A century of photojournalism


An exhibition at Antwerp’s Photo Museum looks at the work of a pioneer in media photography and the goddaughter who followed in her footsteps

Beauty and tragedy

The photo heritage of Germaine Van Parys (1893-1983) and her goddaughter Odette Dereze covers almost 100 years of Belgian history, from the homecoming of the royal family after the First World War in 1918 and the death of King Albert I in 1934 to the devastating 1967 fire in the Brussels department store Innovation and the Herald Of Free Enterprise ferry disaster off the coast of Zeebrugge, 20 years later.

But, as the retrospective exhibition of the leading ladies of local press photography suggests, these mainly sad events are often countered by moments of joy. Van Parys and Dereze had their cameras ready when stars like Josephine Baker, Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf visited the country. And they had an almost perfect relationship with the royal family, giving the public a look behind the scenes.

On the poster for the exhibition at Antwerp Photo Museum, you see Queen Fabiola playing badminton in the Royal Palace of Laken. Dereze, invited to take some informal snapshots for the 25th anniversary of Boudewijn’s coronation, explains what you can’t see in the photo. “It was a young prince, the present King Filip, who tempted his aunt. I could hear her say the words: ‘Wait boy, I’m going to beat you’.”

And Dereze, now age 81, has many more stories to tell. Halfway through our meeting at her apartment in the Etterbeek district of Brussels, she shows me a black-and-white picture of the Belgian press delegation accompanying King Boudewijn during an official visit to India. We count 20 male journalists and photographers and two females: the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and Dereze.

These trips to exotic places like India, Australia, Indonesia, China and the former Soviet Union opened her eyes in a time when the world wasn’t yet a global village and travelling was still a privilege.

“It truly made me a richer person,” says Dereze. And this zinneke – born in Brussels to a Walloon father and a Flemish mother – isn’t talking money. She’s summarising her encounters through the lens, working for photo agencies at home or abroad. “It’s the contact with different cultures that’s enriching. It made me more human.”

A strong work ethic

“I saw the beauty of it all,” Dereze continues, “but also the sad stuff, the poverty. I remember the king wasn’t even allowed to stroll the streets of Calcutta, so he asked us what we had seen. The truth was cruel: Every morning a truck came to pick up the bodies of the homeless street vendors who died the night before. I even saw a dead baby in a garbage bin. Those harsh memories stick with you a lifetime.”

I even saw a dead baby in a garbage bin. Those harsh memories stick with you a lifetime

- Odette Dereze

The love for photography she inherited from her aunt and godmother, Germaine Van Parys, one of European press photography’s few female pioneers. “I have an English article in which she is called the ‘first female press photographer’,” Dereze says proudly. “But she had to deal with the jealousy of her colleagues. She wasn’t always very welcome and had to defend herself, even physically, to find her place.”

Luckily, Queen Elisabeth noticed Van Parys in this male-dominated environment. Early in her career she was summoned to the palace. At first she thought it was another joke by her male colleagues. But it wasn’t.

From that moment, she maintained a very warm contact with the royal family. “When King Albert I introduced her to the Brussels mayor Adolphe Max as ‘our national press photographer’, she felt deeply respected,” Dereze says.

Becoming a photographer was a way for Van Parys, who died in 1983 at the age of 90, to escape following in the footsteps of her parents, who were morticians. She started working for the Brussels newspaper Le Soir as a freelancer. Her first official commission was to take pictures of the Unknown Soldier who would be buried at the tomb in Koningsstraat in Brussels.

“I especially remember her very strong work ethic,” says Dereze. “Sometimes she took me with her, emphasising how important it was to work hard, to always immediately return home to finish the job and not to have an opinion. Because as a photographer you need to be welcome everywhere.”

And to her, a promise was a promise. “After the death of Albert I, Queen Elisabeth wanted a few pictures of the king on his death bed. When she saw the result, she was very sad and asked my aunt not to publish it in the newspapers. She agreed, even though L’Illustration, a popular French newspaper, offered her 100,000 Belgian francs for the photos. But you just didn’t break your promise.”

Taking the time to look

As a child, Dereze was surrounded by photography and journalism. Her uncle (and godfather) wrote the articles that went with the photos her aunt took. Her mother helped in the dark room and talked her out of her other childhood dream of becoming a classical dancer (“At 30 your career will be over!”). So it was pretty obvious she would follow in her aunt’s footsteps.

Only by focussing on my technique could I put the emotions of the moment aside

- Odette Dereze

At 21 she received her press card, and it became clear that she had the same strong ethic. “I once had to photograph a fire with another photographer. At one point, I saw him trying to intensify the flames; I fired him immediately, saying ‘It’s already horrendous that there are flames, and you’re making them even bigger. That’s a lie. Get out!’”

Of course, Dereze witnessed the country’s biggest post-war disasters. She lost colleagues in the fire at the Brussels department store Innovation, now called Galeria Inno. “Only by focussing on my technique could I put the emotions of the moment aside,” she remembers. “It was the same during the tragedy with the Herald of Free Enterprise. It was awful, but someone had to do the job.”

The world – and photography – have changed a lot since the death of Van Parys, 20 years ago, and Dereze’s retirement. And she doesn’t want to generalise, but she can’t ignore the impression that too many photographers now just click away without even looking, hoping they will get one good shot. “But where is the feeling in that?” she asks. “I remember showing my new Pentax camera to my aunt. It allowed me to take 36 photos. She looked at me and said: ‘I just did a report with five glass plates, and they are good – all five!’”

Dereze recently read about a computer system in Japan that selects the images for photo agencies. “We are not talking about the memory of a human being any more!” she exclaims. “My son [Tom Gastmans, who heads the foundation that manages the heritage of Van Parys and Dereze] told me that during the Olympic Games, 30,000 photos a day came through. But how can you make your choice from all that? And how sure are you that you didn’t miss the best photo? Please, let us not lose the human eye.”

Germaine Van Parys & Odette Dereze
Until 2 March
Photo Museum
Waalsekaai 47, Antwerp


Photo: Queen Elisabeth, Luxembourg, 10 May 1930 © Germaine Van Parys


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Antwerp’s Photo Museum looks at work of a pioneer in media photography and her equally talented goddaughter.

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