The Moving Moment


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What moves you? I mean deeply moves you. For some, it’s a clear, blue sky. A lover’s eyes. The smell of a baby’s breath. But for photographer Martine Franck, it was the plight of refugees.

I was weaned on sapphire skies. Beneath oak tree canopies the blue shot through, transforming our backyard into a sensory wonderland. Later on, when I lived near the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, I would marvel at the way the sky disappeared into the sea, an earthly communion early man must have marveled at, too.

India Arie’s song, “Moved By You”, eloquently and lovingly captures the symbiotic relationship of being moved by creation. A devotional to the Divine, the song underscores the generative forces of inspiration that enable us to take action:

You're the eyes of a child,

You're a horse running wild,

You're the cracking open of a heart,

You make me feel so alive,

I am honoured to know,

The twinkle of your star.

I give thanks for my time upon the planet Earth,

By all of your beauty,

I am so inspired

On most days where I live now, a blanket of gray snuffs out the fires of inspiration. With an annual air quality average considered unhealthy for most people, it literally takes my breath away. But if a simpatico relationship with nature—the mother of all inspiration—isn’t possible, how else is it born?

“Curiosity, in a way, makes you open doors, makes you surpass yourself, makes you go places,” said Martine Franck. Among her accomplishments, Franck has been one of a small number of women to be invited to join Magnum Photos for her photographic work. Citing influences such as British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and American photographers Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White, Martine’s oeuvre was portraiture.

In 1996, Martine had been following the stories of two churches that were occupied by more than 500 sans-papiers refugees, mostly from Mali, who were protesting with hunger strikes. Before the government stormed the consecrated space with tear gas and violence, Martine visited one of the churches to photograph the people within, especially the women.


The ‘Sans-papiers


During the protest, the Church of Saint-Bernard de la Chapelle served as one of the havens to the refugees. A picturesque neo-gothic Roman Catholic building dating from 1861, it was the offspring of a population boom in Paris’ Goutte d'Or neighborhood, a place home to North African and sub-Saharan immigrants, thus giving it the nickname, “Little Africa”.

I have always been fond of historical places of worship. Now, as it was when I was a little girl, my eyes strain to take in every detail of these sacred spaces, which reflect church politics of the day as much as beauty. In the late 1800s, the revival of Gothic style construction of Catholic churches was a response to growing Evangelicalism, an attempt by church officials to visually connect the present Catholic body with the one that existed pre-Reformation. The construction of the Church of Saint-Bernard de la Chapelle was a mirror of those times. 

Previously the area of Goutte d'Or was served by another church—from the gothic period, which briefly sheltered Joan of Arc before she entered Paris for a series of battles that would make her name synonymous with courage. As much as these sacred spaces exist to restore the heart’s of the faithful, it’s the people seeking refuge within them who can offer us transcendence. Martine must have experienced it when she went to Saint-Bernard that day.

“I just wandered around the church,” she said. “I just introduced myself to these women—I just thought it was a very moving moment.”

Curiosity guided Martine’s creative compass, but so did her compassion for the refugees. While research on the effect that nature has on creativity has reached a fever pitch, we'd benefit from more studies on how creativity is influenced by compassion—an intrinsic motivation, trumped evermore by an insatiable desire for wealth and fame.

Since arriving in Vietnam, I have had many moving moments rooted in empathy: In the midst of writing this, one of my building's housekeepers came by to thank me for finding and returning 40 USD she lost by my front door. I took the time to seek her out knowing how the loss would affect her livelihood; the average Vietnamese person makes 250 USD per month—a housekeeper makes far less. She embraced me with gratitude. When I returned to my writing, I felt the same way I did while staring out at the Pacific Ocean from a precipice in Big Sur, wildly inspired by our shared hope in humanity.



Martine included only one photograph from her time at Saint-Bernard in Women/Femmes, a book of her portraits spanning 50 years, which Magnum Photos published in 2010. Within the book, a composed, but a distressed sans-papiers woman is juxtaposed to female citizens of France who are doing things like sculpting, posing in pliés, and embracing one another. Turning each page, moving moments reveal themselves like a Russian nesting doll; Martine’s portraits deftly depict the invisible boundaries that divide us, and the hearts and hands the ultimately bring us together.

Another moving moment plays on a theme, Martine’s preferred way of assembling work. Hands and eyes figure prominently in each of the portraits in Women/Femmes. Within human culture, the hand is a powerful symbol of strength: The mudras of Hinduism and Buddhism are sacred gestures intended to facilitate the flow of qi in the subtle body; while Christ’s punctured hands symbolize his sacrifice for human sin. In science, the opposable thumb is a differentiating feature which came to define Homo sapiens; while our hands, unlike any other part of our body, played a significant role in the development of our brain, language, and culture.


Silent Madonnas


Martine took great care to lovingly depict the mental and bodily strength of women. Her work, which unfortunately ended with her life in 2012, was a testament to this fact. Part of the silent power of the sans-papiers woman is what she projects. In the photograph, the woman—who is likely a mother—cradles a lively babe whose blurry likeness is a singular homage to movement. The picture also calls to mind another image imprinted on our collective memory and on countless Christmas cards—the Madonna and Child. In Martine’s version, the cocoa skin of her sans-papiers Madonna radiates beneath an ethereal light, but her eyes reflect the agony of the unknown. “Glad tidings!” are not to come.

Behind the seated sans-papiers Madonna another Madonna looms, but this one’s frozen in stone. It’s a depiction of the pietà, one of the three common representations of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus. The sculptor immortalized Mary’s grace in marble for the same reason Martine painted the sans-papiers Madonna with light—if only to move us. We are awed by the internal strength Mary must have had to conjure holding her broken son, and yet it's no different than the strength the sans-papiers woman would conjure as police bombarded the church with tear gas, as they forcefully removed people from the building, as they banished her and her child to a place of civil war. — M W


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