L’indifférence

René Robert, the Swiss photographer who died of indifference on a Paris street

The other night a random ‘fait divers’ (news item) caught my eye. An 84-year-old man had collapsed on a busy street in Paris and died before anyone noticed. Of hypothermia. Nine hours later.

The fact that this man happened to be a well-known Swiss photographer doesn’t matter. He was Monsieur Tout-le-monde, Mr. Nobody, out for a walk on a winter’s evening. What matters is the fact that nobody stopped to help him, that for hours people walked by his body stretched out on the pavement. It’s an area with a lot of people, many of them homeless. The irony of the story is that it was one of these humble souls, a homeless man, who eventually called for help at 6:30 the following morning. But when the emergency vehicle came it was too late.

René Robert was born in Fribourg, one of the French-speaking cantons in Switzerland. He was a photographer known for his pictures of flamenco dancers, a passion that had come to him early in life. He lived in Paris and had long frequented its bars and venues where he could quietly capture the moments of raw emotion that define the art of flamenco.

René Robert achieved a certain celebrity for his work. He published several books and his photographs were shown in galleries around Europe. But he was said to have remained humble, quiet, someone who appreciated working in the shadows rather than being in the spotlight himself.

The reason Robert’s death made headlines was because of its reprehensible moral nature. The French are sensitive to ‘l’indifférence’; it is not a characteristic that defines us* as a people. Indifference is among the most-detested modern ‘maux’ (evils, wrongs) of society, that we can pass by human suffering on the street and look the other way.

It came to my attention because a journalist friend of the photographer, Michel Mompontet, talked about it. Did he trip? Was it a dizzy spell? he asked. And most importantly: Who among us would have stopped? Is it conceivable that I myself would have walked by?

The fact that this man was Swiss is also poignant to me. I have a soft spot for strangers in strange lands. And it seems the world we live in has become a strange place indeed.

RIP Monsieur Robert.

(*I have officially been away from my adopted country long enough now to identify as French.)

32 comments

  1. margaret21 · February 3

    Indeed. And we can’t afford to feel morally superior until we can demonstrate that we would have reacted differently. It is a shocking story.

    • MELewis · February 3

      Exactly! I think it touched me for that very reason. And because it could have been any one of us. 😢

  2. pedmar10 · February 3

    Been to 81 countries lived in 5, seen these events the world over. Life is a lonely road indeed!

    • MELewis · February 3

      Sad but true. The only thing that saves us is kindness.

  3. Taste of France · February 3

    One day last summer, I saw a man passed out on the street. It was mid-afternoon. Two women were trying to wake him. This is a small town, and I know our SDFs by sight; he wasn’t one of them. The women called an ambulance, and I ran after a pair of patrolling police I’d passed minutes earlier. But if I were alone, especially at night? I would have called an ambulance and run after the police if I’d seen them nearby, but I wouldn’t have approached the man by myself. Especially not during Covid. But above all, not alone.
    It is harder in bigger cities, with so many people living on the street. Is that person sleeping or is he having a malaise?
    It’s heartbreaking.
    I have tickets for Mercedes Ruiz tonight…

    • MELewis · February 3

      How wonderful that you were able to help. I agree, as a woman alone on a dark city street I would probably not have had the courage to approach directly either. But to pass by and do nothing? It must have been fairly obviously he was not a homeless person settled in for the night — generally they are wrapped like moths in blankets in corners or up against walls. It is shocking. I don’t follow flamenco but I googled Mercedes Ruiz. Looks like you are in for a treat!

  4. midihideaways · February 3

    It made my heart very heavy when I read about René Robert’s death. I kept thinking if it could have happened in our village, and came to the conclusion that Mr Robert would most likely still be alive if he had fallen over here. But how would I have reacted had I been a Parisian and walked by him? I have a feeling that city life dehumanises people to a certain extent. It takes away some of the obligation to interact with people and allows us to think that ‘someone else will take care of that’ as there are so many people about. Very sad!

