‘It’s eerie’: Capturing the emptiness of Paris, a city under lockdown

As spring blooms, some of the most famous landmarks in the City of Lights are off-limits.

By William Daniels
photographs by William Daniels
Published 1 Apr 2020, 12:06 BST
Police patrol the empty Plan du Trocadero on March 17, the first day of the lockdown ...

Police patrol the empty Plan du Trocadero on March 17, the first day of the lockdown in Paris. Before leaving their homes, Parisians are supposed to show authorities a note stating the purpose and time of their outing. Those without one risk a fine.

Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic

In the nearly two decades I’ve lived and worked in Paris, I’ve never seen it this quiet. It’s an eerie, empty quiet.

The Forum des Halles, in the center of Paris, is one of the largest commercial malls in Europe. More than 150,000 visitors may throng here every day. Now it’s abandoned, with the only sounds the clatter of escalators—and the singing of birds.

At first, it took time for people to understand what was happening, that this new coronavirus was much more than an Asian crisis. Schools here closed on March 12—and yet on the following weekend, spring was in the air, it was sunny and beautiful, and Parisians couldn’t resist going outdoors.

Then on March 16, the full meaning came clear when President Emmanuel Macron ordered the entire country to stay at home for 15 days, starting at noon the next day. That morning, a line 200 yards long formed outside my supermarket. As I photographed the line, a few customers objected. But after we talked, I understood that they were just scared, and some were upset with the government for not seeing the crisis coming sooner.

When France’s ordeal began, London was still packed and bustling with people, and New York City was too. I think Paris was one of the first big, famous cities to empty out. By March 29, 11,838 people in Paris and its suburbs were sick with COVID-19, and 954 had died. Nationwide, France had 44,550 reported positive cases and 3,024 deaths. Many here assume the actual number of cases must be much higher because we’re testing only people with severe symptoms. France doesn’t have enough tests available, as opposed to Germany where more than a hundred thousand people are tested every week. And the number of reported deaths here must be artificially low as well, because only those who die in hospitals are counted. 

Six days after the order for people to stay home, La Defense, the business district of Paris, was deserted.

Based on health officials’ projections, we expect the big wave of COVID-19 to hit Paris this week, with the peak coming around April 5. Some authorities say the caseload in the Paris region will be similar to that in northern Italy, where 6,818 people had succumbed by March 29.

With flights being cancelled around the world, the train from the city centre to Charles de Gaulle Airport is a ghost ship.

If you go outside in the city, you must have an official note that says why you need to be out and what time you left your home, or you risk being fined by the police. Early in the lockdown, I went to a market in Barbès, a poor neighbourhood in the north of Paris. It was crowded that day, and many people I spoke with didn’t have a note, but I didn’t see any police officers choosing to impose fines.

In these poor neighbourhoods, where life can be a struggle on an average day, fights have erupted between young men, and the local markets have all closed. My press credential allows me to be out in the streets and public places taking photographs. I consider myself lucky—for poor families stuck in small apartments, it’s much harder.

Three regional city trains and five metro lines run through Châtelet-Les Halles, moving a total of 750,000 travelers a day in normal times. During the lockdown, only essential workers can use public transport.

On March 26, Paris closed some 50 Metro stations and drastically cut bus and train services to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Though I’m originally from Normandy and have lived in Paris for 18 years. I’ve done little photojournalism in France. Instead I’ve concentrated on documenting social issues in Africa and the wars in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, and Iraq. When you cover wars, you need to keep your distance from the pain and suffering. You need that separation to report objectively and not be overwhelmed by your emotions.

With an eye on the unfolding crisis in neighbouring Italy, France moved quickly to shut down its busiest areas, such as the Forum des Halles shopping mall. Starting March 14, only essential services were allowed to stay open.

The first time I covered something bad happening in my country was in 2015, when I photographed the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on a concert hall, café, and soccer stadium in Paris. Compared to that, my work during this COVID calamity is so different. It’s about all of us—strangers, friends, my family, my neighbours, me. 

In some ways, it’s more difficult to shoot your own place and people. One thing I’ve wanted to do is convey the mood of the city’s most iconic structures as they appear under lockdown—the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the business district of La Défense—at different times, in different lights. It’s very hard to photograph emptiness. I’ve been spending a lot of time—sometimes three hours or more—at each site. In all, I must have shot at least 4,000 frames by now.

Bars, restaurants, and clubs are silent on the famous Rue de Lappe, one of the city’s magnets for nightlife.

Two days after the city’s bars, cafés, and other non-essential businesses were closed, photographer William Daniels documented these shuttered storefronts.

In familiar settings I have to find beauty and meaning in something I see every day, and I’m so used to what’s around me that I may miss interesting scenes or moments. In the city centre now, I see so many homeless people I hadn’t noticed before when they were hidden among the daily crowds. Their situation is terrible. They can’t plead with passers-by for money because the streets are empty. All the public toilets they usually use are closed. In the past, homeless people have been helped by small aid organisations, but nearly all these groups have stopped their work.

Parkgoers confined indoors are missing the glory of spring in the Jardin des Halles in the center of Paris.

I want to show how the pandemic is affecting the homeless, as well as immigrants and refugees who live in camps just outside Paris. For them, social distancing is impossible. They have no access to masks and gloves, and maintaining strict personal hygiene is difficult. I’m also planning to cover the work of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), who are helping vulnerable populations by organising mobile clinics to test them and teach them how to protect themselves as much as they can.

A lone police car enforces the lockdown on Place du Trocadero, across the River Seine from the Eiffel Tower. The lockdown has been extended to April 15 as the COVID-19 death toll rises.

I intend to continue this work over the next few weeks, to give the world’s people at least one view of the pandemic in my city. As I’ve roamed Paris, I’ve noticed that the air is much fresher—there’s less pollution. And one day when I was shooting at the main entrance of Les Halles, one of the biggest commercial malls in Europe, I heard birds singing. I’d never realised there were birds at Les Halles of all places. It gave me hope.

William Daniels is a French photographer and grantee from the National Geographic Society. He documented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh for National Geographic in 2017. Instagram @williamodaniels.
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