“Need to talk.”
That kind of subject line on an email usually signals an impending breakup or a poor performance review, so I was a little apprehensive when I saw it atop a message Jean-François Leroy sent me on July 8, 2014.
Jean-François is the director of Visa pour l’Image, the world’s preeminent photojournalism festival held each year in Perpignan, France, showcasing some of the most powerful images from around the globe. It was there, in 2004, that Jean-François became one of the earliest supporters of my work on child marriage, exhibiting my project on Afghan women, many of them child brides, who had set themselves on fire in despair. Over the next decade, he continued to encourage my work on the Too Young to Wed project, hosting several more exhibitions on the topic.
But, now he needed to talk. And he wouldn’t tell me why until I met him three days later at L’Express, a French café in Manhattan. By the time we met, he was nearly bursting with excitement, and I quickly realized he’d summoned me to share good news.
The 13,000-square-foot space atop the Grande Arche de la Defense in Paris was being renovated, and Jean-François had been tapped to turn it into a premier gallery for photojournalism. The Grande Arche itself, opened in 1989 for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, was built as a monument to humanitarian ideals though tourists flocked to its roof primarily for the spectacular view it offered of the city. It would be years before the exhibition space opened, Jean-François said, but when it finally did, he wanted the inaugural exhibit to feature my Too Young to Wed project.
How do you say ‘no’ to something like that? You don’t. I didn’t hear another word about the gallery until November 2016, when he sent me pictures of the renovation in-progress and a note saying that I needed to prepare for a June 2017 opening. Never mind that my husband and I would be finalizing our adoption of two children from China only four months earlier – we had deadlines to meet!
The images from November show a cavernous concrete-and-steel interior flooded with natural light from glass exterior walls. It was impressive but I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the immensity of the space, titled L’Arche du Photojournalisme, until I saw it for myself earlier this month. Across moveable walls and the concrete façade of the interior, Jean-François and his team assembled 175 of my images and six short films, spanning 15 years and more than 10 countries. Notably, a full sixty-five percent of the photos featured have never before been exhibited! There is also a deeply moving side exhibition of photographs by Stanley Greene, a legend and close friend of Jean-François, who sadly passed away just weeks before the opening.
I was most awed by the exhibition’s largest prints, hanging like tapestries from the ceiling, making these girls giants among us, an impossible presence to ignore. It felt like they were really there, and I only wish they were.
The show, which opened June 1 and runs through Sept. 24, is complete with educational information about the dangers of child marriage and the efforts underway around the world to end the practice – including our work at our nonprofit organization of the same name Too Young to Wed. Many who attended the grand opening on June 15 told me they had no idea that child marriage was still an ongoing practice, let alone one that affects one girl every 2 seconds.
I am immensely grateful to Jean-François for his unflagging support over the years and this incredible opportunity to enlighten the public in a beautiful space atop a monument to humanity in the City of Lights. Merci beaucoup, mon ami. I’m so glad we met that afternoon at L’Express.
And most of all, I want to use this opportunity to thank every single beautiful, courageous, inspiring girl who agreed to share their sacred stories with me and my team over the years. I pray that each somehow understands the love and gratitude we feel toward them. They are heroines, one and all.
The exhibition prints were partially made possible through support from Canon.