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Climate change reaches the Camargue

Story and photos by Anaïs-Ophelia Lino

When tourists think of the Camargue and its sprawling tall grasses, shining blue seawater and picturesque white horses, few would imagine it could disappear in a couple decades. But climate scientists say its grass is becoming too salty for pasture and its beaches are receding, and in 50 years its central city, Arles, will be under water.

“What shocks me most is that when I arrived in 1991, there were big, large beaches,” said researcher Nicole Yavercovski. “Today, they’ve disappeared.”

The Camargue is seeing radical changes due to climate change, according to researchers such as Yavercovski at the Tour du Valat, which has been studying the Camargue’s flora and fauna for nearly 70 years.

For decades, the region has attracted tourists for its flamingos, bulls, white horses and Mediterranean beaches. In the last 30 years, climate change has had severe impacts on all of them.

“In the very long term, it’s true that all of the Camargue will be under water,” said Jocelyn Champagnon, ornithologist for the Tour du Valat.  “I think nobody wants to address this question because it’s difficult to accept it.”

Wildlife has already been affected. Birds don’t need to travel as far south anymore to find warmer weather. Some birds from Switzerland that would have migrated to the Camargue stay near Paris. 

In the heart of the Camargue lies the Vaccarès Pond. It’s crucial for water birds but has lost the eelgrass that feeds most of them.

Meanwhile, the Camargue’s agriculture is being affected by low precipitation and a rapidly heating planet. According to Champagnon, sea levels will rise dramatically in the next 20 years. That means that there will be less beef and rice production.

In fact, that is already happening. Rising temperatures, low precipitation and human interference such as irrigation and increased water vapor is causing salt to rise quickly to the top of the surface and into the soil. 

“Agriculture is very sensitive to the salt,” Champagnon said. “You have a strong impact on the production of agriculture. So, this is already an impact of climate change.”

The shrinking beaches of the Camargue still attract many tourists.

While salt is one of the region’s most valuable exports, this is causing less production of rice and making some grass inedible for grazing animals, like the Camarguais bulls and horses. Rice farmers have to push past the salt and plant deeper, and bulls that graze in the Camargue are eating less, according to Yavercovski.

“I think there will be a big change in Arles’ socio-economic way of life,” Yavercovski said. 

The city of Arles in the south of France is the country’s biggest commune by land area, almost seven times as big as Paris’ zone. Its economy depends mostly on tourism and the production of salt, rice and beef in the surrounding countryside. “Everyone will be affected by climate change,” Yavercovski said. 

Yavercovski said farmers blame ecologists for wanting to regulate the use of the land.

Olive and hay farmer Benoit Cauvin responds that the tensions stem from the perception that ecologists have more pull with the government and greater access to land. 

Situated in the Crau, just on the border of the Camargue, Cauvin’s farm produces expensive Crau hay that can only grow in that region. 

Cauvin has experienced bizarre weather. A hotter winter helps his olives grow but hurts the hay.

“Climate change doesn’t worry me as much, but winter is less cold now,” Cauvin said. “Climate change means having to adapt.”

Slowly, ecologists are gathering interested parties, including farmers, duck hunters and managers of protected areas, to summarize new discoveries and collaborate on solutions. 

“We are working with the farmers in order to find solutions for them to not disturb [ecology] too much and  to understand [it],” said Champagnon. “But this is really just the beginning.”

Arles feels ripples of racial conflict

Story by Ella Slade

While only a 15-minute walk from the city center, the Griffeuille, one of Arles’ three quartiers populaires, resembles an entirely different city. As you approach from downtown, the Roman architecture and tourist-target boutiques fade into clusters of large, uniform housing projects. 

Many people from these housing projects never go to the city center and vice versa, according to Fanny Petit, the coordinator of La Collective, a non-profit association in Arles that provides social and psychological services for women. “It’s like there is a frontier, an invisible frontier.”

One of the housing projects in Griffeuille, a quartier populaire in Arles. Photo by Ella Slade.

Recent events have shined a spotlight on those living in France’s quartiers populaires. On June 27, in Nanterre, a town in the western suburbs of Paris, 17-year-old Nahel M. was fatally shot in the chest by police, for driving off during a traffic check. The recent death of the teenager, who neighbors said was from a family of Algerian origin, triggered rioting and clashes with police around Paris and other communities throughout France.

In Arles, the reality is complex, leaving both urban and suburban communities with conflicting feelings of solidarity and estrangement. While the Griffeuille  may not seem attractive to tourists, it is rich with diversity and home to a close-knit community, said Zachariah Yazidi, a resident of the Griffeuille, who compared himself to a local mail carrier.  “We all know each other, we’re like a big family. 

Quartiers populaires are categorized based on household income, communities where the median income is equal to, or less than, 60% of the national median wage (1,800€/month). The people who live in these communities are two times more likely to be immigrants than the national average and three times more likely to be unemployed, according to the Institut Montaigne. 

A similar, but not interchangeable, term used is banlieue, meaning a set of administratively autonomous neighborhoods that surround an urban center.

Although it is the largest city in France by land area, Arles has a relatively small population of around 50,000 inhabitants. 

While riots broke out even in many small French towns, protesters assembled peacefully June 30 in Arles’ Place de la République.

People gather for a peaceful assembly on June 30 to protest the killing by police of Nahel M. on June 27. Photo by Deni Chamberlin.

Victor Parodi, who lives in Arles and will attend the University of Paul Valery in the fall, said he thinks that since Arles is a fairly small city, it does not host much social activism. 

“You can see right away when you go to the biggest cities like Lyon, Marseille, Paris. This is where there is the most movement, and where there has been the most revolt and break-up,” Parodi said. “For example, I went to Marseille today. The riots were still two weeks ago and there were dozens of stores with the windows that were totally broken, stores that were looted, that were broken, stolen from.”