    • MELewis · February 3

      You are right: something about the life in the city does dehumanize. I suppose his death could have happened in any big city, but the chances are in a village someone would have come to his aid. Just tragic to see a life end like that, especially one lived with such humanity.

  5. phildange · February 3

    Sad contemporary story . I heard of it because in my south-west town, Mont-de-Marsan, every early July there is a famous festival of flamenco full of Andalusian great artists, “Arte Flamenco”, and René had become well known around here since he came every year . One more artist who dies in the indifference after Van Gogh, Chet Baker … Not especially an artist but a poor man victim of poverty among thousands . “It’s a wonderful world…”

    • MELewis · February 3

      Ah, Chet Baker. What a talent! Did not realize he had died so sadly. How wonderful to have been able to experience flamenco alongside its most passionate photographer. I feel that stories like this are important reminders that we must not forget our humanity. Even though it is all too common.

  6. Ally Bean · February 3

    This is sad. No way around it, other than to admit that people suck. I’m sorry for him– and humanity as a whole.

    • MELewis · February 4

      It is indeed sad and somewhat depressing…🥲 Imagine how the people who passed by and later heard of his death must feel?

  7. chezperrier · February 3

    Monsieur Tout-le-monde, Mr. Nobody is you and he is me. This could happen to any one of those people (you or me?) that walked by.

    • MELewis · February 4

      Exactly. We are all vulnerable to indifference. And who among us has never walked by someone sleeping rough?

  8. Colin Bisset · February 3

    A tragic story, indeed (the tragedy of human indifference, perhaps). Reminds me of that film ’38 temoins’ with Yvan Attal, set in Le Havre, where none of the residents claims to have heard the cries of a young woman found murdered outside their apartment building.

    • MELewis · February 4

      Ach, did not see that film. Sounds rather depressing (like so many French films — they’re either ‘loufoque’ or suicidal it seems). Man’s inhumanity to man seems to be a recurring theme though.

  9. Darlene · February 4

    What a sad story. It reminds me of the photograph by Brassaï called “A Man Dies in the Street” (1932), except in that photograph, people stopped to look.

    • MELewis · February 4

      I suppose that since 1932 we’ve become even more immune to the suffering of others. It is sad, especially when someone who had achieved a certain celebrity for his work becomes far more famous for his death.

  10. Dale · February 4

    What a perfectly apt title. And how sad our society has become that we sidestep something like this. Probably more so in the city than in the country, I should think. He could have been any one of us and that is a sad state of affairs.

    • MELewis · February 7

      Somehow the words in French express the idea more fully. I’m sure such things happen in every big city around the world but somehow this particular story seemed so very sad. I know I will look twice next time I see someone lying on the street.

      • Dale · February 7

        Yes, they do. And it is such a sad story. Problem is, it is made the sadder because he “was someone” and not no one…

  11. acflory · February 5

    What an awful way to die. Did he lie there, unable to call for help? Did he wait for a good Samaritan to come along? I know there are beggars and homeless everywhere, they used to have ‘spots’ in the Metro when I was in Paris in 1974, but to assume that someone lying on the ground, in the cold, doesn’t /deserve/ to be helped? That is beyond belief. What happened to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’? I’m an atheist yet I still believe in that. Sometimes I’m ashamed to be human. 😦

    • MELewis · February 7

      It horrible to imagine and I can only assume that no one actually saw him fall. There are a million reasons why this could happen to anyone. And that is why the golden rule has its value beyond any religious beliefs. I share your shame. Animals are kinder to each other than we ‘humans’.

      • acflory · February 8

        -sigh- Yes. Kindness and compassion seem to have disappeared from much of the Western vocabulary. Don’t religious institutions teach about the Good Samaritan any more?

