Dominique Darbois


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— Written by Françoise Denoyelle

Dominique Darbois (1925-2014) was the daughter of a major specialist of Asian arts and a novelist. She participated in the Free French Forces during the Second World War in 1941. Being a member of the resistance and Jewish, she was arrested and imprisoned at the Drancy camp for two years. In 1944, she continued to fight against the occupiers and received the Resistance Medal. In 1945 France was liberated and Darbois left for Indochina via Shanghai. Although she was only twenty, she had already lived several lives. After the war ended, she came back to France and became the assistant of the French photographer Pierre Jahan, which prompted her career as a photographer.

In 1951, she organized an expedition to Amazonia and Guyana with Francis Mazière and Wladimir Ivanov, from which originated four publications: “Parana le petit Indien” (1952), “Les Indiens d’Amazonie” (1954), “Mission Tumuc-Humac” (1954), “Yanamalé village of the Amazon”. The first publication was translated into eight languages. She then began the collection “Enfants du monde” [Children of the world], a series of twenty volumes containing images and texts by Darbois herself. This collection offered a world tour not from an ethnographic standpoint but rather as a photographer committed to meet children in a world where not everyone was born equal. She surveyed over fifty countries.

If she spent only a few days in Mongolia in 1957, she actually stayed much longer in China during the Hundred Flowers period [during which the Communist Party encouraged its citizens to openly express their opinions of the communist regime]. Thanks to the French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson – who photographed the last days of the political party Kuomintang in 1949 – she obtained a visa only a few people would get at that time. She accompanied an archaeological expedition that led her to photograph the Maijishan Grottoes in Gansu province as well as the Gobi Desert. She captured daily life in both cities and the countryside, while seizing traditions: acrobatics, games of chance, operas, puppets shows… and the new oil refineries around Lanzhou, oil wells around Yumen, political posters, and even the lives of prisoners in labour camps.

In 1960 she published “Les Algériens en guerre” [Algerian at war]. She completed reportage on the maquis and the training camps of the National Liberation Front [the socialist political party in Algeria] in Tunisia. This reportage was forbidden in France. Darbois was interested in the moving world and in ancient civilizations. She published “Kaboul, le passé confisqué. Trésors du musée de Kaboul, 1931-1965” [Kabul, the confiscated past. Treasures of the Kabul Museum, 1931-1965] (2002).

While she could have put aside her cameras, started to manage her archives, once again she committed herself to women in France and in Africa. She published then “Afrique, terre de femmes” [Africa, land of women] (2004) and “Terre d’enfants” [Children’s Land] (2004), with a text written by Pierre Amrouche. This was her ultimate work.

Dominique Darbois donated her whole archive to the French scholar and historian of photography Françoise Denoyelle. Since then, Denoyelle has been compiling an exhaustive inventory and started to document Darbois’ life and career. Due to the diversity and the richness of the primary material, this study of Darbois’ oeuvre will require several years of research and will be turned into exhibitions, articles and publications.