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8 Shades of Memory - ARLES 2024
A sound and image collaboration with Photo Doc Paris

Galerie Huit Arles

8 rue de la Calade
13200 Arles

In the spring of 2011, I’m one of the few people to pass through the imposing doors of the Somali Embassy in Paris, located in the 16th arrondissement. Accompanied by photographer James Bain Smith, We’re meeting His Excellency Saïd Farah, the ambassador of a country that, since the ferocious civil war that followed the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, no longer exists as a functioning state.

Unlike the majority of Somali embassies around the world, which have long since closed their doors, Saïd Farah chose resistance, battling to keep the Somali flag flying in Paris, working and living alone in this deserted mansion, with no telephone lines or heating due to the unpaid bills of an absent government.

While his wife and children had found refuge in Canada, His Excellency Farah has made it a point of honour to remain stationed in France, where, among other tasks, he helps Somali refugees and acts as interpreter for the often very young Somali pirates languishing in French prisons. Twenty or so in all, they exchanged a fisherman’s life for piracy, due in part to the disintegration of the Somali state, where a long coastline without a coastguard has become an ideal dumping ground for international shipping.

In a huge salon, decorated in the 70’s with plush sofas upholstered in thick velvet, we sip glasses of water sitting under a troubadour-style tapestry. Brightly-coloured contemporary paintings by a Somali artist brighten up the pomp of the Louis XVI stucco.

A key figure in a group of Somali intellectuals working for peace and democracy, Farah Saïd explains with a smile that he has made enemies, particularly among Somali fundamentalists affiliated to Al Qaeda. He mentions that as a young man, he was a student at the École supérieure de journalisme in Lille, and that this training has left him with a passion for freedom of expression and information.

As we talk, I notice bits of white plaster falling like snowflakes from the cracked ceiling - later we learn that the roof of the building is starting to collapse. Through an open doorway, I glimpse piles of files strewn across the floor, abandoned by the staff who have departed, one by one, from this sinking Titanic.


Upon leaving the Embassy, I realized that we had been in the presence of an unsung hero, a hero who was sacrificing his family life and his health in the hope that his ravaged country might rise from the ashes. The photographs taken that day were to have been part of that year’s summer exhibition at Galerie Huit Arles, where I wanted to highlight Somalia, but in the end the images exhibited were taken on the ground in Mogadishu by the great photojournalist Pascal Maitre.


Our friend the Ambassador continued tirelessly to defend his cause, standing upright in suit and tie amid the rubble of his palace, and so the years went by until, exhausted, he finally left France to join his family in Canada, while his country continued to suffer conflicts, political crises and record-breaking droughts.


In 2022, at Photo Doc, nouvelles écritures de la photographie documentaire in Paris, I chose to exhibit a few images from this "embassy" series on my stand, since the subject of Somalia remains dear to my heart.

I was expecting polite indifference - photographs of dilapidated interiors are recurrent and often appreciated more for their picturesque content than for the relevance of their stories - but the interest elicited by this series and the questions asked took me by surprise.


Little by little, visitors realized that there was a more intimate narrative, interwoven within the wider drama of a country and its abandoned embassy ...and that the framed snapshot, which lay on the floor among some old papers, showing a 25-year-old Somali boy on a beach in Lamu, a photo taken long before the civil war, was no accidental image, and that this person was no stranger to me.


Now, with my Photo Doc colleagues, dynamic champions of long-term personal investigations, I'm allowing myself to plunge into the hidden mystery of this distant past, a shared past of which I’m the lone survivor.


Arles and Paris in 2024: 8 Shades of Memory, a sound and image collaboration with Photo Doc Paris.

In Arles from 1st July – 29 September 2024.

Photo Doc Paris
06 12 89 26 08

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