The Dry Guillotine: What the Previous 'Prison of Prison' Island Looks Like Now


This passion for the Saint-Joseph Island's history (previous article) came first when Romain Veillon read "Papillon" which introduced him to the universe of the penal colony and to the extraordinary adventures of these prisoners always willing to find a way to slip the leash. Romain was fascinated by this green hell at the other side of the world and by this resolute will that these men had to overcome this adversity to get their liberty back. He remembers that a lot of novels he used to read as child used to refer to these prisons as a standard, this heritage has now nearly completely disappeared as nobody remember what used to happen in these cells. That's why Romain wanted to hunt down the tracks of these men, the witnesses of one of our most shameful history. This journey was rewarding as well as it was fascinating, because there is a real paradox between the beauty of the place and the use we choose to do with it.

With this set of photographs focused only on the island Saint-where the most fearless inmates were locked up, Romain Veillon wanted to pursue two main objectives essential to me. First of all, he interrogated the contradiction that the journalist Gault Mac Gowan summed up in 1932: "This is the crime set up in paradise". To do that, Romain thought the only way was to describe the most faithfully possible the atmosphere full of memories that comes out of the ruins while showing the paradisiac side of the islands. When you get closer to it, the approach can be a bit scary, under this natural roof of palm trees which doesn't allow the sun to come though. Instinctively, the visitor lowers his voice, maybe not to wake up the ghosts that now haunt the island. Yet, if you don't know anything about the history of Saint-Joseph, the coconut trees, the turquoise see and the fine sandy beach could seem like an idyllic place. However, when you know what happened during nearly a century there, this vision changes completely and you realise that the sentence was a crime and an atrocity itself. Albert Londres used to say "In this place, we are more frightened by the punishment than by the crime". In consequence, it looks like these walls and these rock still keep in mind all the pain and suffering they witnessed. Those men isolated from the rest of humanity were the incarnation of the worse mankind had done "in the name of justice".

Then, Romain Veillon was concerned to show the aesthetic of the location, he wanted to show the vegetal evolution since the closure of the penal colony and how plants had now reclaim their kingdom. Trees and roots are from now on recovering every inch of walls and corridors that the pain of Men built in decades. You can see there a revenge from them in a way. Trunks spring from any cracks they can find, and the creeper gradually surround those walls like it was trying to bury them forever. For that matter, it is surprising to notice that the islands used to be without any vegetation at all and that Men decided to plant all of those trees to make it look like what they had in mind. If nothing is done, it is likely that the last remains of the penal colony are going to be completely destroyed by nature. One question comes to mind then: Must we let time erase our mistakes or on the opposite, must we need to save them in order not to forget them and especially not to repeat them again?

By exhibiting Romain Veillon's vision of the island Saint-Joseph through this series of photographs, he answers in a personal way to this question. The assessment of the penal colony is horrifying; none of the objectives were reached either for the development of the land or the redemption of the men. Only death and an inhuman repression have prevailed. And Romain Veillon thinks it's more important not to forget the fate we have reserved to those men not that long ago. "Those we can't remember the past are condemned to repeat it", said Georges Santayana. It seems to Romain that the least we can do is to have a reflection for those poor souls who went through hell locked up in those four walls, and that by doing that we have more chance not to let such atrocities happen again.

(All photos copyrighted Roman Veillon)




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Photo gallery: Saint-Joseph Island's Dry Guillotine.

Photographer: Roman Veillon.

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Previous articles: Ask the Dust: Photo Collection of Abandoned Places.

          Faded Dream: Once Famous Amusement Park Became Sleeping Beauty.

          The Ghost Hotel: Once Star Hotel Lost in the Bali Island.

          Silent Ghost: The Saint-Joseph Island's History.



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