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Cities at War

A collection beyond the clichés

Newly published by the publishing house Luc Pire is the first of a series of photographic albums entitled Villes en guerre (Cities at War). It is dedicated to the city of Brussels (to order it, click here). The series will also comprise a volume on Antwerp, the Flemish cities, the Walloon cities and “War in the Village”. A thematic overview outlines the work and moulds the concept which of course leaves ample room for the image in its specific context. The scientific team of the Ceges/Soma is in charge of the realisation of the proposed volumes.

 More than ever, the photographic support draws the attention and takes us for a visit to the past. The objective is to explain how the image transforms our perception of the city at war.
The association of the notions “city” and “war” reveals for each of us quite precise images: bombings, misery, omnipresence of the occupier, terror, violence. None of these images is false, but neither does one of them represent the totality of the phenomenon. On the contrary, propaganda images present a very different approach: a peaceful and accepted occupation, a servile and smiling occupier, while taking possession of the city or at least of its symbolic sites. The occupier wishes also to present the occupation as a normal period where life goes on much as usual. Between these 'dark' images that haunt the memories and the idealised vision of the propaganda, there are of course nuances depending on the periods, the groups involved, the angles. This is, in a nutshell, what these volumes aim to achieve: to show us the reality of war in the city during the Second World War.


The Ceges/Soma disposes of an extraordinary photographic collection which it has thus far not valorised enough. From this sprung the idea to use the collection in developing the theme 'Cities at War' in publications and exhibitions. The idea is to propose a series that allies a scientific dimension to an iconographic wealth. An exhibition on this theme has recently been organised in Paris and at the same time the volume Les Parisiens sous l'Occupation. Photographies en couleurs d'André Zucca, J. Baronet, Paris, 2008 was published. Both book and exhibition gave rise to certain polemics with respect to the images that were represented. From our point of view, the purpose is not to offer a 'glamorous' vision of the period limited to fashion and other forms of entertainment. We would like to try to present an apprehensive vision of daily life through a reality that took on many forms: from the day to day problems to leisure and on to collaboration and the persecutions.


Each volume contains a wealth of images as well as a succinct introduction to the city concerned. The idea is also to analyse the image beyond the image. As a rule, the majority of the photographs taken during the war are propaganda images. Therefore, they offer a specific view on this period. Certain aspects remain totally in the dark. But even through images of propaganda, it is possible to treat certain subjects such as food supplies, the collaboration and mass behaviour. Images of emblematic sites of power reveal symbolic aspects which the occupier wished to draw attention to… But, it is a fact that propaganda images can have the opposite effect as had been intended.


As a rule, certain topics are hardly present in the 'official' press photography. This is the case where violence is concerned or also the resistance. It is however possible to evoke them through the image. Indeed, we dispose of a number of surreptitiously taken photographs, be they of poor quality. They allow all at once to shed light on clandestine warfare but also to reflect on the photographic tool and on the attitude of the occupier as to the right to take photographs. In a number of judicial districts, we also dispose of photographs emanating from the office of the public prosecutor. Such documents must of course be used with a lot of circumspection and with absolute respect for the legislation concerning the protection of private life. Nevertheless, they contribute to defining the essential question of violence during times of war.


Unfortunately, a lot of photographs remain in the possession of private persons. These volumes also intend to try and take out of the bottom drawer photo albums of persons who even during the war continued to immortalise solemn moments of their life. These private photographs constitute an inestimable and irreplaceable source for the historian. Would they only be at his disposal.


Chantal Kesteloot


18 / 11 / 2009