Exteriors – Annie Ernaux and Photography

Lou Stoppard (ed.)

Book review by Peter Watkins

Curator and writer Lou Stoppard adds visual repertoire to Annie Ernaux’s iconic Exteriors, originally published in 1993, through a new publication and exhibition titled Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography — co-published by MACK and Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP), Paris. Recognising Ernaux’s iconic literary style – unapologetic, brave, and tender, inherently political and dedicated to amplifying marginalised voices – Stoppard sifted through 24,000 photographs, resulting in a photo-book that captures the rituals of everyday life, in a way not so mundane, as Peter Watkins writes.

Peter Watkins | Book review | 21 Mar 2024 

Annie Ernaux’s intimately autobiographical writing is much like the dull ache of an old injury, reminding the body, through its persistence, of its entanglement in the world over time. She writes for the sake of memory and forgetting, and has been prolific in her output since the mid-1970s, earning a Nobel Prize for Literature along the way. Her writing is unapologetic, unembarrassed and tender in its bravery. She has spoken of her work as being inherently political, driven by a genuine desire to give voice to the underrepresented, namely the working class, in acutely observed reflections from her everyday encounters. Her work is paired back, unadorned, with no room for hyperbole. A pioneer of autofiction, she doesn’t seem to suffer from the indulgences and excesses that sometimes accompany the genre. 

Ernaux has spoken of photography as acting as a catalyst for her writing, but it’s ordinary, as opposed to extraordinary, photographs of people that are meaningful to her. She uses photographs as an aide de memoire, and has suggested that: ‘The photograph is nothing other than stopped time. But the photograph does not save. Because it is mute. I believe on the contrary that photography increases the pain of passing time. Writing saves, and cinema.’ In her book The Years (2008), the opening passages come to us like abrupt flashes of memory; fragmentary, and incomplete, but bright and image-like. These lines reveal perhaps most clearly, both her directness and the umbilical bond between photography, memory and language, as well as the existential fear of forgetting and being forgotten: ‘All the images will disappear. […] Everything will be erased in a second. […] We will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.’

Upon reading Exteriors (1996), Lou Stoppard contacted Simon Baker, Director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, surprised that there hadn’t previously been a major institutional collaboration between Ernaux’s writing and photography, particularly given the building attention around her life’s work, not to mention the photographic claims her writing has made, as so explicit in Exteriors. Stoppard was promptly invited to spend a month going through some 24,000 photographs and 36,000 photobooks that make up the MEP’s collection. Her selections represent some of major names in documentary photography such as William Klein, Luighi Ghirri, Ursula Schulz-Dornberg, Claude Dityvon and Daido Moriyama. The photographs were made in the mid-20th century onwards and depict almost always people, built-up environments and ephemeral encounters in the city. 

Post-war photography of this kind moved us away from a prescribed reading of the image to a multi-layered, subjective and ultimately equivocal vision of the world – uncertain images for uncertain times – and, in that sense, the pairings seem apt, if sometimes a little on the nose. Stoppard herself concedes these ‘moments of visual coincidence’ of course occur, a near-impossibility to avoid perhaps, given the familiarity of the imagery evoked in Ernaux’s writing. She also didn’t want to focus on the grand boulevards of Paris, on Eugène Atget, or the traditional idea of the flâneur, but, rather, on a more universal vision of the everyday, the language of advertising and the rituals of life. Indeed, to do otherwise wouldn’t have made sense, given Ernaux’s politics and focus. As Stoppard points out: ‘To compare Ernaux’s writing to photography is a project that is impossible to divorce from questions of class. Seeing is a privilege. Photographing is even more of a privilege.’

The inference of pairing Ernaux’s originally slim 74-page Exteriors with this curated selection of photographs from the MEP’s collection is to cement some of the photographic associations we already hold dear to her work, but perhaps also to examine this lesser-known publication in photographic terms – extending readings, teasing out connections and re-examining the question of how literature and photography can coexist, and to what end. Stoppard makes headway in this regard in her accompanying essay “Writing Images”, found at the end of Exteriors – Annie Ernaux and Photography, jointly published by MACK. Here, she attempts to contextualise Ernaux’s photographic intentions not only by examining Exteriors, but also by reaching back within the wider context of her work. 

Over the decades, Ernaux’s writing has fearlessly examined, amongst others, themes such as the interior life, identity, women and the body, shame, nascent sexuality, illegal abortion, female sexuality, relationships, grief and the perception of time. Unwavering in her pursuit, these themes have played out somewhere between Ernaux’s subjective personal experiences, read within the wider societal and political movements of the times. 

If Ernaux’s work often leans towards the exploration of interiority, a pursuit nearing claustrophobia in its intensity, then Exteriors, in some respects, represents a literal break, turning itself outwards to the surface of things. The book, in its original form, is made up of journal entries written over the course of seven years, between 1985 and 1992, and mostly in-and-around Cergy-Pontoise, one of five suburban “new towns” surrounding Paris built up in the 1960s, a place she has vehemently rejected as being simply categorised as a non-lieux or non-place. This is where she has written much of her work, a place that is integral to her writing, a place she calls home: ‘A place suddenly sprung up from nowhere, a place bereft of memories […] A place with undefined boundaries.’

These are observations from Ernaux’s adopted home, the neighbourhoods she moves through, from the dentist’s waiting room to the RER suburban train or visits to the Hypermarket. These are the banal spaces of the everyday, observed matter-of-factly, sharply. This is a real, visceral vision of the periphery, away from the charm and clichés of Paris. For Ernaux, these everyday spaces are imbued with sociological and psychological substance, with ‘as much meaning and human truth as the concert hall.’

