The globeranging photographer Reza has mounted a stunning and irresistible exhibit on the banks of the Seine: les berges de Seine, Paris’s new playground. No, it’s not just the sandy beaches (plages) of summer, but I’ll get back to those berges.
The exhibit, sponsored by the coffee boutique company Nespresso, marks the tenth anniversary of the AAA program for responsible, sustainable coffee bean sourcing. Reza traveled the world to take these extraordinary photos of coffee producers in — here is the official list — Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. (The same exhibit is currently mounted in the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew in London, if you are headed in that direction. It will be in Paris until the end of September and in London until November.)
In the Paris exhibit, the pictures are displayed basically in two sizes: very large and huge. The most spectacular array of photographs is along the wall of the right bank opposite the quai d’Orsay, the heart of the new berges de Seine. Face after face WAY more than life size gaze at one across the wide Seine.
You see not even half of the row here.
On the left bank, there are a few (huge) photos on the stone walls, but most (the very large ones) are posted on two-sided billboards in front of the Batobus station, like this:
This one exemplifies how beautifully the photo’s tones complement the stones — or vice versa.
Le Figaro tried mischievously to ask if Nespresso was truly dedicated to international coffee justice or just practicing “greenwashing,” but could not scratch or dent Reza Deghati’s reputation or authenticity. For four months he pursued these coffee growers, talking with them, negotiating their poses, trying to capture the essence of their relationships to this backbreaking labor. His conclusion: pride of the work and labor of love. I don’t know. He does a good job of describing the work of coffee cultivation in his captions, and it sounds just as awful as most of the work that other people do for me and my comfort. I don’t think he is covering up the drudgery of the work, but I do think his language romanticizes it a bit. Or a lot. Still, there are gratitude and respect both in his words and, vitally, in his photographs.
The photographer’s credentials are platinum. He has worked for National Geographic Magazine for years, with many covers and several video productions spotlighting his work. He won a World Press Photo award — second prize! — in 1983, when he was just past thirty, and many, many awards thereafter, both for his photos and for his humanitarian efforts. He knows the people he helps. He has been to their homes and their towns. Most recently, he has founded an organization, Aina, dedicated to the status and well being of Afghan women and children. Himself Iranian-French, of Azerbaijani background, he seems to have a deep sense of the complexity of modern identity. In this series, he makes BIG faces to allow the workers their moment in the world’s eye.
Les berges de Seine, or their rehabilitation, seems to be primarily the project of Bertrand Delanoë, the energetic mayor of Paris for over a decade (he is currently near the end of his second six-year term). Delanoë may have his quirks, such as advocating high rise housing to alleviate the suburbanization of the working class, but he has also followed his socialist faith toward a vision of Paris for all. His initiatives — the Paris-plages, the Velib’ (public bicycle) program, the berges, and so on, have been spectacularly successful, both popular and effective in cutting down pollution and vehicle traffic in the central city. We shall soon see how fares the most ambitious of these projects — a complete overhaul of the nasty rebuilding of Les Halles, the central food market that was demolished in 1971. Gosh, could it be any worse than the awful boring shopping center that until recently graced the very center of the city? I can’t wait to see what emerges. Now it’s mainly cranes, as far as the eye can see. One can follow the cranes’ slow path from the top of the Centre Pompidou (which really, by the way, needs washing. Now there is another job I don’t want to do).
The berges de Seine are a real treat. Cars have been lifted away from several kilometers of the left bank, and in place of the highway, which used to be relieved of cars just once a week during Paris Respire, a Sunday traffic diversion program now ten years old, the long strip of former roadway has been converted to a playground for all ages and all interests. Here you may stroll, bike, ride your skateboard (yes, Paris is skateboard friendly, and increasingly so), test yourself on a 100 meter dash, do chin ups, fill your water bottle, catch the Batobus, play chess, drink a beer, eat a pizza, look at floating or boxed gardens, or take a rest in a hammock. You can doodle on a big blackboard, or do what Parisians love to do: kiss your significant other while seated on or draped over a pile of lumber strategically arranged for — whatever you want it to be.
I saw people doing all those things and more during several recent “drop downs” to the berges.
I have to admit I don’t think there is a moral to this story. Reza’s photographs are big and splashy and technically perfect, like department store billboards or the advertisements Paris sells on the silky drops that cover current construction projects — but the content is so much more important. Being taken into these cultivators’ working lives for a moment is a precious gift. Watching people stroll among and examine the portraits and the words, one is shown what public art might be. Let’s do more of it!