“It is also not necessarily in small towns where we will see these riots. The purpose of a riot is to see it everywhere, and in small towns people won’t necessarily see them,” said Samuel Lacassin, a recent graduate of Lycée Louis Pasquet in Arles.

The assembly in Arles included three audio broadcasts of testimonies from Nahel’s family, as well as other victims of civil rights violations and police brutality. 

“There were 200 people [present], which is not enormous, but it’s consequential for the city of Arles, and there were 50 to 70 young people who came from the banlieue,” said Camille, an organizer of the assembly in Arles who spoke to The Arles Project on the condition of using a pseudonym. “Normally, in these political activist gatherings, most people are White and from the center of town.”

According to Camille, many who attended the assembly in Arles were social activists who have demonstrated together in the past. 

Throughout the assembly, those in attendance were given time to speak and pose questions to law enforcement officials who were present. 

“They immediately asked simple questions about their feelings,” Camille said. “A young boy, who is 11, talked about racism that he already knows, as he is a victim of racism at this age, which is very young. He asked the policeman, ‘Why do you arrest only Arabic and Black people, and why do you control them?’” 

The officers, who stood on the periphery of the assembly, did not respond. A spokesperson for the Arles bureau of the national police told The Arles Project no one was available to comment by press time. 

A graffito in Arles calls for “Justice for Nahel,” the Nanterre youth killed by a police officer. Photo by Ella Slade.

According to Camille, even a simple gathering in homage to Nahel and to denounce police racism is considered a threat to government officials in France. The problem is not just the racism of individual officers, Camille said. “It’s the laws around it, and how to live with systemic racism in the states and with the police in particular.”

“In places like the banlieue, where they’re not investing a lot of money and energy into making life better for these people, giving them more work opportunities, and giving them more education opportunities, obviously, there’s going to be economic difficulties,” said Sydney Firsching, an Arles-based intern at SOS Racisme, an organization which aims to combat discrimination and promote community cooperation. “All crime is a result of economic difficulties, really, in most cases, in many communities.” 

Police stop teenagers in the Paris banlieue sometimes multiple times per day, she said.

That’s similar to the reality experienced by Cosmo Arnold, who also recently graduated from Lycée Louis Pasquet in Arles.

“Just the difference between how you interact with the police, for example, between the center of town and [the fashionable neighborhood] La Roquette, is two different worlds,” Arnold said. “I mean, they won’t do a thing if you’re in town, [but] they will chase you if you do a single bad thing outside of town, not even that far away.” 

How can the cycle of poverty, over policing and violence end? “I think it [starts] by taking a step back and realizing how abnormal it is to have a police force that’s defending the state and the interests of a few over everyone else,” Arnold said. “And it’s all about not normalizing it. It’s by normalizing it, that it becomes more prevalent.” 

Yazidi agrees. “As I explained to you, we are like a big family, and that’s why France is rising up. If someone killed someone in your family, someone you know, [you] would rise. At some point, people need to shout to be listened to by the government.”

Not a performance

Story and photos by Kylie Clifton

It’s a regular day at LUMA Arles. Visitors are milling about; smiles grow like eager crops at the sight of two 90-foot-long intertwining stainless-steel slides. Pascal Coluni, a LUMA welcome agent, collects denim toboggans from guests at the foot of the slide with a wide grin. Guests watch the slides behind smartphones as Coluni checks his watch repeatedly.

And then it starts.

Taking a few steps from his post, Coluni changes his posture and begins to sing. It’s musical, but there are no words. An ethereal echo fills the cavernous tower. The sounds are eerie and bizarre, yet still comforting. Coluni opens his arms to welcome others to join in. A few visitors start singing the wordless song together.

This video shows excerpts from the first part of “These Elements,” a collaborative immaterial artwork created by world-renowned artists Tino Sehgal and Phillipe Parreno. This section of the work lasts about five minutes.

To visitors, it might appear that Coluni has gone rogue – or perhaps a bit mad. However, the song is not spontaneous. It’s the first composition from “These Elements,” a collaborative immaterial artwork created by world-renowned artists Tino Sehgal and Phillipe Parreno. This exhibition was commissioned by LUMA Arles for the opening of the Tower in 2021 and the living artwork has continued daily for two years.

“These Elements” is a permanent exhibition at LUMA Arles, but its existence isn’t documented. Visitors will not find a title, an artist credit, a schedule or a description on location or on the LUMA website.

The exhibition needs to be experienced to be understood, and behind it is a complex list of rules per the artists’ instruction. The first rule: This is not a performance and it should not be regarded as one.

“For Tino’s work, the art is what is born in between the person who does it and the person who receives it,” explained Iaci Lomonaco, head of global engagement for Tino Sehgal. “So, it’s what we are exchanging. Who is singing is [not] the star; [the star] is what we exchange. This really depends on the mood of the interpreter but also the moods of who is receiving it.”

“These Elements” is made up of three compositions and a film. The first element is the immaterial artwork that Coluni participates in. When the singers finish the five-minute piece, they move into a room where visitors are seated on a giant circular couch watching and listening to a multimedia piece by Phillipe Parreno. Once inside the room, the singers join the unknowing guests on the sofa and start improvising electric sounds in a piece called “The Grotto.” The final element, “The Spider,” includes an improvisational duet between a dancer and a pianist. 

From the beginning, LUMA Arles sought to hire existing welcome agents for “These Elements.” Coluni, who started working at LUMA Arles in 2016, was invited to meet Sehgal for a vocal exercise in June 2021. Without any voice lessons or experience performing, he discovered he could sing.

Prior to 2021, he had only ever sung at home and simply for fun. His favorite artists and genres include Michael Jackson, Mariah, jazz and gospel music.

