With no cameras allowed in French courtrooms, artists bring trials to life

·4-min read

Look for images from the trial of the 2015 Paris attacks – or any trial in France – and you’ll find sketches and paintings of judges and defendants, but no photos. France has banned cameras from courtrooms, so the visual record falls to courtroom illustrators, who find themselves midway between artists and journalists

“What I am trying to do is capture an instant in time, and to describe it as quickly as possible, so my painting is sometimes a bit awkward, but it’s honest,” says Joris Le Dain, one of a few dozen courtroom artists working in France.

He has been illustrating cases in courtrooms in Brittany and the Loire Atlantique regions for ten years, mostly for the Ouest France newspaper, which recruited him out of art school.

This story first appeared in the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen here:

Le Dain was attracted to the idea of having live models to paint, and he is probably the only courtroom artist in France to work with oil paints.

“I bring the eye of an artist,” he says about his work.

“I don't start painting straight away. When the defendant first arrives in the courtroom, they don't know where they are and what's going on. So I wait until they get their bearings and then I can see their typical expression or attitude.”

Artist or journalist?

While Le Dain approaches his work as an artist, Dominique Lemaré, who worked as a courtroom illustrator for 40 years, says she also contributed as a journalist.

“I really felt like a real journalist and not just somebody who showed up to draw,” she says.

A courtroom artist generally works in tandem with a journalist, who indicates what kind of images are needed to illustrate an article or television report.

Lemarié started her career in the United States, working with a reporter from a local television station in Washington. When he was away on another story, she would take notes, and provide details for his story.

She moved back to France in the 1980s, and covered many of the big trials of the last few decades.

The public is not allowed in the courtroom "so I want them to feel the ambiance: how it feels to be inside the courtroom,” Lemarié says.

Courtroom artists need to convey what cannot be filmed: namely the defendants and the judges. Lawyers will often make statements outside the courtroom, so it's less important to sketch them.

“I try to have my judges, or witnesses or attorneys moving. I say, ‘OK, that’s the move I want’. Then I use the background of anatomy, muscles and bones, to bring it to life.”

Visual storytelling

France has a strong visual culture, with children starting to read comics, or bande dessinées, and cartoons and caricatures in the news.

There are engravings of courtroom scenes dating back to the 15th century, though the profession came into its own with the development of the printing press and mass media in the 19th century.

The advent of photography threatened to put courtroom artists out of business, but noisy cameras with their bright flashes were so distracting that many judges banned them.

France passed a law officially banning cameras and recordings in 1954, after the murder trial of Gaston Dominici, which drew hordes of journalists from around the world.

Empathy, and burnout

“I know some judges like the fact that we’re there drawing,” says Lemarié. “It brings some warmth to the courtroom.”

Illustrators sit very close to the stand, so she says she can make eye contact with witnesses, and she sometimes interacts with the victims’ families.

But the closeness takes a toll. The cases for which artists are called in are usually the most dramatic – murders, corruption, terrorism.

Le Dain says that to cope, he tries to spend as little time in the courtroom as possible.

Lemarié would often try to detach herself and think about other things during the most difficult testimony. And in 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in which many cartoonists – her friends – were killed, she decided to retire.

“After 40 years, I’d had enough,” she said. “I heard the worst possible things.”

Court artists here to stay

While courts in many countries are starting to allow cameras, France’s constitutional council ruled as recently as 2019 that the ban can remain in place here.

Lemarié warns that if ever photos are allowed in courtrooms, lawyers will have difficulty convincing witnesses to come forward.

"They will say, 'No, I don't want to be on TV!'. When people take the stand, they're scared," she says.

They do not have the same reaction to a painting, which she says is "an interpretation. It's not a picture. A picture is real, but a drawing is different."

This story first appeared in the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen here.

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