A work of truth

Edwy Plenel

Richard Frater’s artwork April, 2015 is composed in part of a stills camera and a calendar, both of which are pierced and linked by a steel tube, while near to them, positioned in a fragile equilibrium on top of several eggs, is the metal carrying case of a camera lens. When I saw it for the first time, I immediately thought that this was a visionary work in that it goes beyond fixed ideas, convention and prejudice. Which is what prompts these few lines by an investigative journalist, and who is by no manner of means an art critic.

Richard Frater, April, 2015/17, Modified Greenpeace Standing up for the Earth calendar, waterjet cut Canon camera body, stainless steel tube, Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L. Photo © Andreas Langfeld

In its apparent simplicity, this artistic installation sublimates the complex truth of the “Greenpeace affair”, the name given in France to the sinking, 32 years ago, of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior, such as I perceived it not only in the summer of 1985 but also over the following three decades during which I persisted in completing the puzzle it represented, right down to its last part. This tragic story remains a subject of painful remorse for France, the country in which I was born, with regard to New Zealand, the country where Frater was born.

Wounding an unfailing alliance, one that was notably marked by a terrible French debt of New Zealand blood beginning with the First World War, France’s political powers ordered its secret services to carry out, on July 10th 1985, an attack in the port of Auckland intended to sink the Rainbow Warrior, which was there as part of Greenpeace’s just campaign to end French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

The bombing of the ship caused the death of photographer Fernando Pereira, who was engaged in defending our planet and its natural environment. Among the numerous French secret agents who made up the sabotage team was also a man who was a keen photographer, with an ardent interest in nature; Alain Mafart, who was the coordinator of the secret mission. Mafart, one of the two agents subsequently arrested by the New Zealand police, was for just a part of his life a French military frogman. Since leaving the navy in 1995, his new profession has been that of his true passion, namely wildlife photography which he exercises in some of the least accessible regions of the planet.

That was how, through a chance event that was as ironic as it was bitter, the former secret agent found himself at the centre of controversy after the US branch of Greenpeace (Greenpeace USA) discovered that one of his photos featured on its yearly calendar sold as part of its fundraising campaign. The angry reactions that followed seemed to me to have lost sight of what should be their true target; the principal guilty party in the Auckland bombing are not the executants, who were military operatives caught in the net of obedience, but rather those who gave the orders, first among them the then French president, who by his position is also head of the armed forces.

Richard Frater, April, 2015/17, Modified Greenpeace Standing up for the Earth calendar, waterjet cut Canon camera body, stainless steel tube, Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L. Photo © Andreas Langfeld

I believe my investigations proved this, to the point of prompting the confession and public apology published in 2015 in Mediapart, the online journal that I manage, of the frogman who placed the limpet mines on the hull of the Rainbow Warrior.

Richard Frater took as his subject the unlikely fate that caused the controversy over the Greenpeace USA calendar. He positions the calendar page featuring Mafart’s photo in close proximity to the photographer’s equipment of choice, in which the hearts of both are pierced by the steel bar while, distanced from them, peacefully awaits a second camera lying in its protective case. Like all true artworks, this installation, beyond what it immediately signifies, freely arouses the spectator’s imagination. In my case, I see in it a reflection about false pretences, the traps that these lay for us, and how they can induce blindness to truths.

Photographer Fernando Pereira, like all those who made up the crew of the Rainbow Warrior, was not an agent of a foreign power as fantasised by the French admirals in the Pacific in order to justify before the political powers the necessity of this criminal act of state terrorism. But, in an astonishing parallel, secret agent Alain Mafart, just like his colleagues in the team that belonged to the “Action” branch of the French external intelligence agency, the DGSE, was not a crusader for the cause of nuclear weapons. Far from being indifferent to the dangers to the planet caused by the excesses of superpowers, he sought, on the contrary, to be a discreet chronicler, using photography, of the richness of nature and living creatures, and their fragility and beauty.

The truth of the case of the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior is both simple, regarding the actual events, and complex, with regard to the people who were the actors in the affair. The obvious fact, so little recognised by the French authorities who appear as if prisoners of a certain dream of being a great nation, superior and pretentious, is that France committed an attack against a movement of civil society and in a country that is its ally. The complexity is that the military operatives who were ordered to commit that act did not necessarily support it, whereas they are the ones on the French side to have suffered the most consequences.

Richard Frater’s œuvre concerns two photographers inexorably linked by one single truth. The death of one of them, caused by the actions in which the other participated, radically separates them, whereas their lives could have brought them together, beyond – and despite – appearances.

Richard Frater, April, 2015/17, Modified Greenpeace Standing up for the Earth calendar, waterjet cut Canon camera body, stainless steel tube, Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L. Photo © Andreas Langfeld

Edwy Plenel is an award-winning radical journalist, former Editorial Director of Le Monde, essayist and founder of the independent journalism platform Mediapart. Known for his investigative work challenging the actions of the French state, he is the author of several books, including The Struggle for a Free Press.