Capturing history with Ian Borthwick

Journalist, photographer, award-winner, and friend to many in the professional rugby arena, Paris-based, yet Christchurch-born Ian Borthwick has a way with words. Metropol Deputy Editor Nina Tucker sits down with him to uncover his latest project.

Imagine the bustling cities of the world, swarming and polluted, before coming to a standstill during the height of Covid-19. On one of Paris’ busiest roads, Ian Borthwick, too, came to a standstill, staring down at a deserted Arc de Triomphe as he made his way home after commentating a Six Nations Rugby Match live on French radio.“There was nobody. Not a single car. To such an extent, I stopped my car on the side of the road and got out and took a photograph.” Ian held a media pass that allowed him entry to the city, while Parisians were caged inside their homes. What he expected to be a one-day pass, Ian was instead granted access to roam the streets with no restrictions. “When I looked at the fine print, it actually said it was valid for all of France, for the duration of the confinement, and by all means of transport.”

“Eerie and disturbing,” yet incredibly “unique,” Ian described it as, where birdsong was no longer drowned out and geese would fly low through the city. Paris was deserted and lonely, while Ian’s creative mind was alight with photographic opportunities. Paris Silenced was born.

Background Arc de Triomphe image:
Ian Borthwick – Untroubled Waters

Ian’s photography process incurred a tapestry of preparation to generate a sublime result. “I was really envisioning the photo before going. Knowing what time of day I want to be there, knowing what I want it to look like and getting the photo that I want to try and convey the emotions that scene provoked,” he explains.

It was like nothing before, a little slice of history Ian had all to himself. “Even during the German occupation of Paris in the Second World War, you never saw that,” he adds. When lockdowns lifted and a Paris devoid of life came to a close, Ian felt relieved. “A city is made for people, it’s the people that make the life of the city,” he remembers.

In a matter of coincidences and long-standing connections, Ian chose Christchurch to be the first to view Paris Silenced. His brother Jim Borthwick, Christchurch-based and a lover of fine arts too, revealed Ian’s imagery to curator Deborah McCormick, and her intrigue sparked. The idea of an exhibition was born. A career spent in many different locations, a camera in hand at each, meant many of Ian’s images were up for consideration, although, a desolate Paris became a clear winner. “We decided it was best to focus on this particular chapter in the history of Paris. Because a guy from Christchurch, who was able to travel around Paris, freely, when nobody else could do it, made such a unique story,” Ian recalls. These moments are frozen in time and in photographs, documenting history. While also, through the photographer’s craft, conveying intense emotion.

Choosing the Great Hall to host his photos, as a space that was once his lecture theatre when studying at the University of Canterbury, Ian’s location choice has a myriad of meanings. “It is quite amazing to be back here. It’s really back to the roots.”

He had an interest and a Kodak ‘box’ brownie camera, yet photography never manifested until he became a reporter in France and could dabble in visual journalism. In recent years, Ian returned to the lens, even releasing a book on New Zealand Rugby in French, “people liked my photos so much I thought I should start working on that again.”

A career shaped through “a love of rugby and a love of the language,” Ian says. Playing in the First XV at Christchurch Boys’ High School and dabbling in French before studying further at university, it was an unlikely yet completely prosperous combination. His dream to experience France turned into working for the embassy, before coming home to New Zealand and landing a job as the interpreter for the French rugby team on their tour of New Zealand in 1984. Following some motivational words and a job prospect from a French journalist, Ian returned to France, beginning a career in journalism that would span ten world cups and over 500 test matches at many prominent French and English newspapers, television, and radio channels.

Having spent so much time writing in French, Ian would soon second-guess himself when writing and translating stories into English. Becoming a better French writer than most native speakers, Ian’s language skills were sought after, and he soon taught Dan Carter and Johnny Sexton the language, being a considerable agent in their moves to join French teams, especially during a stint as media manager for French team Racing 92. Ian explains his education and passion stood him “in good stead,” to write articles in French, let alone to churn out instantaneous, sharp writing for match reports. “I was later told that a lot of my copy was better than and cleaner than a lot of my French colleagues,” he laughs.

Ian Borthwick and Dan Carter

While translating Nelson Mandela’s speech live on French television or winning Sports Book of the Year at the French International Sports Journalism Awards might seem at the helm when looking back over his career, Ian’s proudest moment was spent celebrating with friends. At the launch of his book, the All Blacks were in Paris and Ian could rejoice in the book release surrounded by the All Blacks coaching staff, and then-current and former All Blacks and French players.

The exhibition, which came to fruition earlier in March, would become a high contender for Ian’s held-close achievements. Before he returns to France in May, Ian plans to keep his camera close, to capture the drama of New Zealand’s autumn colours and unpolluted night skies to photograph the Milky Way.

Sharing his slice of history with the world, Ian invites Metropol readers to view a selection of the exhibition from 20 March at Mods Merivale, 141 Aikmans Road. View the collection online from the global launch where limited editions can be viewed for sale at

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