Imperial Traces

The record of the former French colonies is controversial. But it is also rich with built relics, orphaned by history.


The history of the former French colonies is nothing if not controversial. For many in contemporary France, the entire era is a difficult subject; the successive conquest of foreign places, the claiming of lands from Quebec to the Caribbean, from North Africa to India to China, belongs to an era of imperial ambition that is now discredited or worse. But the colonial era is also ripe for historical narrative, for tales of adventurous men and women setting out into the unknown, sailing to the other side of the world, seeking fortune and freedom, a new life and a new world.

That social and political era is over; but the visible evidence of French presence persists. In cities from Casablanca to Pondicherry to Shanghai, on the island of Madagascar, in the countryside of Cambodia, there remain buildings both modest and grand, in varying states of decay. But even the relics are suggestive. Climatic constraints and local materials stimulated French architects and engineers, as did the ever present inspiration of indigenous and vernacular buildings; distance from home gave the architects greater stylistic freedom and range.

For the past couple of years I have been traveling to the former colonies of France to document the relics, to tell the diverse stories of constructions that have been, in a sense, orphaned by history. This series of photographs, a portion of which is presented here, is part of my ongoing exploration of memory and suspended time.

Thomas Jorion, “Imperial Traces,” Places Journal, January 2015. Accessed 28 Sep 2023.

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