The rifleman and the three rivers
The First and Second World Wars, Madagascar, Indochina, Algeria – so many conflicts in which the African / North African ex-soldiers played an important part. An icon of advertising and an irrepressible figure of the French cultural imagination, the rifleman is a complex historical character with multiple layers: symbol of colonial alienation for some, an example of loyalty for others. His natural good-naturedness, so often the subject of praise, has brought him much sympathy and condescension in equal measure. Senegal, Niger and Congo were the three great rivers of the former French colonial empire: three pathways by which French influence could infiltrate; used by the African rifleman in his daily meanderings as civilian or soldier. The African rifleman – both an instrument and an agent of the former French colonial empire – is today one of the last enduring symbols of this colonial era. He is a unique repository of francophone culture and has become a privileged witness to relations between France and Africa.
The series ‘The rifleman and the three rivers’ by the photographer Philippe Guionie offers us a contemporary artistic perspective on this forgotten or misunderstood aspect of human memory. For a few more years, these riflemen exist as our contemporaries. Safe-guarding such cultural heritage now takes on an added urgency just as we realise the need to establish immigration in the collective memory and to give it its rightful place in a common and shared historical perspective.
The series entitled ‘The rifleman and the three rivers’, begun in 1998, was awarded the Prix Roger Pic in 2008.