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Street Art, La Gacilly Style

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Yannick brings over deux grandes crèmes for Dorothy and me. Although it is early June the air is cool as we sit in the shade outside his brasserie, La Merelle. Dorothy warms her hands on the cup as she raises it to her lips. Cup?  More a bowl with a handle. I could beat eggs to make an omelette for half a dozen people in such a cup. Only the top of her head is now visible.


“You know about the festival?” Yannick enquires. He has the build of a rugby forward. Not a person you would compare to "white goods" like a footballer, but compact, hard, deceptively slight. His English is good (though not perfect) because he served his time working in a London kitchen.

“Yes, we visited last year,” I reply. He moves discreetly away. After a quiet conversation with Yannick a man settles his bill, climbs into a car, and drives off across the cobbles. I toy with my camera and snap shoot at the passersby. I self-consciously nurse the camera, attempting to shield it from the public gaze.

It isn't that I have any reservations about photographing strangers, or that the streets of La Gacilly don't provide ample picturesque subject matter. It's because I feel unworthy. For the past four years this town has given its walls over to an extraordinary festival of photography. There are plenty of galleries here – for nearly two centuries, this area of Brittany has been popular with both amateur and professional artists – but during the summer months the streets of La Gacilly themselves become the gallery. The warm, ivy-bound stone of the buildings provides subtle hanging spaces for the enormous images.

This year (2008), La Gacilly hosts its 5th Photo Festival, People and Nature. This is a poor translation of the words that mean so much more, Le Festival Photo Peuples & Nature de La Gacilly. Peuple is not just the collective noun for a group of humanity. Rather, it is an assembly that shares a culture or nationality. It has a sense that is primarily tribal.

The festival was created in 2004 by Jacques Rocher, Président International of the Rocher Foundation and son of the founder Yves Rocher. And that is also the key to understanding the relationship between La Gacilly and Yves Rocher. He is a father of the modern community. The sense of paternalism was even greater during Yves Rocher's successive terms as mayor. 

Yves Rocher was born in La Gacilly in 1930. It's really no more than a village; the population of the Commune is a little over 2000. According to Rocher, he was dispirited because the people were leaving the land, lured away by the prosperity of cities such as Nantes and Paris. This movement was well underway by the 1950s. In the early 20th century rural Brittany was impoverished to an extent that is witnessed in developing nations today. Rocher's answer to depopulation and poverty was to develop an herbal pomade in his attic.

In 1956 Rocher launched his product onto the market through small ads. By 1959 he was able to establish the laboratories that continue to be the heart of this green cosmetics company. In the year the Festival was launched, group turnover was reckoned to be in excess of 2 billion Euros.

Jacques Rocher's vocation is to make the world a greener place. As a partner in the “Plant for the Planet: Billion Trees Campaign” organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Yves Rocher is contributing to this global initiative by planting 1 million of the 1 billion trees.

According to Cyril Drouhet, Exhibitions Manager, the programme of the 5th Festival “ focuses on people living apart from the modern industrial world, on endangered natural sanctuaries but also on men of goodwill fighting to reverse the sad inevitability. At a time when the spotlights are focused on Beijing and the Olympic Games, we have made the choice to point the photographers’ lenses on a different China that paradoxically could become a future 'green' power.”

This year the organisation of the Festival was taken over by Auguste Coudray, Président. In his view, “Ecology that was ignored or minimized for such a long time, is now more than ever one of the main concerns of political leaders, citizens and the media. Day after day, the collective awareness of the necessity to start a new economic cycle is becoming stronger.”

This is perhaps true, but during my visit in March this year Yves Rocher were once more in conflict with the unions over pay. The pictures from La Gacilly were of the Group's employees marching with placards aloft. Yves Rocher has undoubtedly contributed to the development of the Commune and are contributing to ecology on a worldwide scale, but people still need to pay their bills.

In La Gacilly this almost seems like a family argument. Whatever squabbles there are between Rocher's children, the town is flamboyantly decked out to greet the public. During the course of the summer over 150,000 visitors will walk the narrow streets. They will be surprised, delighted, and sometimes shocked by their visual confrontation with indigenous peoples and their, our, environment.

After a few minutes, Yannick's customer returns. Yannick bends over the table and, wishing us “bon appetit,” hands me the festival programme and murmurs, “He is the Director of the Festival.” And who knows, in a village that can launch a multibillion Euro business, one has a sense of infinite possibilities.

La Gacilly is on the eastern side of the Morbihan in Brittany, about 60 kilometres from Rennes and 80 kilometres from Nantes. There are ariports at both cities. 

The 5th Photo Festival, People and Nature opened on May 30 and closes September 30, 2008.

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About Christopher Kimberley