Pascal Coluni, a welcome agent at LUMA Arles, sings the first movement of “Three Elements.”

“It was a revelation for me,” said Coluni. “It revealed my artistic side and the fact that I didn’t know that my voice had that much potential and could cover that great a range in terms of what I could do singing Tino’s work.”

This exhibition is kept alive by the presence of an unknowing audience. Impressions from onlookers can vary from confused to delighted.

“Interaction with people changes it a lot,” said Flore Silly, another LUMA employee who participates in the exhibition. “Energy of the day is always different [which influences the] piece. So every day is different. I learned from those interactions or synergies how to be in flux, to share, to be incarnated in all those different elements.”

Jo Crosby, an Australian who was visiting LUMA Arles recently, heard the vocal piece while viewing another exhibition. Intrigued by the sound, she left her exhibit to find the source.

“I wasn’t sure if it’s an installation or if it’s actually part of the building,” said Crosby. “It’s fantastic to see something that’s not so conservative, that’s brave and yet unexpectedly pushing the boundaries.”

This exhibition is collaborative in nature but not just with the artists — Coluni treasures the moments shared with visitors.

“There was a nurse who had just come out of two years of working through COVID-19,” he recalled. “At the end she came up to me and [silently embraced me]. She had been very moved by the piece and I was also moved by her reaction.”

Cultivating bulls –and tourists – in the Camargue

Story and photos by Alexie Zollinger

At the Manade des Baumelles in the Camargue region of the South of France, the sound of cowbells clanking breaks up the numbing noise from the cicadas, and distant exclamations can be heard coming from two employees. The hollers are tracked to two men, the older one giving instructions to the younger, who is hard at work, with irritated mosquito bites covering his legs from long days in the marshy wetlands of the region. 

The men step between slim planks of wood about a foot wide, laid across a corral holding three large Camargue bulls, idolized in the region due to their importance in traditional bullfighting and bull games. The men take turns carrying large double braided ropes through the slats, leaning their bodies back in order to apply the weight needed to lead the hefty animals beneath. They explain they are trying to attach a label to the ears of the bulls as a way to recognize bulls of their herd before the main event; they will run the bulls through the region on horseback, a well known and popular tradition in the Camargue.

A 16-year-old intern at the Manade des Baumelles helps wrangle bulls beneath him in order to place tracking labels on them.

Since the 16th century, the Camargue has been at the roots of established traditions in the region. With 360 square miles of sprawling farm land, its primary economic function, up until about 50 years ago, was as pasture for white Camargue horses, and breeding grounds and caring for bulls for the purpose of bullfighting and bull games. Now, the jobs of the Camargue’s inhabitants have changed– in addition to herding bulls, they are also herding tourists. 

The Camargue is Western Europe’s largest river delta. In it lie 150 manades or ranches, dedicated to the raising and care of Camargue bulls and horses. The Camargue has often been called the “wild west of France,” with the manadiers its ranchers and the gardians its cowboys. 

When the Camargue traditions started, these modern-day heroes were no more than agricultural laborers, and many of the inhabitants of the Camargue lived in poverty. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that nobleman Marquis de Baroncelli, infatuated with the Camargue’s beautiful scenery and inspired by the gardians‘ dedication to the land, swore to elevate these men, and promote them as protectors of the land. This status remains intact today – but many aspects of these traditions have changed. 

Throughout history, and up until about 50 years ago, gardians lived in the Camargue in traditional cabanes de gardian, small whitewashed homes made from materials often found in the Camargue – walls made from mud and stone, roofs made from reeds and sewn together with iron-weaved thread, and topped with limestone at the point. The homes are very small, with only one room and an open air fireplace for warmth and a small living space. Now, these homes are almost all renovated or built new, and listed as vacation rentals and Airbnbs, for upwards of $200/night in peak tourism season. 

The biggest building on any manade would have housed the manadier and his family in the 19th century, and would be made of stone. Now, they primarily serve as reception areas or small hotels for tourists, who visit the Camargue to see the legendary black bulls and white horses, and learn about the origins of bull games and bull fighting. 

Due to this popularity, the job descriptions have changed for the gardians and manadiers. They often give informational tours of the manade to tourists, and manadiers also become hotel managers, balancing tourist bookings with the traditional practice of raising and caring for the vital heart of the manade–the actual livestock.

Ronarn Faure,the sole gardian of the manade, says caring for the animals of the Camargue and protecting the traditions are his passion.

The Manade des Baumelles is a renovated manade complete with a hotel and two restaurants on the property. The manade offers horseback riding, tractor tours and other Camargue excursions. 

The relationship is intertwined now, and everyone who is involved in the traditions of the Camargue has been forced to adapt to these changes over time. They have found that one cannot exist without the other. Emile Astruc, an employee in the manade, said, “Without tourism there is not enough money coming in to have the Camargue or the gardians or the hotel; everything does go to the Camargue.”

Astruc believes all of the employees in the manades of the Camargue, whether they have an agricultural job or a job in hospitality, work in the manade because they are passionate about the traditions. She herself drives over an hour and a half from her home near Marseille every day at 6 a.m. to be in this position. 

Faure is the sole employed gardian of the Manade des Baumelles, and has been working in the Camargue professionally for six years. As a child he devoted much of his time to volunteering, as the traditions of the land are his passion.

Similarly to Astruc, Faure says that his career is a labor of love. “We don’t think about [it as a] job. I know that I work and that makes it my job, but it’s a passion because it’s never the same, because you see a lot of different things and because it’s pleasant.”

He says he is grateful for the increase in tourism, because it is thanks to tourists that he can keep his traditions alive, even if they have changed. Through tourism, Faure can continue to educate the public on the history and traditions of the Camargue. In modern times, in the face of so much opposition to bull activities, Faure believes tourism helps spread the defense of the practices. 