  12. ViewPacific · February 5

    A sad story, yet all too common especially in areas like you describe, where homeless people may often be. Several years ago I was part of something similar. One evening I came across a man lying in the doorway of a store that had been closed for years. The doorway was a popular spot for homeless people since it offered some shelter from the typical evening winds off the ocean. I admit that when I first saw the man, I assumed he was one of the many regulars that would have finished off their evening bottles of alcohol and would choose such a spot to sleep it off. I didn’t recognize him as a regular in the little town where I lived, though. Also, although he was dressed in an odd way, it could have been he was dressed in clothes that were bought second-hand at a thrift shop or be from nearby Los Angeles, which has many experimenting with such a style.
    That evening, I chose to stop and ask if he was okay. He said that he wasn’t feeling well, and that he had just shared dinner with friends at a nearby restaurant and then collapsed where I found him. He asked me to call for a doctor.
    I did so and soon they were on the way.
    As I spoke with him more, it seemed he was in shock such as some people are after eating shellfish.
    The fire department arrived first. Their questions indicated they thought he might be someone who had had too much to drink. They, too, assumed he was one of the local homeless who struggle with alcohol.
    The man was able to share more about what he ate and the paramedic was able to care for him.
    I’m glad that I stopped and was able to get medical help for the man. I’m not proud, though, of the dialog in my mind as I had first approached and evaluated the fallen man and whether he was worthy of the help.
    As in the case of the photographer, who among us hasn’t passed by someone after having an inner conversation about concerns for our own safety or judgements about those we see?
    Thank you for sharing the story and it’s reminders to reach deeper for our own humanity.
    Vincent

    • MELewis · February 7

      How fortunate for that poor fellow that you were kind enough to stop and check! Your story shows how a little humanity can make all the difference. Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment. Looking forward to reading you!

  13. Alex Diaz-Granados · February 6

    This reminds me – a little – of the woman who, many decades ago (the 1960s) was savagely murdered in New York. I don’t recall how she died, but I assume she was stabbed to death by her killer because she screamed for help while the attack was happening. And this was in an apartment building, where the neighbors heard the screams, but no one lifted a finger to help her.

    • MELewis · February 7

      I vaguely remember hearing that story. The tragedy on our doorstep that no one bothers to do anything about. A sad state of affairs indeed and shows that little has changed since.

      • Alex Diaz-Granados · February 7

        I “googled” the case. It was the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City on March 13, 1964.

        The reports in the media that 38 witnesses either saw or heard Genovese being stabbed by her killer (Winston Moseley) and that they ignored her cries for help were later proven to be inaccurate. Some of the neighbors did (in a half-assed fashion, in my opinion) try to intervene when they realized that a woman was being attacked. Robert Mozer was one of the few who nearly saved her life; he shouted, “Let that girl alone!” at Moseley, who temporarily fled the scene. Others called police (this was four years before NYC established its 911 system), but otherwise did nothing.

        Genovese tried to get into her apartment building, but the door was locked. And because the calls to NYPD were unclear, there seemed to be no urgency to the police response. So, Moseley, disguising his appearance with a hat that obscured his face, returned and finished Genovese off. She was 28 years old.

        Moseley was eventually arrested, tried, and convicted. He was sentenced to death in 1964, but when the Supreme Court of the United States suspended the death penalty in 1972, his sentence was commuted to life in prison (with chance of parole). Because Moseley never showed any remorse for killing Kitty Genovese, he was never paroled. He died in prison in 2016. He was 81 years old.

      • MELewis · February 7

        Wow! That has got to have been made into a movie…?

      • Alex Diaz-Granados · February 7

        Oh, the Genovese case is so infamous that it has been dramatized several times under many guises. A Perry Mason episode (“The Case of the Silent Six”) was based on it, and so was the movie “Death Screams” (1975, starring Raul Julia). Since you live in France, this might be more relevant:

        The film 38 témoins (2012, 38 Witnesses), directed by Lucas Belvaux, is based on Didier Decoin’s 2009 novel about the case and reset in Le Havre, France.

      • MELewis · February 7

        Très intéressant!

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