The big picture: underwater cycling with Bruno Barbey | Photography

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In the obituaries of Bruno Barbey, among the greatest of photojournalists, who died aged 79 on 9 November, one quotation was ever-present: “Photography,” Barbey said, “is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world.”

The Frenchman’s catalogue of indelible images – of students hurling stones at police in Paris in May 1968, of kids in Northern Ireland facing off with British troops during the Troubles, of US marines driving through a desert of burning oilwells in Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf war – often spoke in the most extreme of human tongues. But Barbey resisted any idea of himself as a war photographer. Just as often, as here, he made his pictures articulate the quieter delight of surreal encounters.

Barbey took this photograph on a trip to the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean in 1991. “When travelling and photographing, you have to establish human contact while remaining discreet,” he said. “Luck sometimes plays a role too. This boy was cleaning his bicycle in a spring and playing with it; my luck was that he wore green shorts matching the colour of his bike.” There is something both beautiful and uncanny in the idea of the underwater cyclist; the longer you look at the boy beneath the glassy surface, the more the image takes on a storybook cast in its confusion of elements. Not unusually, in front of Barbey’s camera, the world resolves into something slightly mythical.

The son of a diplomat, Barbey learned many of the habits of his craft in the country of his birth, Morocco, where Islamic custom around the making of images made street photography a strategic challenge. “You have to be cunning as a fox,” Barbey said. “The photographer must learn to merge into walls. Photos must either be taken swiftly, with all the attendant risks, or only after long periods of infinite patience.”

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