"Like the delayed rays of a star": Photographs of Eurasian women “repatriated” to France (1947-2020)
Camille’s unlikely photo album
Camille wrote to her mother (who passed away in 1987) from Saint-Rambert and elsewhere, but she never saw her again. Her mother did bequeath a precious gift to her: a photo album of Camille’s childhood. It is quite remarkable that Camille’s mother was able to put together and keep this album in the particular context of Indochina in the 1950s, and it is against odds that it was preserved for over 50 years (including for many years after the death of its owner), found in Vietnam in 2012, and then finally brought to France.
The photo album Camille’s mother used, with its metal fasteners and cardstock pages (fig. 26), was manufactured between 1900 and 1920. By the 1950s, it would have been out of fashion in Europe, but was still sold in the colonies. As a material object, Camille’s mother used the album as a site of memory, perhaps as a mausoleum for her love for her daughter, and looked at it often, as evidenced by its condition: the edges of the pages are worn, much more so than the photographs themselves, which were only rarely taken out, possibly only to verify the information recorded on the backs of certain of them. The album has 19 front-sided pages, each with a crystal sheet to protect it (fig. 27) and a few photos have been added to the backs of four of the pages. Each page holds between one and five photos of varying sizes, for a total of 67 photographs, 50 of which are different (9 of the images are included multiple times, with either 2, 3, or 4 copies). Some of the spaces that lost their photo were re-purposed to hold photos in other formats.
The album is dedicated to Camille, who appears in four-fifths of its images. Thus, there are pictures of her at various ages as a child, in the poses that were common at the time. Only one photograph is in color, and shows Camille at 14 months, seated with her mother in the grass in a park (fig. 28); there are also two copies of this photo in black and white. With a few exceptions, all the photos were portraits taken by a professional photographer (fig. 29). This maternal photo album, a veritable “family bible” covered with dates and place names, reinscribes Camille’s childhood with her family in space and time.
The memory of a mother-daughter bond
Notes written at the edges of some photos or on the album’s pages indicate Camille’s age in the photo or the date it was taken (fig. 30). Camille’s name is written in Vietnamese on the back of many of them—Diêu Tâm (which means “tender heart” or “soft heart”)—and her age is written in French. On the back of two photos that were clearly very important to Camille’s mother are words noting the circumstances or her feelings (see figs. 22 and 24). In the album, Camille found three photos she had sent her mother from France, and which show her at age 11 (at her first communion), at age 15, and age 17 (fig. 31). The oldest photos in the album date from 1948 and the most recent are from 1965. Whenever she looks at the album, Camille notes that her mother “always looks so sad.”