Dr Berny Sèbe presenting a guest lecture at the Cinéma Empire.
Dr Berny Sèbe presenting a guest lecture at the Cinéma Empire.

Drawing upon his AHRC-funded project on the role of fortifications in the colonial conquest and administration of arid spaces, as well as his specialism as a renowned researcher and photographer of deserts, Dr Sèbe contributed to the festival through two complementary initiatives.

Together with his co-investigator Dr Alexander Morrison (New College, Oxford), he delivered a guest lecture entitled Empires of Emptiness: Deserts from Conquest to Decolonisation (‘Les empires du vide- : de la conquête à la décolonisation des déserts’ in the original text), which was scheduled in the aptly-named Cinéma Empire, an Art Déco cinema on the banks of the river Meurthe.

Dr Sèbe also curated a major photographic exhibition for the festival, exploring the articulation between human life and aridity in the Sahara. Featuring high-impact images from Berny Sèbe and his father, multiple award-winning photographer Alain Sèbe, as well as research-based text written by Berny Sèbe, Taming the Desert: Saharan Trajectories (‘Apprivoiser le désert : Trajectoires sahariennes’) conveys visitors to a visual, geographical and historical immersion into the complex workings of the Saharan way of life.

If you have ever thought that the desert is lifeless and empty, the exhibition Apprivoiser le désert [Taming the desert] will change your views radically. Uniquely based on research and original photographic material covering the last 60 years, it unveils how the Sahara is a vast inter-connected space brimming with life and activity. Breaking old clichés about the desert’s stillness, it shows how vigorous trade and agriculture remain possible despite the challenges posed by the harsh environment. With considerable underground resources –including water– becoming more easily accessible thanks to modern technology, and renewable energies constantly on the rise, the Sahara is a land of promise for the future.

Professor Dr Berny Sèbe

Through 31 billboard-sized panels displayed in the Cloister of Saint-Dié Cathedral, the public could become acquainted with salient features of survival strategies implemented by human beings in this rather inhospitable environment: cautious water management, the crucial importance of mobility, the place of subsistence agriculture, trade, underground resources or the irruption of modernity were examined through a powerful combination of text and photographs. Press coverage of the event, as well as comments on the visitors’ book, reveal enthusiastic reception of this initiative, which was a first in the festival’s history.

With 50,000 visitors welcomed every year in Saint Dié (itself a town of 20,000 inhabitants), the Festival international de Géographie (FIG) is one of the most significant social sciences and humanities festivals aimed at a wide audience in France, attracting scholars and researchers from all around Europe, who deliver more than 150 lectures and roundtables in just three days.