“It’s scary,” Faure said. “It is true that today there are people who are fighting to have all that abolished. And it’s true that likewise, if that were to be the case, we wouldn’t work anymore and there wouldn’t be any point in raising bulls.It is important to preserve working with a wild animal in the wild and to make a difference, and to perpetuate the traditions around the horse and the bull.”

Faure said his hope is for “traditions [to] continue… and to manage to make people understand that this must continue, that [bull] breeding is made to make this show and that we should not fight against [it.]

Roles have adapted to incorporate tourists, but it is through tourist dollars that the traditions are intact, and it is through educating tourists that the traditions can continue to be celebrated, said Faure. 

“It’s not just a story of money,” said Faure. “No, tourism is also important to share our culture.” 

Bullfighting Controversy Mounts

Story by Ella Lepkowski. Photos by Sam Guzman

Longtime Arles resident Dominique Arizmendi was sitting in the stands of an arena as bullfighters jabbed a bull in the neck several times until it couldn’t raise its head. When the matador finally killed it with his sword, the crowd cheered. But Arizmendi was disgusted. “I felt like I was on another planet,” she said.

When one considers the essence of French culture, the mind often paints a vivid picture, dominated by the iconic imagery of Paris: alleys with old architecture, freshly baked baguettes and croissants with cheese and chocolate on the side, and perhaps even fervent protesters filling the roads. In the southern region of France, however, a vibrant ambiance with distinct Mediterranean and Latin influences continues to thrive, particularly in the provincial city of Arles where the corrida, or bullfighting, season lasts from the second Sunday of March to the end of September.

Now Arles, a provincial city in the South of France, finds itself at a crossroads. With anti-corrida protests echoing through the streets and a growing majority in favor of banning the age-old tradition, Arles has become a battleground for conflicting opinions on the ethics and future of bullfighting. As the spotlight shines on this vibrant Mediterranean city, the clash between passionate advocates and fervent opponents reveals a deeply divided society grappling with the moral complexities surrounding this controversial spectacle.

A bull bleeds from the matador’s sword.

While the true history and origins of bullfighting is blurred as it has been influenced by many different cultures spanning a long period of time, historians can trace an idea of how modern bullfighting appeared in Spain. During the Moorish rule of Spain (8th to 15th century), bullfighting in its early form emerged as a combination of pre-existing traditions. Moors created contests involving bull-leaping and bull-dodging, which were eventually blended with local customs.

Controversies rose from the ethical concerns of bullfighting. Queen Isabella I, for example, opposed bullfighting, and the practice went underground in the 15th century. In 1567, Pope Pius V issued a complete ban on bullfighting, excommunicating Christian nobles who supported such spectacles. But by the 18th century, bullfighting was back and had transformed into a highly stylized and formalized spectacle in Spain. Key elements such as the three-stage structure (tercio), the use of specific tools (such as the cape and sword), and the involvement of bullfighters (toreros) began to take shape.

Bullfighting faced a challenge in 2012 when an animal rights organization sent a request for a ban to France’s Constitutional Council. The request, however, was shot down under the premise that the practice is not unconstitutional, and is traditional to the South of France. Defenders of bullfighting also point out the significant economic impact the sport has, as the practice greatly attracts tourists.

Although France’s Constitutional Council rejected the plea for bullfighting to be banned and despite the enduring presence of bullfighting as a cultural tradition, recent statistics reveal that a majority of French people leans toward the anti-corrida stance. According to survey data collected by IFOP (The Institut français d’opinion publique), a staggering 74% of French citizens are in favor of banning bullfighting. These findings and the anti-corrida protests each year in Arles highlight the strong opposition to bullfighting in France, reflecting a significant clash in societal attitude towards the ethics and morality surrounding this controversial spectacle.

“I can’t stand having animals tortured to death,” Arizmendi said.

According to Arizmendi, the primary ethical concerns associated with bullfighting are rooted in the inherent cruelty of the practice.

“It’s hard for me to understand how people can do this,” she said. “It’s not to eat. It’s not a slaughterhouse to get meat. It’s a show for fun, so I don’t understand how people can have fun watching an animal be tortured and put to death.”

To actively participate in the anti-corrida movement and advocate for its cause, Arizmendi and her group, named No Corrida, organize protests in the streets and gather signatures for petitions in hopes that these efforts will help change the law.

Arizmendi differentiates the course camarguaise, a traditional form of French bullfighting that still currently takes place in the Camargue region, from corrida. “People don’t hurt, torture, or kill the bull.” She explains that the corrida is Spanish bullfighting, whereas the course camarguaise is a French tradition that has existed for a long time.

The course camargaise begins with a dance performance in traditional clothing.

 Arizmendi also rebuts the worry that a corrida ban would have negative implications for the economy and tourism. The feria, the fair in which the bullfighting course camarguaise takes place, is what brings in the money.

“All the people who come for the feria do not go to the corrida,” she said, explaining that the majority of the bulls raised are destined for the slaughterhouse, not for the arena.

Arizmendi acknowledges the financial support provided to bull breeders and organizers through taxes, but says, “We don’t want that anymore because these are taxes from French people, and most French people don’t know it. The corrida absolutely does not have any economic consequence for the country, the cities, or the regions. On the contrary, it costs money. It does not create revenue.”

While opponents of bullfighting condemn the practice, claiming it to be cruel and inhumane, the outlook from the other side tells a completely different story. The bull holds a special place in their hearts.

“We love the bull more than anything,” said Charlie Laloe, a retired bullfighter. To them, the corrida represents something wholly unique. “They are not in cages like a meat breed.” 

