Extérieurs. Annie Ernaux et la photographie. Entretien de Lou Stoppard avec Isabelle Roussel-Gillet

La Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP, Paris)

Lou Stoppard est une écrivaine et commissaire d’exposition britannique. Elle a écrit pour The Financial Times, Aperture, The New York Times et The New Yorker. Ses livres comprennent une étude sur le travail de la photographe de rue Shirley Baker, publiée par Mack en 2019, Pools, une exploration de la natation en photographie, publiée par Rizzoli en 2020, et Exteriors : Annie Ernaux and Photography, publiée par Mack en 2024, en même temps qu’une exposition du même nom à la MEP, à Paris. Son œuvre complète peut être explorée sur loustoppard.com.

Le 7 mars 2024, elle s’est entretenu avec Isabelle Roussel-Gillet à propos de cette exposition et nous tenons à la remercier pour le long entretien si généreux qu’elle lui a accordé, que vous pouvez lire ici à la suite. Pour prolonger votre lecture, un compte rendu de l’exposition est également à votre disposition sous la rubrique L’Exporateur.


Isabelle Roussel-Gillet (IRG) – Pour commencer, au seuil de l’exposition consacrée à Annie Ernaux et la photographie qui met en regard des extraits de son texte Journal du dehors (1993, réédition avec avant-propos en 1996) et 150 photographies du fonds de la MEP, il y a d’abord une affiche, un titre : pourquoi avez-vous choisi une photographie de Dolores Marat en affiche, et cette photographie en particulier ? 

Lou Stoppard (LS) – Amusingly, selecting the lead image for an exhibition is actually one of the rare moments of the show planning process where the curator is not so much the dominant voice. It’s where the press team, the museum director, the communication advisors all come together and voice their opinion and make a selection that will resonate across advertising channels. That’s not to say I don’t think that this image from Dolores Marat is absolutely perfect – the metro (very Ernaux!), the sense of a daily life, the attention to style and detail in terms of what the woman is wearing (you could imagine Annie describing the woman in one of her scenes in Journal du dehors) – it’s more just to give a sense of some of the quirks of the exhibition making and marketing process. So maybe instead I’ll tell you why I knew I wanted this work in the show. It’s one of five Dolores Marat pictures within the exhibition. They show people moving around the Parisian metro. Marat has repeatedly returned to the French transport system, which she herself uses daily, to make images. To me, she is like Annie, in the sense that she seeks to show things “as they were”. “When I make a photo, I do it very quickly, when I have the emotion, most often while walking. I only make one, the first one is always the right one, it comes from the gut,” she told Liberation in 2015. Some critics have pointed to the cinematic aspects of Marat’s photographs – one journalist even told me that she felt that Marat’s pictures were not “stark” enough for Ernaux’s writing – but she asserts that they have not been laboured over or constructed; instead — as with Annie’s writing — they are the results of her own lived experiences, things she has encountered, not engineered. “For this shot, the woman was going downstairs while I was going upstairs, I had an appointment at the physiotherapist for my hand,” Marat has said of this image of the woman on an escalator. Amusingly, various people have asked me if it’s actually Annie in the photo. I told Annie that and she laughed – and anyone who knows Annie knows she has the most amazing laugh. I’m incredibly fond of the picture, and I love the amusing twist of seeing it plastered all over the metro in advertisements for this exhibition.

IRG – Dans le catalogue de cette exposition, vous évoquez votre première lecture du Journal du dehors, le fait d’y reconnaitre un espace urbain familier, même si le vôtre était en banlieue londonienne à l’adolescence, cela vous permet de justifier que votre sélection de photographies soit ouverte à plusieurs pays. Comment avez-vous pensé le fait de situer dans un espace-monde et d’excéder ainsi les pays cités par Annie Ernaux (France, Italie) dans ses livres ? Certains de vos choix ont-ils été orientés par la volonté de présenter tel photographe dont vous aimez le travail ?

