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On June 1, 2015 the city of Paris began removing the 45 tons of love-locks from the bridges over the Seine river. But where did the locks come from and why are they locked onto the bridges?

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Love in Paris, the city of romance: two sweethearts on a bridge over the Seine. They write their names on a padlock. They hook it to an available spot in the bridge’s wire-mesh parapet, the railing that runs along its edges, and fasten the lock, securing it—and, they hope, their love—forever. They throw the key in the river.

While spending months photographing the bridges on the Seine for my new book, Bridges of Paris, I frequently witnessed this ritual. I was helplessly charmed every time. After the key is tossed in the Seine, most lovers kiss, hug, and linger at what has now become their favorite spot in Paris. Many photographs are taken. One couple even had a video camera on a tripod documenting them taking their selfies.

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The lovers wander off, holding each other, punch-drunk with emotion. They stagger to their next destination, perhaps a nightclub or their hotel room. Surely the lock will persist for all time. Or at least until the fence, under the weight of thousands of heavy locks, rips free of the bridge and tumbles into the Seine.

Railings were originally put on the bridges to prevent children from falling into the river. Now the danger comes more from the risk of a lock-heavy fence falling onto a boat full of tourists.

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“I read that one of Paris’s bridges collapsed!” a friend emailed me from the States in June 2014. When I arrived on the bridge making news, the Pont des Arts, I found only one small section of the chain-link railing, over-loaded with locks, hanging over the Seine. It didn’t break free or fall, but hung there until city workers removed it. Plywood was put up to cover the gap. The bridge’s structural integrity was never in question.

However, when the lock-filled wire-mesh of the Pont des Arts’ railing ripped free, Parisians lost their tolerance. The love-lock ritual may fuel the French capital’s reputation as the City of Love, but not everyone finds it charming.

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Love-locks arrived in Paris in 2008. Over the last six years an array of locks—antique locks, bike locks, chain locks, handcuffs, and other tokens of devotion have been attached to bridge railings, wire-mesh panels, lamps, signs, and sculptures; any place that could be fastened upon. Some couples have planned ahead and arrive in Paris with a personally engraved lock. A few choose combination locks, which certainly have their advantages.

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The Pont des Arts was the city’s first love-lock bridge. When the municipal government cleared the locks off the bridge in 2010, the tradition continued on the Pont de l’Archevêché (Archbishop’s Bridge), with its romantic view of Notre Dame. Both bridges were targeted because it is easy to fasten locks onto the wire-mess panels of the parapet. Once these bridges were choked with padlocks, the ritual went viral and spread to other bridges.

On my visits to Paris, beginning in 2010, and then during my year-long photographic sabbatical there in 2014, I watched the lovers’ ritual display an increasingly dark side. Bridges that were once artfully cluttered had turned into sickening masses of tumorous metal.

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The advent of love-locks is part mystery, part cultural phenomenon. One catalyst was Italian author Federico Moccia’s teen novel, Tengo ganas de ti (I Want You), published in 2006. Two young Roman lovers immortalized their bond by securing a lock inscribed with their names to the Ponte Milvio, the oldest bridge in the Eternal City. They then threw the key into the Tiber.

But the tradition pre-dates I Want You. A tale from the First World War tells the story of Nada, a young schoolteacher in the Serbian spa resort of Vrnjačka Banja. Her soldier sweetheart leaves for the front and, having arrived in Greece, falls for a local woman. Nada dies of a broken heart.

Young women in the spa town, fearing a similar fate, began fastening locks with their and their lover’s names on the city’s Most Ljubavi (Bridge of Love), where Nada and her fickle boyfriend used to meet. Decades later, the tale was popularized by Desanka Maksimovic’s poem, “Prayer for Love.” Today, the Most Ljubavi swarms with as many love-locks as any of the bridges of Paris.

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Padlocks themselves have been used for thousands of years. The love-locks on the Great Wall of China, in Taiwan, and in South Korea continue a supposedly ancient tradition: love-locks are fixed to a long chain, an “endless chain,” assuring the locked-love will endure for as long as the length of the chain.

This Asian version of the love-lock tradition was taken up by the wild-west mining town of Lovelock, Nevada, named for Welshman George Lovelock, who founded it in 1868. In Lovers Lock Plaza, behind the town Court House, couples can attach their lock to an “endless chain.” The town’s own love-lock tradition began on Valentine’s Day, 2006, the same year the Italian teen novel was published.

Love-locks have sprouted all over the world, including London, Budapest, Berlin, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Charles Bridge in Prague. Each city is finding their own way to support or deny this popular trend. Love-lock “trees” now provide an alternative on the Luzhkov Bridge in Moscow and the North Seoul Tower in South Korea. Websites offer metal trees and lock-dispensing vending machines to make things more convenient.

Trash or treasure? In Paris, the locks are now considered “visual pollution,” a blight on the city’s architectural history. The heavy metal locks not only weigh down the bridges but damage their railings, lampposts, and sculptures. Tossed keys litter and pollute the river.

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More importantly, there is a symbolic risk here, one perhaps more at the heart of Parisians’ objections. Love, like life, is a transient experience, always flowing, always changing.

“Love flows like the Seine through Paris, it can never be locked.” Madame Marlae told me over a glass of wine sitting near the Pont des Arts. “We can’t possess love, rather, we are in love, like being in a river.” But one’s fear of change, and anxiety over life’s impermanence create a natural human urge to try to create stability and lock things down.

Contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou has written that love implies constant risk. Love is happily-ever-after only in fairy tales. Believing that a commodity such as a metal lock can secure two people’s love forever is a possibly dangerous fantasy. A lock is far from an ideal symbol of affection. Love is not a prison or possession. True lovers protect each other’s freedom.

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According to the tradition, as long as the lock remains fastened, love will last. This may be bad news for all those who have locked their love to the bridges over the Seine. Except perhaps, for those who wisely chose a combination lock.

Paris has removed all the locks from the Pont des Arts and is doing the same on the other bridges. As new love often replaces old, lock-filled wire-mesh panels are being replaced with lock-proof clear acrylic panels. As a concession the City of Love will still permit limited love-locking to the railings on the riverside near the bridge.

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The love-lock fad will fade away as surely as love will always triumph in Paris. The beautiful crossings over the Seine will regain their classic architectural beauty. Lovers will continue to couple on the bridges of Paris, hold hands, kiss, and gaze into each other’s eyes. Forevermore they will make commitments beyond their understanding, just as the waters beneath perpetually flow ever onward.

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When the time comes, I’ll be back in Paris to create photographs for the second edition of my book: Bridges of Paris Sans Serrures (Without Locks).

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