For some, bullfighting symbolizes a fierce battle, while for others, it is an artistic expression, akin to a captivating dance. Thomas Joubert, a bullfighter and founder of ASSPA, an inclusive sports organization, says, “The first thing I take with me when I go to my practice…is my music. This part is what I like.”

However, Joubert acknowledges the solemnity of the final act, stating, “The moment we kill the bull, I think for most of the bullfighters, is the moment we don’t really like…even more when we spend time with the bull.”

Frédéric Poudevigne, the head veterinary inspector for the Ministry of Agriculture, also emphasizes the profound significance bullfighting has for the practitioners.

“A bullfighter, as soon as he gets a little bit of money, even if he kills (bulls) every day, will buy some cows and buy some mothers and have his own breed, which he will visit every day, and show to all his friends,” Poudevigne said. “If we stop the fight with the animal, we disappear.”

Yves Lebas, president of a bullfighting school in Arles called L’ecole Taurine D’Arles, claims that, in some ways, the anti-corrida movement has brought more violence than corrida itself. He said some activists reportedly sent envelopes with razor blades to the training school for bullfighting. 

In response to the animosity directed toward bullfighting, Joubert emphasizes the importance of mutual respect. “I have to respect your idea, you have to respect mine.” 

Ukrainian refugees resettle in Arles

Story and photos by Gabriela Calvillo Alvarez

As Iryna K. and her 10-year-old son Alex fled the war in Ukraine, migrating from Germany to Ireland to Arles, he would draw pictures showing how he would find a way to go home. 

“First, he denied the war,” said Iryna, 40, who asked that her last name not be published. “He said the war didn’t exist. He told me he wanted to return. Every evening, he would draw me a map of how he would escape. ‘Mom, I will go by this frontier, that frontier,’ and so on.” 

The mother and son left Ukraine in May 2022, not long after the war began. They had lived all her life in Kyiv, where the bombardment was intense from the beginning.

Russian leaders, she said, “hoped that in three days Kyiv would be occupied, that they would impose their government, and that then the war would be finished. Anyway, you see that it still continues.”

Iryna is part of a loose network of women and children who are trying to find their footing in Arles. Many of them have families back home in Ukraine and are waiting to return, while others have decided to stay. 

“I know that last year, we had many people come in, maybe 150,” said Iryna, whose family remains in Ukraine. “But now, a lot of them have left so it’s hard to have an exact number.”

Iryna K. stands in the garden of her home in Arles.

As of July 2023, nearly 6 million refugees from Ukraine are recorded to be in Europe, according to the UN Refugee Agency. France does not have an official database for this information but a report from the U.S. Department of State Humanitarian Information Unit states that as of Jan. 2023, 119,000 Ukrainian refugees are currently in France. 

Arles was one of the cities that provided a haven for Ukrainian refugees. Initially, no official resources were available and it was just a people-helping-people effort. Because she was one of the few who could speak both Ukrainian and French, Iryna served as a bridge for those coming to Arles. While she had secure housing with a local family, she helped connect other women to Arlesians willing to host refugees. 

However, one of the challenges these women face when they arrive here is a lack of work opportunities. Since the city is dependent on tourism, especially during the summer months, it’s harder to have a stable income during the off seasons, such as winter and fall. 

“Arles doesn’t give you many possibilities to realize your professional potential,” Iryna said. “You can go work at a hotel or a restaurant, but you don’t have a lot of choices.”

Iryna was a unique case. Upon her arrival in Arles, she began an association called Ukraine en Provence to help provide resources to other Ukrainian women who have resettled in the region. 

“I did everything because I understood that if I was home alone, with all my thoughts, it would be unsupportable,” Iryna said. “It’s too heavy. It was very difficult to manage my own feelings and in addition, I had to manage [my son’s] feelings, too.”

Iryna K. and her son, Alex, have made a home in Arles even as they miss their family in Ukraine.

Last year, she offered a Ukrainian course, in partnership with the Arles à la carte language school, to teach the history and language of the country to locals interested in learning more about the Ukrainian community.

“For French people, it’s very difficult to understand some particularities of Ukraine,” she said. 

“So I decided to write a little book that’s like Ukrainian in 30 days.”

Iryna studied languages at a university in Ukraine and speaks English and Italian, as well as French and Ukrainian. These skills helped her communicate and find work.

For most Ukrainian refugees, however, language has been another obstacle. Halyna Mamchur, 35, didn’t know any French when she and her daughter, Maria, arrived in Arles over a year ago. She came here at the suggestion of a French friend she knew from art school in Ukraine.

“It’s been a very difficult and beautiful time for me, this one year,” she said. “I met very happy people and I think I try to be happy, too.”

Four months after she arrived, she decided to pick up drawing once more as a way to process her feelings about leaving her country. Her paintings often contain images of her family and faces combined with bird features, to symbolize freedom and strength.

“For me, it’s a normal artist’s life,” said Mamchur. “It’s my emotions and it’s my experience with people, with my friends, with my parents.”

Mamchur’s friend, Nadja Bailly, 37, studied art in Ukraine for a year with Halyna and they’ve been friends ever since. Bailly has been involved in helping the Ukrainian community since the very beginning of the war. She was one of the few who could translate for those coming into town for safety. 

“At the beginning, nobody knew what Ukraine was. Nobody knew its history or the language. But now they do. Everyone knows,” Bailly said. 

While some people like Iryna are settling in Arles, others have decided to go back to Ukraine. Mamchur is one of those women. She left last month. 

“Maybe when the war is finished, I’ll come back together with my family,” Mamchur said. “Right now, I understand that I only want to live in my country. Maria and I speak Ukrainian, we sing Ukrainian, and I love it.” 