LS – This exhibition was really never about work I liked, in the sense that I never felt that this exhibition needed to be remotely about taste or beauty. That’s not to say that I don’t love the work of many of the image-makers within the show, but more to highlight to you the fact that I chose the works because of an ethos – a way of seeing, of engaging with the reality, and with daily living, and often with – as you mention – a sense of separation, or fractured identity, between a centre and a suburb, a past and a future (all themes within Journal du dehors). When Annie and I first met we discussed her lack of interest in the picturesque, and her general fascination with reality, and with giving weight to things, or communities, that are often dismissed. It made me think about how the act of observation and recording is a way of giving respect, or even dignity, to subjects. This informed a lot of the choices, and, indeed, the international scope of the exhibition

IRG – Quel travail de photographe avez-vous découvert grâce à votre résidence d’un mois à la MEP en 2022 ?

LS – It was a real joy looking through the MEP’s extensive collection – there are over 20,000 prints. What struck me was the breadth – there are icons of photography, whose work was familiar to me (say Garry Winogrand, or Henry Wessel) and there were under appreciated photographers, or names I wasn’t aware of, but whose work became very important to the exhibition (such as Jean-Philippe Charbonnier or Barbara Alper). That’s really something you see represented within the exhibition – there is a big mix, between known names and new discoveries, and between the nationalities and eras of the photographers.  The images in the exhibition date from the 1940s to 2021, and feature not only Ernaux’s native France but also America, Italy, Japan, Singapore and the UK. Though seemingly diverse, as I said above, they are united by themes that relate to Ernaux.

IRG – Comment avez-vous négocié le rapport entre la question de l’instantané dans l’écriture d’Annie Ernaux et des photographes, qui revendiquent « l’instant décisif », « sur le vif ». Est-ce un critère pour vous pour la sélection de certaines photographies ?

LS – This is a good question, and the idea of an “instant reaction” was something that I thought about a lot during the curatorial process – in terms of, amongst other things, the impossibility of ever capturing things in a neutral fashion or without bias or agenda. This is something that runs throughout Journal du dehors, we see Annie grabble with how her encounters and observations – although seemingly random – both reflect and shape herself – ‘I realize that I have put a lot of myself into these texts, far more than originally planned – memories and obsessions subconsciously dictating my choice of words and the scenes I wished to freeze‘,  (“J’ai mis de moi-même beaucoup plus que prévu dans ces textes : obsessions, souvenirs, déterminant inconsciemment le choix de la parole, de la scène à fixer.”) It’s a question that relates to photography – to what extent is every image something of a self-portrait of the image-maker? As I write in the book, “We cannot remove ourselves from the reality we see. We see it both despite and because of ourselves.” Perhaps it’s helpful for me to talk about some specific works to answer your question – Henry Wessel’s Incidents series and Mohamed Bourouissa’s Périphérique series. The images in the former – Wessel’s Incidents – were taken throughout his life and united later. To make the selection, he hung some 250 prints around his studio, searching for connections. To me, the series raises questions about perspective, plot and editing — manipulations that Ernaux talks of trying to escape in Journal du dehors in favour of “real facts”. When faced with “facts”, she writes, one has the option of relating to them by “exposing their stark, immediate nature, outside of any narrative form”, or instead of “sav[ing] them for future reference, making use of them by incorporating them into an ensemble (a novel, for instance)”. Here, Wessel does a combination of both: reacting to things in the moment by taking pictures, and making use of them later by creating an ensemble. The works therefore ask relevant questions about the lines between writing and image-making, highlighting the limitations of all attempts at capturing fact or reality, or indeed, to reacting to things instantly, without some form of preconception. Indeed, as Annie writes: what we notice reveals so much about us (“memories and obsessions subconsciously dictating my choice of words and the scenes I wished to freeze”). Mohamed Bourouissa’s Périphérique series concerns stereotypes of the French suburbs where he grew up. The images look at “social reality”, and Bourouissa twists the common media reputation of Paris’ outskirts as violent and dangerous with references from fine art, creating images that both toy with and confront typecasts. His images are staged, like cinema scenes, and pay homage to figures such as Caravaggio and Delacroix. Though one may instinctively relate Ernaux’s work only to documentary photography, I felt that parallels can be also drawn between Bourouissa’s process and both the subject matter and complexities of Ernaux’s writing. Like Ernaux, Bourouissa is concerned with inequality and prejudice and, like her, he looks at both the present and memory when making his work — creating a new truth from the existing visuals amassed in his mind and in the popular consciousness. I hope that the mix of photography included across the exhibition helps facilitate questions about the very nature of the “l’instant décisif.”

