’s great monuments. I travelled through Europe and the Middle East, discovering some amazing church interiors on the way that attracted my attention to Romanesque sculpture, of which I knew nothing and to which I was later to devote twenty years of my life. I also photographed the old city of Damascus, the ruins of Palmyra, and most of all the monasteries of Mount Athos, where I spent a week walking along tiny paths on a peninsula totally without roads.
In 1992, an unexpected and highly significant event changed my life. A copyright law came into force, giving film photographers the rights to all the photos they took as salaried employees.
It was more than I wanted. I only claimed copyright for my reportage photos, and offered the production companies the rights to all the set photos in return for the negatives of these personal photographs; they still have them in their possession, quite illegally.
Then something else happened out of the blue. It became obvious that it wasn’t traditional set photos that had made the greatest contribution to the fame of certain films, but the photos I’d taken off set. And the producers flatly refused to give them up – with the notable exception of Les Films du Carrosse, (François Truffaut and Madeleine Morgenstern) who have always behaved in exemplary fashion.
There was no law specifying who these negatives belonged to; the copyright belonged to the photographers, but the production companies held them hostage without being able to use them. They preferred to say that the negatives had been mislaid, as they waited for things to improve.
But Indochina was still alive. In the early 2000s, M. Nicolas Warnery, the French consul in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) noticed that the aerial photos in my Saigon album showed an interesting and surprising aspect of the cityscape in the 1950s. He phoned me in Paris to see if I still had any similar photos. Luckily enough, I had kept a boxful. They were modest photos taken through the open door of the Dakota as I came back from missions. But they have become irreplaceable images of a great city’s past.
In 2005 the exhibition entitled Saigon 1955 / Ho Chi Minh Ville 2005 placed my photos alongside more recent ones taken by the Vietnamese Air Force. Displayed in a park in the city centre, the free show was open to the public for three months, day and night. The entire city filed past the prints, including schoolchildren guided by their teachers. The press estimated that over a million people came to see the pictures. And I was officially decorated by my former adversaries, who were now grateful for what I had done.
Over the following years, I put on the archaeologist’s hat I’d already worn in Angkor – justified by the fact that I’ve been a member of the Société Française d’Archéologie since 1960. From then on I spent two months a year travelling through Europe to photograph, with the infinitely invaluable help of Kaoru, my Japanese wife, major Romanesque sculptures from Norway to Sicily and from Ireland to Poland. I brought back over 30,000 photos, not only of Romanesque abbeys and cathedrals but also of modest churches, villages and even hamlets, some of which possess real masterpieces, mostly from the twelfth century. The conditions in which I worked were sometimes very difficult, but these expeditions led me to some memorable discoveries.
This part of our precious cultural heritage is known to but a few specialists, and these photos will probably be a revelation for the general public, as well as for the world’s universities, frustrated by the dearth of recent colour pictures of these examples of our medieval heritage.
To sum up, I can say that I’ve spent part of my life photographing what I like, without worrying about the immediate profitability of my work, which was very careless of me.
But I have no regrets. I’ve lived a life of freedom, and that has no price.
Paris, june 2013