Inspiring the next generation of visual journalists

Story and photos by Sam Guzman

As a young child growing up in an orphanage after his parents were killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Jean Bizimana had little experience with photography, either behind or in front of a camera. When he was 8 years old, he learned how to take pictures with Through The Eyes of Children, a program that helps unsafe or vulnerable kids learn photography and videography.

“The objective of the project was not to turn us into photographers but it was to give us a way of forgetting our past experiences of the genocide, war and conflicts that we had been through,” Bizimana said.

Inspired by his experiences of telling stories with a camera, Bizimana became a photojournalist. (You can view his work here: https://www.biziphotos.com/about)

Now, at the age of 32, Bizimana is a part of a mentorship program sponsored by VII Academy that was created to help promising young photographers from the Majority World, who may not have access to formal photography education, hone their skills. The program, which started with a site in Sarajevo, opened a new location in Arles in February. 

Sharafat Ali talks with Gary Knight, CEO of VII Academy and Foundation at the program’s final reception.

Gary Knight, co-founder of VII Academy, says one of his goals for the program is “to ensure that very well trained, ethically based, young photojournalists are out there in the world, calling truth to power, holding the political classes and the corporate classes to account on behalf of the public.”

As a photojournalist, Knight traveled the world from 1988 to 2017, shooting conflict zones in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2001, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, Knight and other photojournalists joined together to create the VII Photo Agency. Later, as the digital revolution changed the revenue models for media, they formed the VII Foundation as a way to support photojournalism and make it sustainable.

Knight brought the academy to Arles because, as the host of the annual Rencontres d’Arles photography festival and the home of France’s most prominent photography school, it already had a dialogue around photography.

“I think what we can do here is bring a little more diversity to the conversation,” Knight said.

VII Academy, the educational wing of the VII Foundation, provides tuition-free training in visual journalism. In the mentorship program, mentees undergo training for five weeks, working on such concrete skills as sequencing photos, editing photos, working with curators and writing pitches for stories. Workshops are taught by seasoned veteran photographers from around the world who understand the demands and challenges of shooting in marginalized communities.

Bizimana said in Rwanda, most people don’t understand the power of photography to tell important stories. 

“When you grow up in a country where no one understands photography, it’s kind of challenging,” Bizimana said. “Everything we learned from YouTube. We don’t have photography schools, we don’t have photography libraries.”

The Through Eyes of Children program, however, gave him the opportunity to learn. The organization lent him a camera, and he learned basic techniques. This was the spark that he needed to want to become a photographer. 

As he developed his photography skills, he sold his photographs to help pay for his studies, as well as raise funds for some of the children from the orphanage. Since there are no photography schools in Rwanda, however, he studied computer science at university. 

Bizimana attended photography workshops to deepen his skills. In 2015 he joined Gary Knight’s Canon Masterclass, a program on how to use professional cameras to make stories. That’s when he started his career. He joined his local news group, IGIHE, in Rwanda. He quit after he realized their style didn’t give him the creative freedom he craved.

Bizimana was a part of the first cohort of mentees to study at the new location in Arles, which is based in a renovated salthouse near the banks of the Rhone River. His cohort included young photographers from Nepal, India, Kashmir, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as two from the United States.

According to Knight, the mentees have developed “very strong friendships, they have a global community.”

Ali, 30, is another mentee in the program. He was born in Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. He started doing photography in 2013, shooting the impressive landscapes around him. But he eventually stopped.

“It might be a paradise for outsiders, but to us, it’s a hell,” said Ali, who has been documenting conflict in the region and didn’t want his full name used.

For the past 10 years he’s shifted his focus from the places to the people. 

“My people always fascinate me, because they have stories to tell,” Ali said. To him, conflict brings anxiousness and misery, and he wanted to cover that, not just beautiful scenes. His work focuses on the harsh realities in his home country, 

Another mentee, Joshua Irwandi, from Jakarta, Indonesia, described the program as a retreat. 

Joshua Irwandi, left, talks with mentor Philip Blenkinsop after the final showcase of mentees’ work.

“I get to rest my head a little bit and then actually look at people’s work. I mean, just looking at this exhibition here, you know, like, how do people see things?” Irwandi asked. (You can view Irwandi’s work here: https://www.joshuairwandi.com/)

Knight said he encourages the mentees to think big. “What I hope to encourage them is to be… more ambitious, and more confident about the space that they occupy in the media.”

He also hopes that the relationships they formed in the mentoring program endure.

“Now they have very strong friendships,” Knight said. “They have a global community.”

Bizimana, who participated in a VII Academy program in his home country, hopes that VII Academy will return to Rwanda, so that others can learn like he did. He hopes to teach as Knight and other professors have taught him at the academy. That’s why he wants to be a journalist, he said, so he can give back to others.

Because Rwanda has little tradition of photojournalism, the 1994 Rwandan Civil War and other news in the country has mostly been photographed by international photographers who helicopter in to record the story and then leave.

“My goal is for people to say, ‘Oh we have this professional photographer in Rwanda, now we don’t need to send someone else. Because he’s there and is on the same level.”

Arles’ Performance Aerie

Story and photos by Louis Denson

Claire Nys, and six of her friends were returning home after leaving multiple parties that they didn’t enjoy on a festival evening in Arles when they happened to pass by L’Aire d’Arles. Inside, they saw people happily dancing. “Two girls dressed in long dresses, like two princesses” especially caught their eyes, says Nys, who recalls excellent rock being played on vinyl. Although they were tired, the group of women stopped to join the fun and dance together.

“We were so happy to have found a place that suited us, by chance, in this remote place, away from other parties,” says the long-time Arles resident. “It was a magical, improbable, very joyful, and pretty moment.”