IRG – Vous avez rencontré deux fois Annie Ernaux, comment avez-vous travaillé avec elle pour la sélection finale ? Avez-vous pris en compte d’éventuelles préférences de sa part ou commentaires ? 

LS – I feel both privileged and honoured that Annie took the time to engage with this project. Our conversations – in person and over email (I live in London, so much of our correspondence was from a distance) – established the ideals and frameworks of this project and my curatorial approach was really informed by her way of discussing topics such as “reality” and “evidence”. I will say that Annie was very generous in that she gave me a lot of freedom, but of course, it was important to me that she viewed and accepted all the imagery within the show. So at each stage of the project, I presented the selected photography to her. I did so right after my initial residency, and later, as the project developed into an exhibition and the selection was edited and refined. It was always fascinating for me to hear her responses, and the photographers she related to the most and why. For example, she felt a connection to a 1965 image of a mother and child by Janine Niepce, which I’d selected because of the way it nodded to the various ways Annie has addressed the complexities and confinements of motherhood across her work. Annie felt it related to the context in which Journal du dehors was written – her children having grown up, she was no longer constrained by the pressures and restrictions of young children, and could be out in the world, looking, seeing and taking up space.

IRG – L’exposition est structurée en 5 salles thématiques (Extérieur-intérieur / Traversées / Confrontations / Lieux de rencontre / Faire société), quelle était votre désir pour la ligne de force, le parti-pris de votre exposition ?

LS – As you say, the exhibition is ordered loosely around themes, although Annie’s texts are displayed in the order she organised them – moving from 1985 to 1992. For me, it was a way to group the diverse photography, and to help invite the visitor to probe the world that Annie is confronting in her writing… When the exhibition took form in my mind I liked the idea that it not only brought Ernaux’s texts together with photography, but also that it mimicked a day in a town: the anonymity of people on the trains, the sense of possibility in the stations, the visual assault of the stores and banners and merchandise, the overwhelming sensual appeal of it all – especially the crowd, packed with the vulgarity and beauty of others, and teaming with sensations that vanish almost instantly, as you walk on. So, as you move through the space, you mimic Annie in Cergy – in the first room we leave home, and are confronted by the lines between public and private, interior and exteriors, in the next space (Confrontations) we are struck by the visual assault of the city, and some of harder aspects of contemporary living (loneliness, violence, inequality), then in the next space, which is about distance and travel (Traversées), we run errands and take the metro and move between suburb and centre. Then in Lieux de rencontre we “do” things – visit cafes, hairdressers, supermarkets. Then finally in the last room, Faire Société, we engage in the process of understanding ourselves through comparison and judgement. That room really relates to Annie’s line from Journal du Dehors: “It is other people – anonymous figures, glimpsed in the Metro or in waiting rooms – who revive our memory and reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame that they send rippling through us.” (Ce sont les autres, anonymes côtoyés dans le métro, les salles d’attente, qui, par l’intérêt, la colère ou la honte dont ils nous traversent, réveillent notre mémoire et nous révèlent à nous même. ) Finally at the very end of the exhibition you see two works by Johan van der Keuken – one shows a woman descending the steps of a station and the next shows trainlines – I designed that as a little closing moment, which suggest Annie getting back on the train and returning home. When I write this, I think it all sounds more explicit than it feels to the visitor – the notion of a day in public space is actually quite subtle, as I wanted the visitor to be able to draw their own conclusions and ideas from the exhibition. I see it as a very open display, that invites questions, rather than proposes conclusions.

IRG – Le communiqué de presse évoque, quant à lui, des thèmes centraux (« rituels quotidiens de déplacement et de consommation, notre performance de classe et de genre qui hiérarchise la société, les sentiments de peur et de solitude »), qui traverse de fait l’œuvre d’Annie Ernaux et les 150 photographies. La solitude est sans doute une condition du photographe, mais aussi de l’écrivain. Quels choix avez-vous faits qui permettent de faire sentir cette solitude ?

