Theory & Practice

Behind the Image: Jean Gaumy’s Figure Among the Waves

The photographer reflects upon a moment of madness on the Normandy coast

Jean Gaumy

Jean Gaumy Waves in Le Havre. Seine-Maritime department. France. 1984 © Jean Gaumy | Magnum Photos

Before joining Magnum, Jean Gaumy had worked on numerous projects including searing reportages on the French penal and health systems. Since then his work has often drawn him to the inhospitable, liminal zone where land meets sea.  His longterm project on the fishing industry, which became his book Pleine Mer: Men At Sea, dwelled upon man at work, in the face of seemingly insurmountable natural powers. Adverse weather, near biblical storms, and the stoic expressions of those facing them are central to the project. While this image is not from that body of work, it shares that sense of man’s smallness, of our futile efforts in the face of natural forces, and the potentially devastating power of the sea. Here, Gaumy shares a little more about the image’s background.

What is happening in this photograph?

A man defies the furious sea … It is not hugely intelligent. The waves of this sort, here, are really deadly. Tons of water can fall down at once, upon the surface of your body.

Where and how was this image made?

Not far from my home in Normandy, France. On the pier of the port of Le Havre on a fall day.

What was happening outside the frame?

Some people, just like me, watched the powerful beating of the sea and were worried because of this person who has gone out onto the pier. Perhaps he was unaware or unconscious, perhaps suicidal, or maybe just very, very stupid?

If you had not taken this shot, what would you have been doing instead at that precise moment?

I would have have seen this happening anyway, I would have been considering this man and these waves around him, and I would have been furious not to have photographed the scene… I saw the situation. Except for the danger at hand, this man’s presence also gave a sense of scale, a sense of proportion to the scene. I would have been furious if I had missed it.

Tell us a secret about this image.

Look carefully… In the waves, in the quarter of the image toward the lower right, is the bowed face of Christ crowned with his crown of thorns. And in the center of the picture, at the end of the pier, there is a crowd of lions, or of monsters of legend… But hey, actually, maybe there’s nothing really extraordinary or abnormal about it. The only secret to this image is probably the seagull at the top, and he knows it what it is.

See more Behind the Image stories here.

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