Patrick Zachmann
Mare, Mater

02 14 ... 05 17 2015


Using fixed and moving images, Patrick Zachmann compares his own family story to that of today’s migrants. He tackles their relationship to the sea they cross and the mother they leave behind. He builds his narrative around the relationship between mothers and sons, between men and women.

It consists of a voyage, a voyage of memories and exiles. This voyage weaves together the threads of all those destinies I encounter: those of the migrants who leave their countries on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, fleeing unemployment, boredom, the lack of a future;of the women, the mothers, who let them go or discover they have already left. And for myself, I embark on a voyage to discover my mother’s roots, the ones she wants to forget.

This adventure that starts in Marseille and spreads over a period of two years led me to Issam, a young, undocumented Algerian migrant from Annaba who had arrived a few months previously and was already in a homeless shelter; then to Nizar, an illegal Tunisian national that I met in the street just after his arrival from Lampedusa on a makeshift boat. They both tell the story of their journey but, above all, give the reasons for leaving home and, in their own way, how much they miss their mothers. The mother figure that is sacred in Judeo-Arab culture. Underneath, we find out that in addition to poverty, they also fled a way of life, a sense of smothering, and perhaps even the mothers that adore them (perhaps too much?).

It’s the story of the Mediterranean, the story of the sea, the story of the mothers. Sometimes the sons don’t come back. Sometimes, the sons die at sea. And the, there is also the dream, the fantasy. The dream of a Europe that will never be as beautiful, as welcoming, as rich, as when seen from the other shore.

I went there, where they come from, to try to understand, to meet their mothers and listen to their side of the story of their sons’ departure, the wrench, the long separation.
 This project comes also from the certainty that in the near future, I too will have to face up to my definitive separation from my own mother who is old and ill. Her death will make it impossible to ever get any answers on the gaps in her life story. The mother-son separation for which I am preparing myself, resonates with the separation that these illegal immigrants that I have filmed and photographed, that they force on their own mothers when they cross the sea in life-threatening conditions to come North.

I started to ask her questions and film her. She was 90 years old and afflicted with the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease and she didn’t remember much, especially the details of Algeria, but she did remember how eager she was to forget.
 I didn’t have any photographs – an irony for a photographer – nor any accounts of the history of my mother’s Sephardic Jewish family. She wanted to forget Algeria, the poverty, forget her origins.
 Today, I take the voyage in reverse. I voyage into lost origins, the part that is missing, hidden, eliminated.

I am certain that I became a photographer in order to create a missing family album, both on my mother’s side and that of my father whose parents were deported to Auschwitz and Birkenau. I need to make memories.

So this project is the a blend of the narrative of my difficult relationship with a mother that I wanted to escape from a very young age and that in a way I have come back to in her dying days, and the perilous sea crossing of all these young migrants who leave their mothers crazy with worry on the shores of their childhood. The connections between these two worlds reflect an examination of the basics of my work as a photographer and journalist, my relationship to time and memory and my never-ending quest for identity.

Mer (sea), mother, mare, mater… Yet again my photography echoes my own story and attempts to fill the gaps.

Patrick Zachmann

Exhibition co-produced with Magnum Photos in the context of Marseille-Provence 2013, European Capital of Culture and Fotografia Europea, Reggio Emilia 2014.

A book has been published to coincide with the exhibition:
Patrick Zachmann, Mare Mater, journal méditerranéen , foreword by François Cheval, ed. Actes Sud, 2013.
312 p + 1 DVD of the film Mare Mater  (54’’)
ISBN : 978-2-330-02395-9
Prix : 39 €

Patrick Zachmann : Biography

Since 1976 Patrick Zachmann (b.1955), has devoted himself to long-form photographic essays that evoke the complexity of the communities whose culture and identity he examines. In 1982, he entered the violent universe of the police and the Mafia in Naples. Then, he began a long personal project exploring Jewish identity: Enquête d’identité (Investigation of identity ). In 1989, his reportage of the events in Tiananmen Square was widely published in the international press. I was awarded the Prix Niepce. He’s part of the tradition of travel photographers who scrutinise the trace of History or search for timeless objects.
Patrick Zachmann is a member of Magnum agency.