LS – I think the loneliness of the urban environment, and the modern condition, is something that runs across the exhibition, both in terms of the subjects we see in the images, and the suggested nature of the image-makers who took the pictures. We really get a sense of Annie, and the image-makers, wandering, alone – searching, in some way. I guess I’m thinking here especially of photographers like Harry Callahan or Daido Moriyama. That said, I didn’t want the exhibition to feel wrought – as it needed to reflect the fact that Journal du dehors was made during Annie’s daily life, as she visited shops, ran errands. There needed to be a sense of the banal, the quotidian – and it turn how much can be gleaned from that banality – so anything too deliberately sombre just felt wrong. In Annie’s writing, she is not interested in the sensational or overly sentimental. A good photographer to talk about here would be Claude Dityvon, whose works are positioned in the exhibition next to the opening text of Journal du dehors. The images reflect the way Ernaux’s observations of daily life are peppered with the kind of commonplace dramas that often occur in public space (arguments, accidents, moments of violence). In her first scene, Ernaux describes a woman “on a stretcher held by two firemen”. Similarly, one of Dityvon’s images shows people near a building in the aftermath of a fire. There is a quietness to Dityvon’s photographs that fits with Ernaux’s style of writing, which she calls “flat”. The writer Christian Caujolle has described Dityvon’s style with phrases that could also be about Ernaux: “No symbolic imagery, nothing designed to accompany headlines in newspapers or magazines.”

IRG – Pour l’accrochage vous avez opté pour des encadrements pour les photos et des papiers écrus au format 68 sur 51 cm pour l’impression des textes d’Annie Ernaux. Pourquoi ce choix de format pour présenter les textes d’Annie Ernaux ?

LS – For the display of the texts, I really wanted the visitor to focus on the words – and to let the words be presented as an image (e.g on the wall, and lit with spotlights). I felt that the more interventions one applied to the text – e.g. framing it, or doing too much with typography or graphics – only served to emphasis the idea that this was writing, rather than allowing it to exist between forms (text and image). So that’s why we did something so simple – just having the text printed on paper on the walls, on thick paper hopefully robust enough to survive the twelve weeks that the show is on. Really the display is not the key thing – it’s just a layer – I want the visitor to focus on the words (the “snapshots’) themselves.

IRG – Quel effet d’après vous ces photographies jouent-elles sur le texte d’Annie Ernaux au sein de l’exposition ?

LS – I hope that the photographs and texts come interact with each other in complex and interesting ways, in the minds of the visitor. That despite the initial difference in appearances, they begin to blend and relate. As I say at the start of the exhibition. “The exhibition asks visitors to question habits of thinking about literature and photography: Can we see a text? Can we read a photograph? And, could you say that, rather than writing, Ernaux has actually been making images?”

IRG – Pour quel type de visiteur avez-vous conçu le parcours QRcode Bloomberg connects ?

LS – Bloomberg Connects is something that the MEP works with across its exhibitions. To me, it felt like a useful way of including additional information about the works in the exhibition. So visitors can access longer extended captions about each photographer through the app. Hopefully it will be used by a variety of visitors.

IRG – Comment avez-vous travaillé avec la commissaire pour la MEP Victoria Aresheva ?

LS – Victoria joined the project – and the MEP – after my residency was complete and after the exhibition was already confirmed and the majority of work selected, so she was not involved in the conception of the idea, but she played an important role in securing the agreements from photographers’ estates and coordinating turning the exhibition from research into something in a physical space (so many questions relating to sizing, transport, lighting, display etc need to be tackled with any exhibition.). As I’m based in London, and an external curator rather than a MEP staff member, it was helpful to have someone on the ground in Paris at the MEP who could be coordinating directly with the staff there.

IRG – Je vous propose, pour finir, d’évoquer le catalogue (avec cette belle idée graphique d’écrire le mot « extérieurs » prêt à déborder de la page, en version française ou anglaise). Quelle a été votre démarche pour composer les pages intérieures du catalogue ?

LS – The aim was really to capture the ideas and questions of the exhibition within book form. A difference is that there is less imagery within the book (50 images, instead of 150, although every image-maker is featured). The sequencing really mirrors what’s going on within the exhibition – so you move through a day in an urban environment as you move through the book. And the ordering is very similar to what you see in the exhibition space. The book did give an opportunity to write a longer essay about Annie and photography which I very much enjoyed.

