Summer 1916 in the Somme. German soldiers dig graves ahead of the battle to come. (AFP Photo / Frantz Adam)
Follow @AFPblogs Follow @ rdecourson
By Roland De Courson
Summer 1916, near a field hospital in the Somme, northern France. German prisoners are digging graves in anticipation of coming combat. All around them, French soldiers nonchalantly look on as they prepare the tombs that, within a few days, could be theirs.
It’s a strange scene. The captives know their lives will be spared, unlike those who are watching them. The photo is the work of Frantz Adam, a military soldier and an amateur photographer.
During all of World War I, the psychiatrist made photographs of the 23rd infantry regiment and daily life in the trenches. Mobilised at age 28, he found himself in some of the Great War’s most notorious combat arenas: Vosges and Hartmannswillerkopf in 1915, Somme and Verdun in 1916, Chemin des Dames in 1917, the liberation of Belgium, the entry into Alsace, and the occupation of the Rhineland in 1918.
November 1916 in Argonne: A French soldier stands some rats he’s killed (AFP Photo / Frantz Adam)
A great-nephew of Frantz Adam, Arnaud Bouteloup, rediscovered some 500 of his images in 2005. These were scanned and entrusted to AFP, which is now managing the photos via its ImageForum database. A total of 147 have been collected in the book "Ce que j'ai vu de la Grande Guerre" (What I saw of the Great War). They show the sorts of suffering soldiers endured, but also the camaraderie that helped them cope.
At the start of World War I, the French army had no official photography section – this was only created in the spring of 1915, and press photographers were barred from working on the front. While Germany had already mastered the arts of propaganda photography, there was a total lack of official or professional images from the French side.
In a trench on the Vosges front. January 1915.
It was a vacuum quickly filled by amateur photographers, who were proliferating thanks to the recent invention of the portable camera. The most recent was the Kodak Vest Pocket, a folding camera that used soft film. In theory, the “poilus”, as the French soldiers during the war were known, weren’t supposed to take photos. But the brass tolerated the practice and many pictures survive, including of medal ceremonies and other events along the front.
September 3, 1917. Chépy in the Somme. General Philippe Pétain inspects the 42nd infantry regiment. (AFP Photo / Frantz Adam)
Amateur photographers helped quench a high demand for images of the devastating conflict. Newspapers paid well for war photos.
Aside from two images he sold to the magazine L’Illustration, Frantz Adam didn’t try to publish his work. He didn’t participate in contests organised by the press and his pictures, collected together in 23 envelopes and passed on to his descendants, were unpublished until now. Looking at them now, they seem like an early form of citizen journalism.
The Somme, September 1916. The mummified head of a German solider protrudes from the ground. (AFP Photo / Frantz Adam)
“In the end, the amateur photographers on the front submitted to the demands of those who bought the photos: The spectacular, the propaganda, hiding the deaths of French,” explains Alain Navarro, an AFP journalist and author of the book’s afterword. “Frantz Adam is someone who wanted to show and to document the war. He wasn’t trying to achieve any propaganda ends. With him, we find an extremely broad body of work. His depictions of war don’t dodge the tough questions, like what does it really mean to go to war. That’s what makes these photos exceptional.”
(AFP Photo / Frantz Adam)
Though he was only an amateur, Frantz Adam certainly possessed a solid photographic sense.
“Some of his images look like impressionist pictures. Like the one showing Australians bathing. One feels that Adam wanted to instill a sense of movement, of light, in the composition. Was he aware of this or not? It’s hard to know.
Belgium, May 1918. Australian troops relax. (AFP Photo / Frantz Adam)
"Ce que j'ai vu de la Grande Guerre" (What I saw of the Great War), by Frantz Adam. Photographs presented by André Loez, afterword by Alain Navarro. AFP / La Découverte (200 pages, 29,90 euros). Available in bookshops and on Amazon France.