Ah Paris. Our favorite destination. It had been three years
since we last visited, so Anne and I decided to return recently for a week-long
stay. Remembering the beautiful light one gets in Paris during the fall,
I decided to take along some serious camera gear. By serious I mean my 600
mm F5.6 Nikon lens, which is not something I normally haul around on vacation
because of its considerable size. Bringing the 600 meant I had to include
a tripod, so this was growing into a significant commitment. But, I was up
It rained much of the first few days so I left my cameras in the hotel while
we visited the Musée d'Orsay and Musée Rodin, among others.
Finally, about five days into our trip the sun came out and I headed down
the hill to the Ile de la Cité to see what I could find. Looking across
the Pont Louis Philippe and back up the hill there was a very nice view of
the Panthéon rising up out of the Latin Quartier. I took off my backpack
and began to set up the 600 on my tripod. I had just started when two gendarmes
voiced their objections: (all of this in French of course):
"I'm sorry monsieur but you can't use that tripod here."
"In Paris, you cannot use a tripod without a permit."
"A permit? I need a permit to use a tripod?"
"Because you are a professional"
"But these pictures are for personal use."
"Non, you must have autorisation."
"Where do I get that?"
"From the Mairie de Paris"
"And where is that?"
très simple" as they gestured emphatically in the general direction
of the Paris City Hall.
Feeling a little too intimidated to take on the Paris bureaucracy, I packed
up my gear and decided to shoot without the tripod for the rest of the day.
The following morning, in a different Arrondissement, and later in the Cimetière
du Montparnasse (currently home to Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras and Jean-Paul
Sartre) I risked the tripod again. Busted both times.
that afternoon I headed down to the Mairie de Paris to see about getting
a tripod permit, thinking it couldn't be that difficult. First I try the
main entrance in the Place de L'Hôtel de Ville, but the guards send
me around the block to the rear of the building. I tell the rear guard that
I am trying to get a tripod permit and he informs me I need to see one Mme.
"Just through this courtyard, yes that way, make a left, then a right, take
the "F" ascenseur (elevator) and the "J" escalier (staircase) to the 5th
floor, Room 531."
While I never did find "F" or "J", I somehow made my way up to the 5th floor,
however, Room 531 was nowhere to be found. Realizing I was probably in the
wrong wing (thinking all the while that, short of the Louvre, the Mairie
must be the largest building in Paris), I began to ask anyone who would listen
how to find Room 531. After a few mis-starts, a man took pity and escorted
me to the hidden office. Upon asking for Mme Brauner I am told (by two very
severe women) that I cannot see her.
"You must write her a letter."
"But I am in a hurry, I need a permit for today."
you may send her a fax detailing when and where (the exact corner) you want
to use a tripod and explaining what you are planning to photograph and why."
"But I am a tourist; I want to photograph everything, not just one subject
on a certain corner. Can't I just see her for a moment and explain this."
"Non, you must apply in writing."
We went back and forth for some minutes before, in a final bid to get rid
of me, they call in a man from another office, explaining to him what I need.
He then asks me to follow him. We traverse the now familiar halls of the
5th floor once again, when abruptly he tells me to take this ascenseur down
to the 1st floor, go this way and that and I will find what I need. I ask
him if that's where I can get a permit for a tripod and says,
he didn't have any idea what I was trying to do, and by now, I didn't have
much clarity myself, but off I went once again in search of the seemingly
impossible. For another hour I dragged myself (and 30-plus pounds of camera
gear) up and down stairs and through the corridors of Parisian bureaucracy.
Of course all conversations were in take-no-prisoners-rapid-fire French (mine
is not very good even at tourist speed). After being bounced from department
to department, I finally found myself in the office/studio of the city's
municipal photographers where a very nice young woman, puffing on her Gauloise,
she would try and help. After a series of phone conversations (each one telling
her that "non, this was not the correct department") she spoke with someone
in the Préfecture de Police who informed her that a permit was no
longer required to use a tripod.
"Great" I said, "can I get a letter from someone?"
"Non, they will not give you a letter."
"But who will tell the gendarmes in the streets?
"Oh, they already know it."
"No they don't because they keep stopping me."
"You must stand up for your rights and convince them."
am just leaving, defeated, when a young man walks in. After a brief conference
with Mlle. Gauloise, he reaches into his desk, pulls out a letter on official
letterhead detailing (en français of course) the rules for using a
tripod in the city of Paris. I finally depart the ancient Mairie, triumphantly
carrying a copy of the letter safely tucked into my passport. A quick stop
at the Paris version of Kinko's for a dozen copies and I head back to my
hotel feeling triumphant and more than just a little smug.
The next morning with copies of my cherished document packed into each of
the many pockets of my photo vest, I head out into the City of Light hoping
some gendarme will be foolish enough to challenge me. I catch the Metro at
Cardinal Lemoine and after changing at Sévres-Babylone I arrive at
Abbesse, the nearest Metro stop to my destination, the Cimetière de
Montmartre (Edgar Degas and François Truffaut). Montmarte is a particularly
cemetery because, in addition to its large and plentiful trees, the grounds
are spread across a hillside. This frequent change of elevation makes for
wonderful vantage points.
As soon as I passed through the gates I saw the perfect shot: two women sitting
on a bench at the end of a long row of trees. I'd just begun to set up my
"I'm sorry monsieur but you can't use that tripod here."
"In Paris, one can't use a tripod without a permit."
"Yes I can!"
"No, you cannot."
"Yes I can, I have a letter here that says it's OK."
"Let me see it please"
quickly pull out my document. As he reads the letter I am debating whether
to continue setting up my shot for fear it will disappear any second. I decide
I'd best wait and see what he says.
"Ohhh, see here, this does not apply to cemeteries."
"It doesn't? Show me."
Whereupon he points to the fine print at the end of the letter which provides
certain exclusions, including, but not limited to "parcs et jardins, cimetières,
canaux, berges de la Seine, ...Jardin des Plantes, des Tuileries, du Luxembourg,
du Palais Royal et le Musée du Louvre, etc." -- in other words, half
of Paris. For these locations you need the specific permission of the person
in charge of that site.
"Bon, where's the person in charge of Cimetière de Montmartre?"
"He's at lunch."
"When will he be back?"
"In an hour or so, you can wait for him in the office waiting room."
"Why don't I continue taking photos for another hour, without my tripod of
course, and then speak with him after he returns."
"No, you cannot take any photos."
"Un moment s'il vous plais, doesn't this letter say I only need to get permission
to use a tripod? Where does it say I need permission just to take photographs?"
We argued back and forth, with me pointing to another tourist with a camera
and asking if he had permission.
"Why can he take pictures and I cannot?"
"Because you are a professional."
am a professional because I have a tripod? These photos I'm taking are for
He was all for locking me up but I finally convinced him to ask his supervisor
who said of course I could take photos, I just couldn't use a tripod without
permission of the head of the cimetière, who of course wouldn't really
be back from lunch for hours. After all, this is Paris and the Parisians
have their own ways of doing things. That's one reason we love them so much.