“It’s a place dedicated to the taste and the image,” says its founder, Jonathan Pierredon. Pierredon utilizes the “e” in L’Aire to imply its relation to an aerie or nest. L’Aire d’Arles is “a home for all the eagles and falcons,” he says. L’Aire d’Arles rises from the hill just above the Arles amphitheater and the Roman theater. 

It’s a place to party, gather, share and discover as on any day of the week, especially during the opening week of the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, there is something different happening on each of the three levels of this restaurant/bar.

There are many venues in Arles to grab a bite or a drink, but none compare to the versatility and diversity that L’Aire provides. Throughout the year, L’Aire d’Arles rotates both its menu and exhibitions. It presents installations of photography and videography from all over the world, music from Brazilian flamenco to Memphis underground vinyl, and food brought to Arles by chefs from Madagascar and Tel Aviv.

As you find the bathroom on the second floor you may come upon an entirely different performance and forget to return to the floor where you started. The sight of the bartenders mixing cocktails welcomes you inside and the aroma of the kitchen floats you upstairs. You can draw on the chalkboard along the stairs, or appreciate the drawings of other patrons.

The second floor is a velveteen lounge space where you can sit and talk as you dissect the everchanging art installations on both the walls and podiums.

And on the third floor, the sound of music and the breeze of fresh air call you to the dance floor and terrace where you can sit back and watch projections on the ancient walls of the city, dance the night away to music, or refresh yourself at the mini-bar.

L’Aire d’Arles welcomes artists and guests of all sorts and styles as all events are free and open to everyone. Pierredon has no criteria for who can share their work. He welcomes all types and techniques of music, art, photography and creation and works them into the venue’s busy schedule.

Arles is not known for its party scene and can be thought of as a small and sleepy town. It can be difficult for amateur artists to have a place to share their works, but L’Aire gives them a platform. L’Aire also invites the students of MoPA, Arles’ prestigious school of animation, to share projections of their films, and it hosts an annual auction for the student work of the National School Supérieure de la Photographie, with an exhibition floor and gavel bidding.

None of this would be possible without the tireless effort and passion of Pierredon and his staff. “Life is full of time, [but] time goes fast,” said Pierredon, sharing his mentality as a business owner, exhibition facilitator and active father.

Pierredon has worked many jobs, including videography for an advertising agency. The time he spent away from his son did not seem justified by pushing a company’s agenda. He wanted that time to have value, reason and passion. In his current work, Pierredon can share his excitement with his son in hopes of instilling verve for community and creation.

He focuses his energy on things that inspire him and that he can look back on and say that he is proud of. “If anything can inspire me, I’m running and jumping.” He loves what he does, the community he can welcome, and values the opportunities the city of Arles has offered him.
The feelings of appreciation are reciprocated by the Arlesian people as well. Pascal Ansell, a musician and language teacher at Arles à lacarte, says, “Jonathan has a very rare and special energy that is exceptional in Arles. He does things for the hell of it; he promotes so many events and wants to support people in what they are already doing. That is so, so precious in the Camargue as there is very, very little of that energy to go around.”

The Talking Walls of Arles

Story and photos by Ella Lepkowski

Although Arles is known as an inspiration for Vincent van Gogh, I discovered a more underground world of art while wandering its streets and alleyways. The walls are scattered with graffiti, vibrant colors, posters, stickers, and words of motivation. The walls serve as canvases not only for these underground artists but also for political activists who silently shout their opinions. 

While I am used to seeing street art throughout the metro and buildings of Washington DC where I live, I sense a difference between the intentions of the painters here and there. Here, the message is more raw. Whether it is an inspirational phrase, a personal philosophy, or a political belief, the messages that are scrawled on the walls here seem to carry very personal meaning, as if the creator wrote it in the spur of the moment, flowing directly from their minds to their paint, and onto the vibrant walls of Arles.

In contrast, of course, the street artists in Washington, D.C., create art that is often astounding and impressive, yet their activism and beliefs tend to seem more “organized,” crafted and displayed in a manner tailored for maximum audience consumption.

The graffito “helm” can be found all over the Roquette neighborhood.

In Arles, there is a greater sense of passion and fury scrawled onto the walls. These graffiti were not meticulously planned or polished. They are an immediate reflection of the artist’s inner turmoil, inspiration and pride.

Walking through Arles’s smaller alleyways and slightly barren roads, I found more and more of these personal statements. In the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, poetry and political messages are mainly saved for their designated spots, with waves of political talk momentarily filling public spaces when there is new unrest. In Arles, however, it seems like an ongoing conversation. If someone wants their unique voice heard, they make it obvious. This is moving for me as someone who typically only looks straight ahead when I am walking through the big city. 

Everything, where I am from, is impersonal, while here in this little town, it is the opposite. Among the vibrant messages, I find a sense of connection. I may not agree with every sentiment expressed, but there is something undeniably human about the act of putting one’s thoughts out into the world for all to see. 

Among the messages:

“Long live France”

“The whole city is mine”

“64 years is not okay”

“Death to fachos”

“Win your life”

In Arles, the local population has a different perspective from mine on this abundance of street art. June Ofstedal, an intermittent resident, observes, “There’s so much stuff on the walls, like posters, that it all just sort of blends together.” Those who are new to Arles, it seems, are some of the only ones who stop and observe what is written and painted on the walls, as it is so common to the residents.

Not only do individual beliefs and messages exist, but there is an obvious presence of community and conversation between the street artists, no doubt due to the small size of Arles in comparison to Washington DC. During my exploration, I stumbled upon a particularly intriguing tag: the word “helm,” written in cursive with an elongated cross extending from the last mark of the letter ‘m’. This distinctive tag is found at least thirty times throughout the Roquette neighborhood. In some locations, the tag is left untouched; however, many times, another street artist has drawn a dash over it in a contrasting color or stroke. Rather than completely erasing the original tag, the dash seems to serve as a form of protest against it, drawing attention to the clash of styles. 

