In the nearly two decades I’ve lived and worked in Paris, I’ve never seen it this quiet. It’s an eerie, empty quiet.
At first, it took time for people to understand what was happening, that this new coronavirus was much more than an Asian crisis. Schools here closed on March 12—and yet on the following weekend, spring was in the air, it was sunny and beautiful, and Parisians couldn’t resist going outdoors.
Then on March 16, the full meaning came clear when President Emmanuel Macron ordered the entire country to stay at home for 15 days, starting at noon the next day. That morning, a line 200 yards long formed outside my supermarket. As I photographed the line, a few customers objected. But after we talked, I understood that they were just scared, and some were upset with the government for not seeing the crisis coming sooner.
When France’s ordeal began, London was still packed and bustling with people, and New York City was too. I think Paris was one of the first big, famous cities to empty out. By March 30, 11,838 people in Paris and its suburbs were sick with COVID-19, and 954 had died. Nationwide, France had 44,550 reported positive cases and 3,024 deaths. Many here assume the actual number of cases must be much higher because we’re testing only people with severe symptoms. France doesn’t have enough tests available, as opposed to Germany where more than a hundred thousand people are tested every week. And the number of reported deaths here must be artificially low as well, because only those who die in hospitals are counted. (Here's why the U.S. coronavirus testing failures were inevitable.)
Based on health officials’ projections, we expect the big wave of COVID-19 to hit Paris this week, with the peak coming around April 5. Some authorities say the caseload in the Paris region will be similar to that in northern Italy, where 6,818 people had succumbed by March 29.
If you go outside in the city, you must have an official note that says why you need to be out and what time you left your home, or you risk being fined by the police. Early in the lockdown, I went to a market in Barbès, a poor neighborhood in the north of Paris. It was crowded that day, and many people I spoke with didn’t have a note, but I didn’t see any police officers choosing to impose fines.
In these poor neighborhoods, where life can be a struggle on an average day, fights have erupted between young men, and the local markets have all closed. My press credential allows me to be out in the streets and public places taking photographs. I consider myself lucky—for poor families stuck in small apartments, it’s much harder.
Though I’m originally from Normandy and have lived in Paris for 18 years. I’ve done little photojournalism in France. Instead I’ve concentrated on documenting social issues in Africa and the wars in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, and Iraq. When you cover wars, you need to keep your distance from the pain and suffering. You need that separation to report objectively and not be overwhelmed by your emotions.
The first time I covered something bad happening in my country was in 2015, when I photographed the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on a concert hall, café, and soccer stadium in Paris. Compared to that, my work during this COVID calamity is so different. It’s about all of us—strangers, friends, my family, my neighbors, me. (See pictures from a world paused by coronavirus.)
In some ways, it’s more difficult to shoot your own place and people. One thing I’ve wanted to do is convey the mood of the city’s most iconic structures as they appear under lockdown—the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the business district of La Défense—at different times, in different lights. It’s very hard to photograph emptiness. I’ve been spending a lot of time—sometimes three hours or more—at each site. In all, I must have shot at least 4,000 frames by now.
In familiar settings I have to find beauty and meaning in something I see every day, and I’m so used to what’s around me that I may miss interesting scenes or moments. In the city center now, I see so many homeless people I hadn’t noticed before when they were hidden among the daily crowds. Their situation is terrible. They can’t plead with passersby for money because the streets are empty. All the public toilets they usually use are closed. In the past, homeless people have been helped by small aid organizations, but nearly all these groups have stopped their work.
I want to show how the pandemic is affecting the homeless, as well as immigrants and refugees who live in camps just outside Paris. For them, social distancing is impossible. They have no access to masks and gloves, and maintaining strict personal hygiene is difficult. I’m also planning to cover the work of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), who are helping vulnerable populations by organizing mobile clinics to test them and teach them how to protect themselves as much as they can.
I intend to continue this work over the next few weeks, to give the world’s people at least one view of the pandemic in my city. As I’ve roamed Paris, I’ve noticed that the air is much fresher—there’s less pollution. And one day when I was shooting at the main entrance of Les Halles, one of the biggest commercial malls in Europe, I heard birds singing. I’d never realized there were birds at Les Halles of all places. It gave me hope.