Annie Ernaux and the Lives of Others

A new exhibition draws on the work of Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux and her remarkable ability to capture and question the transitory moments of everyday life.

Inspired by themes explored in Annie Ernaux’s book Exteriors, writer Lou Stoppard has curated a new exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP).

In Exteriors, the Nobel Prize-winning author details her encounters between the years 1985 and 1992, as she moves through life living in Cergy-Pontoise, northwest of Paris. At MEP, Extérieurs: Annie Ernaux & la Photographie celebrates Ernaux’s anthropologist-like ability to document often-overlooked moments of everyday life through the perceptive intimacy of her writing.

The exhibition showcases excerpts of the book as pieces of art, intertwined with photographs documenting similar everyday scenes. By bringing Ernaux’s inner thoughts and observations into a physical space, Stoppard questions the ways in which we interact with photographic writing versus photography.

How did the idea for the exhibition come about? Was it Annie’s writing that evoked this idea of working with a literary text as a piece of art?

LS When I first read Exteriors, my immediate feeling was one of surprise that no one from a photographic institution or museum had ever engaged with that text. I then approached the director of MEP, Simon Baker, and told him I was thinking about this idea of these texts as photographs and wanted to research this some more. It was fortunate timing because MEP was beginning a residency program about engaging with their collection as a stimulus for new work.

Did you ever consider tying Exteriors to any other mediums, or was it an absolute that it would be photography?

LS I felt very sure that it was photography because that’s what Annie says herself. At the beginning of Exteriors, she talks about trying to write as if making images. This was such a fascinating phrase because there’s so much to unpack within that: what are the properties that she’s connecting to photography? How does this relate to Annie’s fascination with reality? It also felt like a tribute to her. This was a goal of hers, to write as if making images, so what happens when we honour that goal and treat these texts as images? It felt like there was a back story but also that this was a new proposition. There was this writer who was directly trying to make images, then we were going to respond by displaying them as images.

It’s almost a collaboration rather than imposing your idea of something onto someone else’s work.

LS Exactly, I felt like I was really responding to her work. It was a lovely project.

Dolorès Marat, La femme aux gants, 1987 Collection MEP, Paris.

How did the approval from Annie to utilize her work in this manner come about?

LS I was very fortunate. I told Jacques Testard [founder of Fitzcarraldo Editions and publisher of Ernaux’s English translations] about the project, and he kindly introduced me to Annie. I told her about the project and even though, at this point, she hadn’t won the Nobel Prize, she was still an icon in France and so beloved that I didn’t know if she would even reply. However, she was very inquisitive and really engaged with the project. I think she enjoyed the novelty of it. She said to me early on that she often gets compared to other writers, so I think for her to be treated as a photographer and taken out of the world in which she’s typically seen in was intriguing to her. Photography is also something that she has shown an interest in across her writing, often referring to her memory in quite photographic ways, using words like ‘images’ or ‘evidence.’

It sounds like you were very in tune with the way her mind works.

LS It did really become a project about a way of looking at the world and a way of engaging with the world. Because so much of this series relates to Annie’s belief that we can learn much about, to use her words, “the shame and violence” within society through observation of things that are very easily and frequently dismissed as banal. She takes a keen interest in spaces, communities, and interactions that can often be overlooked and gives weight to these through recording.

It was interesting to notice how observant Annie was during those normal moments where people are just commuting from one place to the next. People are now so often on their phones during these moments, I wondered if there is a lack of observation and interaction now occurring …

LS I talked about how hard it would be for Annie to make some of these observations that she made now because a lot of the themes Annie depicts are people looking at one another or talking to each other and these often don’t occur anymore because we use that time to catch up on emails or texts. I also think this project is about the freedom and inclination to observe. Previously, Annie’s written about the confines of motherhood in terms of the ability to be out in the world, and I think Exteriors is specific because she wrote it when her children had grown up and she was able to have the time and headspace to observe the world. There’s a sense of motherhood that can turn your gaze away from the outside world and much more onto the small intimacies of your family. Something that’s interesting about Exteriors is the question that it asks about who gets to observe.

It’s almost as if Exteriors was a celebration of her world opening back up again.

LS Exactly. It’s funny because over the course of this project I had a child. Which was really fascinating because I felt my gaze kind of turn away from the outside world and I now know that feeling of being in the world but being much less present because you’re so focused on your child and making sure they’re okay. The book took on even more of a significance to me after this.

As readers, we feel as if we have a sense of who Annie is due to the personal nature of her writing. I wondered how your idea of her lined up with meeting her in real life?

 LS It was amazing. The first time I met her I went to her house in Cergy-Pontoise, which was incredible because I took the RER and it almost felt like moving within the book. Annie is also so warm, she has none of the sort of pomp or frostiness that someone of her position could very easily have. She was also very open with her ideas; it’s really fascinating talking to her because she has such conviction but also curiosity about what writing can be. But she’s really fun too! She has the most incredible laugh, she’s very playful, and it’s just such an honour to have spent time with her. I’m also very happy that she likes the exhibition, and she feels positively about it.

I found it interesting that, even though there were images within the exhibit that were taken in a variety of worldwide locations, they were still very much relevant to Annie’s themes. What was the decision behind including many cross-cultural references in the images?

LS Some of that has to do with the fact that Annie wrote about Cergy-Pontoise, with the distance of the suburbs from the centre, and the oddness of living in a new place that’s sprung up from nowhere, that’s bereft of memory. It didn’t feel like it had this entrenched French-ness to it, if anything, it’s more about modernity in a new town that could have been constructed anywhere. I think that’s why I felt that it wasn’t just about France because the way Annie writes about it is that it’s not a place that’s steeped in cultural history. Looking at it as this day-to-day experience of modernity in difference spaces felt interesting to me.

Was this also the reason that you included more modern images, outside of the scope of the years Annie wrote about?

LS Exactly. The themes Annie is speaking about in Exteriors feel really contemporary. Some of the things she’s engaging with, particularly around performance of identity and social inequality, are topics that are really important now.

During the process of comparing images and literature and bringing them together, did you notice anything about how we engage with both differently?

LS One thing I spent a lot of time thinking about was the idea that photographers’ photographs are somehow certain fragments of life. This is something that Susan Sontag writes about famously. The idea that a photograph is almost a piece of the world and how observational writing can never seem to manage to have that sense, which what Annie is trying to do with Exteriors. All the things you think about when you read a text in terms of the editing of it, the bias, the perspective, what happens when we apply this type of thinking to photography? I got quite fascinated by this conversation between the two, and this quest to tear off pieces of the world, which is something Annie is fascinated by. What happens when someone strives for this and what are the differences when one does this with image as opposed to text? I really see it as being a sort of open exhibition that’s really about asking questions.

Extérieurs: Annie Ernaux & la Photographie is on show in Paris at Maison Européenne de la Photographie until 25 May 2024.

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