The death of 84-year-old René Robert, a Swiss photographer who captured today’s biggest flamenco stars, could be considered a statistic, just another of the more than 500 people who die each year on the streets of France. What sets Robert apart from the rest of these homeless, lonely victims is that first, he was not homeless, and second, he was a renowned professional photographer. Indeed, it was because of this that his friends shared the circumstances of his death.
On January 19, shortly after 9 p.m., Robert was taking his evening stroll through the Parisian district of Place de la République, a bustling center of the French capital that is almost always packed with people. But at 89 rue de Turbigo, he fell to the ground. We don’t know if it’s because he slipped or if he got dizzy.
And that’s where he stayed: lying on the sidewalk between a bottle shop and an optometrist, unable to move and in full view of Parisians rushing home after work, passers-by going in and out of restaurants and cafes and tourists.
The hours have passed. The streets emptied. Robert was still there. It’s easy to imagine that to passers-by he was just one of the many people in Paris, and in so many cities in wealthy countries, who live on the streets. In these cases, it is often not known if they are sleeping or having problems.
At 6 a.m. on January 20, someone saw him and called the Paris fire brigade, one of the city’s emergency medical services. But it was too late. Nine hours had passed since his fall. An ambulance arrived. When René Robert, the photographer of flamenco icons such as Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía, was admitted to Cochin Hospital, doctors were unable to resuscitate him. The cause of death was “extreme hypothermia”, according to firefighters. In other words, he froze to death.
Robert’s friend, Michel Mompontet, a journalist, described him as “discreet”. “He was very attentive to everyone, funny, but a man of few words. He spoke in a soft voice. Like many photographers, he didn’t like to talk much. He always wore a hat. For years, he always had a cigarette in his mouth, then he stopped. He was very elegant, in the flamenco style, with a polka dot scarf. It was both moral and physical elegance. When you saw him, you wondered, ‘Who is this man? Is it someone important?
Momontet met Robert at the end of the 1980s. Both were regulars at flamenco concerts in Paris: Camarón, Lole y Manuel, Enrique Morente, Paco de Lucía. “This small and discreet man was always with the artists, he was their friend and he photographed them”, says Mompontet. “Since he was a very close friend of Paco de Lucía, for example, for us, at 20, he was our way of getting closer to artists. What’s funny is that he barely spoke Spanish, he knew it a little, but the artists understood him. It was a curious language, a mixture of French and Spanish that was neither French nor Spanish.
René Robert had a close relationship with all the singers, guitarists and dancers. He has been photographing them since the 1960s, when he discovered flamenco in a Left Bank club frequented by Pablo Picasso and other Spaniards living in Paris. The club was called Le Catalan.
Little artists and big names, mediocre performers and flamenco geniuses have all been photographed by Robert’s camera. Always in black and white. “In black and white there is a tragic side that seems more suited to flamenco than color,” he said in an interview with the music site Music Alhambra. In the same interview, when asked what he was looking for in his photos, he replied: “I expect strong moments, when expression is at its height. […]. It’s the extreme side of flamenco artists that moves me.
His photos appear in the books Flamenco, Rage and Grace (or, Flamenco, Rage and Grace) and Flamenco Attitudesand thousands more of his images were also donated to the National Library of France in 2021. In an article published on deflamenco.com, Mompontet described the treasure as “a real treasure trove for flamenco lovers, but everything for all visual art enthusiasts”. It was thanks to Mompontet that the news of Robert’s death caught the public’s attention and had an impact beyond his circle of friends and France.
On Tuesday, Mompontet spoke on French public television about the death of his friend. “Before lecturing others and accusing anyone, I have to answer a question that makes me uncomfortable: am I 100% sure that if I had been confronted with the same scene , a man on the ground, I would have stopped? Would I ever walk around a homeless person I see lying against a door? Not being 100% sure is a pain that follows me. But we are in a hurry, we are in a hurry, we have our lives and we look away, ”he said.
Mompontet also recounts how, after a few days of searching, they found the person who noticed the man on the ground and called the Paris fire brigade. He was a homeless man from the neighborhood who wouldn’t reveal his name.