The sheer repetition of the “helm” tag, appearing far more frequently than any other tag I encounter, adds an additional layer of intrigue to my exploration. I wandered around the Roquette for a couple hours, snapping photos of the tag wherever I found it. It is still unclear to me who the artist is, or what exactly it means, but I did find a couple messages next to “helm” that shed some light. 

One striking message consists of an arrow pointing towards the tag with the words in French, “This is a fascist tag.” It’s apparent that “helm” sparked controversy and garnered criticism within the local street art community. Furthermore, I observed a curious trend among those who attempted to cover up the “helm” tag in Arles. It was clear that they made a deliberate effort to conceal the cross at the bottom of the letter ‘m,’ using various methods to do so. Some opted to place an ‘x’ over the cross, while one chose to overlay it with a heart symbol. In some instances, a simple dot of paint was sprayed over the cross, effectively erasing it from view. The acts of covering the “helm” tag created a visual conversation that unfolded across the walls of Arles. It reveals one story within the inherent power struggle of street art.

Another message, written by the helm artist themselves, read, “It is not against you!” This message appeared on a wall already covered in “helm” tags, offering a glimpse into the artist’s intent, which is perhaps seeking to assure viewers that the tag was not meant as a personal attack. 

Upon further research into the symbolism associated with the “helm” tag and its accompanying heart symbol with a cross extending from its top and the singular eye, I discovered parallels to Christian imagery. The cross emerging from the top of the heart, resembling the Christian symbol of The Sacred Heart, adds a new layer of interpretation to the composition. The Sacred Heart is a religious emblem representing devotion towards Jesus Christ, and can be often seen in Christian art. 

Additionally, the eye could be a reference to The Eye of Providence, an eye that represents the all-seeing eye of God, seen on the Great Seal of the United States. This mystical symbol represents divine guidance, protection, and omniscience.

Recently, however, during my stroll through the crowds of the photography festival in Arles, I stumbled upon a previously unnoticed wall, absolutely covered with countless “helm” tags and hearts. To not much of my surprise, most of these tags had been forcefully slashed in a striking blue paint. It was by far the most fervent display of opposition I had encountered against these tags. 

Intrigued, I approached a woman standing nearby and struck up a conversation, and asked her if she knew the significance behind the tags. She said the blue slashes were a visual protest against fascist ideologies. As for the “helm” tag itself, she explained that it, along with the accompanying heart symbol, was seen by some as a representation of France as a Christian nation. The “helm” tag likely derived from someone’s name, lacking any overt political connotation, she said.

My exploration and findings in Arles serve as a reminder that street art, despite its bold and “in your face”  nature, often carries a broader intention and deeper meaning. It seeks to provoke thought, spark conversations, and challenge societal norms.

This is a personal reflection and does not necessarily express the opinion of The Arles Project or program sponsors ieiMedia or Arles à la carte.

Iel or elle?

Photo and story by Gabriela Calvillo Alvarez

The worst part of the first day of class is introductions. I dread having to come up with five fun facts about myself on the spot to share with strangers I have yet to know. When I came to Arles for my study abroad program, it was no different. I heard one of my professors explain that we would start the lesson off that way, by getting to know each other.  

She had just announced the agenda for the next few hours when she posed a question to the class about their pronouns. This part doesn’t bother me; it actually makes me feel welcome. But what I found interesting about it is that she mentioned “iel,” the gender-neutral pronoun in France. 

“Iel,” pronounced roughly like “yell,” combines the male (il) and female (elle) pronouns of the French language and has been a source of contention within the country for some time. Originally introduced by the online French dictionary, Le Robert, in 2021, “iel” has upset multiple people who don’t consider it a part of the language. 

One of the main forces against its usage is l’Académie Française, an institution that is designed to protect the French language. One of its statutes reads: “The main function of the Academy will be to work, with all possible care and diligence, to give certain rules to our language and to make it pure, eloquent and able to deal with the arts and sciences.” As of now, “iel” is not officially approved by l’Académie. 

Prior to my trip to France, I wasn’t aware that a gender-neutral pronoun existed here. I was under the impression that it would not be a popular concept. But to my surprise, it had already been a topic of conversation. 

Back in 2017, l’Académie Française wrote a statement on inclusive writing, warning that “with this ‘inclusive’ aberration, the French language is now in mortal danger, which our nation is now accountable to future generations.” This kind of reaction in regards to inclusivity reminded me of a similar sentiment that many people in my own culture share. 

My native tongue, Spanish, has gendered pronouns for most of the words included in everyday language. And similar to the French, the Latinx community has been having a hard time accepting gender-neutral terminology. While it has gained some traction amongst folks, many do not understand it and are afraid of what it means to the integrity of a beloved culture. Some of the older generations in my family are so enthralled with tradition that they perceive this push for inclusivity as almost a personal attack on them.

As a queer person, it’s hard for me not to feel a little alienated anywhere I go. Most of the time, I don’t force people to use they/them on me in my everyday life since I do feel comfortable with feminine pronouns. But in Arles, I have had complicated emotions surrounding gender because it feels like I have to overperform femininity to fit into the culture, both for safety and acceptance. Outside of the classroom, I’m in an entirely new environment and it’s hard to understand what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. 

However, I’m glad that this conversation has begun in Arles and France generally. Perhaps Spanish-speaking cultures will follow suit. Discussions about “iel” or even “elle,” pronounced like “eh-yeh,” in the Latinx community could make way for more inclusive language in the future.

This is a personal reflection and does not necessarily express the opinion of The Arles Project or program sponsors ieiMedia or Arles à la carte.