A conversation with courtroom artist Noëlle Herrenschmidt
You are a highly accomplished courtroom artist. Could you tell us a little bit more about how you came to work in this field?
I began my career as a courtroom artist late, at the age of 47, after having worked as an illustrator for the Bayard Presse publishing company for more than fifteen years. I felt that I had done enough of this kind of work, in a publishing company for children. I was bored and I was looking for a change.
I discovered the vocation of being a courtroom artist when I went through the door of the criminal court of the Palais de Justice in Paris. I was an accredited journalist and I sat down on the benches with my colleagues, just near to the prosecutor. I immediately loved the atmosphere of a trial, this closed world, like a theatre, with each actor in place, but where an accused person risks his or her freedom. Since then, I have not left the courtrooms, and the justice system. I had found my second way.
As both an artist and participatory observer at trials, how do you see your own role at the trials?
Film recordings and photography are not allowed in French courtrooms. Courtroom artists complement the work of the court journalists who, minute by minute, cover the sessions. With their twists and their moments of tensions. A trial is always a time charged with emotion; in the course of the interrogations, you discover a story, but you don’t know the end of the play.
Guilty? Not guilty?
In general, we are in a privileged position: we can see everything, the court, the accused, the witnesses, the public. We serve as a link: the reader will discover the scene through our eyes. There are as many viewpoints as there are courtroom artists. Everyone chooses his or her angle, with his or her own sensitivity.
What do you find are the greatest challenges that you are confronted with in your work? And what are its greatest rewards or most interesting moments - what is it in particular that you love about your work?
Nothing is a challenge, I am capable of drawing everything, that is what I am there for. The rewards are irrelevant; so much the better if you are being read. But I am completely absorbed in the action, I am like a sponge that records the experience of each minute. The drawing goes at the same pace as the action, and you have to be quick. To forbid yourself something, anything, is out of the question. Violence, tears, and sometimes laughter: you draw what you see, tragic or pathetic. It's the human condition, in its entirety.
Of all the trials that you attended and have documented, which one was the most memorable and why?
For my first trial, I was “fortunate” enough to make drawings of the trial of Klaus Barbie, which was the first ‘crimes against humanity’ trial in France, in 1987. It was a decisive experience: for two months, victims of the Nazis were seen coming to tell the court, for the first time, what they had experienced: torture, grief, hunger, fear. In the presence of an impassive defendant who quickly left the courtroom, leaving his seat empty during the evidence. And what evidence!
The drawing came on its own, swept by the words and the ills of the witnesses. One is carried by what one hears. It was there that I came to understand that a drawing can say everything, without constraint. It serves as a conduit for emotions. This is the foundation of my work, and it was with the Barbie trial that I discovered what I was capable of expressing. Without limits.
By the time of the trial of Maurice Papon in 1997, the second ‘crimes against humanity’ trial in France, I had gained a maturity that allowed me to withstand six months of trial proceedings, the longest in the judicial history of France. The length of the trial allowed me to draw everything, the detention sites, the crowd, the court, the witnesses, the jurors, the accused, the lawyers, with complete freedom.
I have the memory of having created on paper, with pencil and watercolor, a complete testimony, a piece of our history.
You are currently working on a book about the Boston Courthouse, which is part of a larger project that you are undertaking together with Judge Douglas P. Woodlock and Jon Spack of the Discovering Justice Program. As someone who is incredibly familiar with French courts and the French legal system, was there something that struck you as particularly noteworthy about the Boston Courthouse or more generally the American legal system?
I learnt when I landed in Boston that I absolutely had to forget everything I knew or thought I knew. To have a fresh view, and not to try to compare. To observe, to put yourself at the service of what you see, to ask questions so as to try to understand. Above all, as in France, to recount the experience of a court in a different legal system. Humanity is the same everywhere, and there is the same passion to try to record the experience of each individual.
The difference of language is like a barrier that can be swept away by a brushstroke.
I was fortunate to have discovered a completely human legal system in Boston, very different from the one I found in Chicago. I cannot say that I know the American legal system. But I had the same emotions in drawing it, emotions that transcend borders because, once again, justice is about the human condition, in its entirety.
And this is what I am passionate about as a courtroom artist -- to recount this humanity.