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Execution of a collaborator, Vienne, Isère, France
1944, 5 October
Galerie Agathe Gaillard
Execution of a collaborator, Vienne (Isère), 5 October 1944.
In the small town of Vienne, Isère, in September 1944, a collaborator named Nitard was condemned to death. It was my duty to photograph his execution. He was no master spy, just a simple fellow who had worked as an errand or secretary in the German administration, probably for the Gestapo. Yet we shouldn't forget that, in the early days of the Liberation, feelings ran high against collaborators, small or big. Nor should we forget that the truly dangerous collaborators were not easy to catch, and that the small fry often paid for the former bosses. Nazi executions of many great patriots, both in Lyon and Vienne, didn't help to calm the passions. Resentment was so strong that, although Nitard's appeal had been accepted by the High Court of Grenoble, his execution was ordered, and I cannot help feeling that this was largely to avoid disappointing the people of Vienne, the public. To enable all the townspeople to share in the general vengeance and to catch the execution, it was set for noon. Five thousand citizens, included children in the front row, crowded on to the terrace in front of the old barracks. The excitement was so great, it pervaded the air, as before a bullfight, a major football match, or an Edith Piaf concert. Before the execution, the condemned man received the traditional and last glass of rum and cigarette. Standing in the courtyard of the barracks, among officials, resistance fighters and a few privileged onlookers, he swallowed his rum and then lit his last cigarette. Remember that, at the time, tobacco was still tightly rationed, so that, by force of habit, after five or six puffs, the doomed man stubbed out the cigarette and put the butt in his pocket, as if hoping to finish the cigarette later. The he went to face the firing squad. He crossed a corridor where twelve rifles leaned against the wall and emerged on the terrace. He was welcomed by a priest, the firing squad and its officer, and the crowd, now strangely silent. This demonstration of public justice shocked me deeply. I deplore collaboration as much as anyone else, but this punishment seemed to me out of all proportion to the probably trivial crime committed by this man. I was terribly tense, as I stood so close to he who was about to die. I cannot remember whether the crowd was silent or not at this moment. I only know that I set my Leica automatically, as in a dream, or rather a nightmare. Unconscious reflexes brought my old Summar F2 as close as possible to the condemned man, and, as I fought a deep feeling of disgust with difficulty, I suddenly felt very close to the man, erect, alone, on this terrace.
Injustice towards humanity. I had the overpowering feeling that the man was already dead, like a headless duck that continues to run for a few minutes before collapsing. The man was dead long before he ever entered this 'arena'. Thirty-nine years later, I still have trouble finding a better word.
The spectacle now reached its climax, and suddenly the man was untied from the post. Since he was a traitor and traitors have no right to look death in the face, seconds elapsed while he was bound again, his back to the firing squad. And the twelve guns fired, one of them with a blank. Nitard never saw me, although I was sometimes not more than five feet away. When it was all over, I was pale and shaken, I had photographed the whole story, from the cigarette to the hearse, on a single roll of 36-exposure 35mn film. It was the biggest, the most compact story that I have ever 'covered', and I hope that I shall never have to do so again.
From Un photographe vous parle Grasset 1961