I was in Paris on the night it happened – Friday 13th November – having dinner with a few Magnum colleagues close to the Grand Palais, where I’d spent a long and enjoyable day at the annual Paris Photo fair.
One by one we began to receive anxious messages from home asking if we were safe. Piecing together what conflicting reports there were, and realising something serious was happening just a couple of miles away, we left the restaurant and made our way to the nearest Metro station. Further news flashes declared “two cars carrying several gunmen,” were still at large.
Safely back at our hotel, we turned on the TV and watched events unfold, although there was very little live footage, just in case.
I began to feel guilty I wasn’t out there with my camera like a ‘proper’ Magnum photographer, but all I had was an iPhone (all my other equipment was at home in England). And in any case, the directive from the television announcer to stay indoors sounded convincing enough for me to do as I was told.
The next morning we went for a walk. A silence hung over the city like thick fog; this was not the bustling Saturday one would normally have expected. But it wasn’t a normal morning. We walked and walked until, come the afternoon, we caught our pre-booked Eurostar home.
For the next 48 hours, I carried on with life much as normal, but something was calling me back to Paris, and I knew I had to go. I began to formulate an idea to try to make visual that awful silence until, on the night of the 17th, I took the train once again. I arrived in Paris at 7 pm in pouring rain, accompanied by Murray, my assistant. Another friend, Lola, who had a car and knew the city well, met us at Gare du Nord.
The first thing I noticed was that Parisians were out in force once more, sitting outside bars and restaurants and enjoying another unusually mild November evening. We drove around in circles visiting the sites of the murders, again and again, waiting for the mourners to go home to bed.
Eventually, at about 3am, the city became silent (although it’s a truism that a city never sleeps) and over the next two hours I made most of the pictures. Seen empty, the sites seemed sadder still, as if they were trying to tell us about the unspeakable events they’d witnessed. Like a cold and dank florists shop the fragrance was almost overwhelming, and the flowers were already starting to fade. Soon, I guess, they’ll be gone altogether.
It was only at the Bataclan was there a Police presence. While Murray and I were making pictures there, Lola listened to a small group standing in an intimate circle. She heard one man say he’d been in the theatre when the gunmen entered and had seen a pregnant woman shot in cold blood. He’d returned to the spot (and was still there at 5 am) “to try to understand”. When Lola told us this, I wondered what there was to understand, but I think I know now.
At another site, we watched three people approach, arm-in-arm. The figure in the middle bent down to light a candle. His legs gave way. His friends helped him back to his feet and led him gently away while we averted our eyes.
And then, fourteen hours after we arrived, we were back on the train heading home. We sat in silence. And then we slept.