7. The Poor People of Paris

Throughout the world, poor people are at best ignored and at worst treated as an embarrassment; tramps are shunned as abhorrant blemishes on the social fabric – except, for some reason, in Paris. The Parisian clochard is a romantic figure. George Orwell wrote with pride of the days when he was down and out in Paris, whilst he recalled his poverty in London with far less affection. Henry Miller wrote three books about his period of penury here. There was even a popular tune called: Poor People of Paris.

In this section, I want to include a few photographs, simply to affirm that poor people are also part of my Paris.


Lemons for Sale

The Marché Mouffetard is located in a narrow, cobbled street which winds its way southward, down the hill from the Place de la Contrescarpe in the 5th Arrondissement.

The shops on either side spill their merchandise: fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry, kitchenware and other small items, onto the street on stalls and tables.

I found this old woman standing near the top of the hill at the side of the road, trying to sell four or five shriveled up lemons on a plate. She was less than 5 feet tall and her frail old voice could barely be heard above the noise of the crowd.

Place du Tertre

Place du Tertre

Just around the corner from the Place du Tertre, this sculpture of two heads was unexpectedly augmented on this occasion when a local clochard found it a convenient place to rest.

Rue de Rivoli

Rue de Rivoli

The Rue de Rivoli is one of the most prestigious streets in Paris, starting at the Place Saint-Antoine and passing alongside the Hôtel de Ville, the Louvre, the Tuileries Gardens and ending at the Place de la Concorde. For this poor woman, however, an address on the Rue de Rivoli with central heating and a view of the park is no more than a Metro grating where the hot, stale air from the underground railway gives some warmth to an otherwise cold existence.

Gardens of the Palais Royale

Gardens of the Palais Royale

I was walking through the gardens of the Palais Royale one day when I saw this man sitting on a park bench and something told me that there was a photograph in it. I positioned myself behind him, took a shot or two, and waited to see what might happen.  Eventually, two boys came along with their mother and began to play at the far side of the park. I took some more shots but I still wasn’t satisfied so I continued to wait; and eventually, my patience was rewarded. After taking this shot I walked away knowing that I had what I was looking for.

You can gather from the man’s clothes and the bottle resting on the top of his bag that he is down on his luck. The tree, which divides the frame vertically, is a well-known metaphor for life. The man is looking across this metaphor at the boys playing exuberantly in the distance. Perhaps he is remembering his own optimism at their age and contrasting those youthful expectations with his inescapable reality. We will never know that; and in the end it doesn’t matter what he is really thinking. The purpose of a photograph is to provoke a reaction from the person who sees it.

next chapter >


2 thoughts on “7. The Poor People of Paris

  1. Hello, Xpat! I awoke feeling melancholy for Paris this morning and found solace in your blog. Your meditation on the poor people of Paris is especially insightful — and so true. And that last image is one of the more poignant I’ve seen in a long time. One can almost hear the man’s thoughts as he looks back on his youth, to a time when perhaps his life was that carefree too. Thanks for yet another wonderful read.

    • Hi Heather, I’ll let you into a little secret: this is my favourite of my own photographs, which is kinda depressing since it was taken in 1973, meaning that I don’t think I have taken a better one in the last 38 years. Maybe it’s time to call it quits.

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