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.)