IRG – Le catalogue, qui contient un gros tiers des photographies présentées, présente le texte d’Annie Ernaux très différemment, 21 photographies sont en regard d’un texte précis, ce qui est très différent de l’espace muséographique de l’accrochage. Comment s’est opéré ce choix et quels sont les effets que vous recherchiez ?

LS – I do not see the catalogue as presenting the texts and images differently. Perhaps because there are less images, it could be interpreted this way – but I feel that the catalogue does the same thing as the exhibition in terms of positioning Annie’s “snapshots” alongside photography, and drawing parallels between her style of image-making and the work of other image-makers.

IRG – Enfin, dans les dernières lignes du catalogue, dans votre texte « Écrire des images », vous parlez de l’activation des sens des images par le visiteur de l’exposition, quel serait l’image dont vous voudriez nous partager votre propre activation, au sein de l’exposition puis du catalogue ?

LS – It’s really hard to single out an image within the exhibition to talk about, as all of them relate to Ernaux in different forms. I did try and use the images to think about the ways that Annie has engaged with photography across her practice, not just in Journal du dehors, but also other books. For example, when looking at Gianni Berengo Gardin’s 1960 image on a vaporetto, taken during his daily commute across Venice, I thought about the way Annie describes her experiences engaging with strangers in public. Gianni Berengo Gardin’s image captures a multitude of scenes and characters at once. The water bus’ mirrored doors create layers of images which could seemingly be taken apart and then pieced back together, turning a photograph of ordinary travellers into something vaguely surreal. When out, Ernaux is often moved by the simultaneous proximity and anonymity of others, a sensation that conjures complex, layered visuals in her mind. Standing in a supermarket queue, she feels the women around her are all versions of herself, past and future — “images of herself, taken apart and separated like matryoshka dolls” (The Years, 2008) —  an idea that fits with the simultaneously fractured and cohesive nature of this image. Another image that became poignant to me is by Daido Moriyama. It’s one of various photographs by him in the exhibition, all taken between the 1960s and 1990s. It shows the photographer’s shadow in front of a window display in Meguro-ku, Tokyo. The image nods to the statement by academic Akane Kawakami that Ernaux’s presence in visual diaries such as Exteriors, and her similar book Things Seen, is “like the shadow of a photographer in a photograph.” It is, Kawakami says, “a mark…an authentic trace of the self left from its attempts to record scenes from the outside”. Finally, I’d like to talk about Hiro’s image, taken in 1962 and showing a train in the busy Shinjuku station in Tokyo. Commuting and travel are central themes within Journal du dehors, and Annie often writes of people she sees on trains between Cergy-Pontoise and Paris. Like the commuters in Hiro’s image, the characters in her texts oscillate between dejection and excitement about their journeys, and the trains themselves become a force for both possibility and entrapment. Annie is committed as a writer to putting a spotlight on things, people and places that can be overlooked or viewed as mundane. “Many people don’t see what I see. By which I mean that they don’t pay attention to the outside world. That is also because some people don’t ever take the RER, for example… They don’t see because they are not there,” she explained when I met with her during the preparation of this exhibition in April 2022. To me Hiro’s image relates perfectly to the lines from Journal du dehors which open the exhibition: “What is it I am desperately seeking in reality? Is it meaning?” Ernaux asks. “Committing to paper the movements, postures and words of the people I meet gives me the illusion that I am close to them. I don’t speak to them, I only watch them and listen to them. Yet the emotions they arouse in me are real. I may also be trying to discover something about myself through them…(Sitting opposite someone in the Métro, I often ask myself, ‘Why am I not that woman?’)”

Pour citer cet article:

Isabelle Roussel-Gillet, « Extérieurs. Annie Ernaux et la photographie. Entretien de Lou Stoppard avec Isabelle Roussel-Gillet », dans L’Exporateur littéraire, Jul 2024.
URL : https://www.litteraturesmodesdemploi.org/entretien/exterieurs-entretien-de-lou-stoppard-avec-isabelle-roussel-gillet/, page consultée le 22/07/2024.