The images serve to punctuate what is about a third of Ernaux’s book, which is broken up chronologically, and slipped formally between the photographs, inevitably encouraging associations through juxtaposition. The text and images evoke one another, but are not intended as captions or illustrations. Rather, they are offered equal weighting on the page. The images weave between eras and geographies, almost all depicting people, or signs of humanity, pointing towards the universal experience of the city, where, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population currently dwells. The photographs, as well as the text, attest to the observational faculties of their authors, captivating and complicating our attention, without ever really being too prescriptive or dogmatic in their associations.

In her interview with the Louisiana Channel, Ernaux describes her work as factual, and restrained of feeling. She writes in Exteriors: ‘I have sought to describe reality as though through the eyes of a photographer… To preserve the mystery and opacity of the lives I encountered.’ But with that comes a tireless curiosity, presented to us by an omnipresent Ernaux, who has the imagination to transform these all too familiar encounters from daily life into something of real vibrancy and fortitude, and, of course, there’s plenty of feeling built into that act. The same could be said of many of the photographers whose work make up the pages of this book. The people encountered come to us as protagonists of their own stories which we glimpse, move through and then beyond, perhaps inviting us to consider the increasingly unequal social hierarchies pronounced and laid bare in the shared urban environments that we presently occupy, in turn allowing us to reflect on how they might be reimagined. ♦

All images courtesy the artists, MACK and MEP.

Exteriors – Annie Ernaux and Photography runs at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, France, until 26 May 2024. The accompanying book is published by MACK.

Peter Watkins is an artist and educator based in Prague, Czech Republic. Watkins received his MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art in 2014, and has since exhibited his work internationally, receiving several awards for his ongoing practice. His work is held in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland. His book
The Unforgetting was published by Skinnerboox in 2020. He is currently Associate Lecturer at Prague City University.


1-Claude Dityvon, 18 hears, Post de Bercy, Paris (18 hours, Bridge of Bercy, Paris), 1979. Gelatin silver print, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 1979. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

2-Dolorès Marat, La femme aux Gants (Woman with gloves), 1987. Fresson four-colour pigment print, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 2006. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

3-Dolorès Marat, Neige à Paris (Snow in Paris), 1997. Fresson four-colour pigment print, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 2001. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy of the artist, MACK and MEP.

4-Hiro, Shinjuku Station, Tokyo, 1962. Gelatin silverprints, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the Elsa Peretti Foundation in 2008. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy The Estate of Y. Hiro Wakabayashi, MACK and MEP.

5-Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Ploshchad Vosstaniya – Uprising Square, 2005. Photogravure, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the artist in 2020. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

6-Janine Niepce, H.L.M. à Vitry. Une mère et son enfant (Council estate in Vitry. A mother and her child), 1965. Gelatin silver prints. MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 1983. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

7-Marie-Paule Nègre, Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris (Luxembourg Garden, Paris), 1979. Pigment inkjet print, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the artist in 2014. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

8-William Klein, Finale de l’élection de Miss France, entourée de Jean-Pierre Foucault et Mme de Fontenay (Final of Miss France contest, surrounded by Jean-Pierre Foucault and Mrs de Fontenay), 2001, from the series PARIS + KLEIN. C-type prints, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 2002. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy William Klein Estate, MACK and MEP.

9-Bernard Pierre Wolff, Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1981. Gelatin silver print, MEP Collection, Paris. Bequest from the artist in 1985. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

10-Daido Moriyama, Untitled, 1969. Gelatin silver print, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. in 1995. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation, Akio Nagasawa Gallery, MACK and MEP.

Karla Hiraldo Voleau

Another Love Story

Book review by Anneka French

Through a combination of writing, photography and performance, Another Love Story, Karla Hiraldo Voleau’s new photobook with Mörel, re-narrates the final moments of a romantic relationship by casting a similar-looking actor as her ex-lover. Part-fact, part-fiction, the project abounds with emotional and ethical complexity to reclaim the power of her own history whilst also revealing how identity construction can be played out in the digital space, writes Anneka French.

Anneka French | Book review | 10 Jan 2024

September unfolds through sun-soaked photographs shot lakeside. The sculpted curvature of a man’s back shines wet in the light as he climbs rocks and swims in turquoise waters. There is warm skin, fine hair, touch, seduction. A pair of bare feet seen from above indicate the perspective of the photographer as she looks down upon the man. He winks back up at her.

Fast forward to November and glimpses of something amiss might be derived from the inclusion of an image in which the dark-haired man’s shadow throws his profile starkly against a golden-beige wall. His face is heavily blurred in a preceding image, as if turning away from the photographer. Much of November takes place in an idyllic wooden chalet, its bedroom flooded by low-slung winter sun, with the close-cropped intimacy of the man cooking at a stovetop interspersed by shots of him bare-chested and smiling. There are rumpled sheets, sunsets and harbour views. Romantic cliches abound, and stacking up, they begin to feel disconcerting.

Screenshots of two text messages and a brief handwritten note appear at the very beginning of Karla Hiraldo Voleau’s new photobook, Another Love Story, published by Mörel. The text provides fragments of information that signal a problem in the narrative, proving a hook which keeps the pages turning. It may not be a surprise to hear that there is no happy ending for the artist and her beau. Instead, the relationship, and importantly, the project, unravels gradually, month-by-month, into a story of one man’s deception. Hiraldo Voleau offers clarity in the form of an eight-page spread laid out as a script for two characters interleaved between the chapters of January and February. This transcript of a telephone conversation reveals the man, named within the book as X, to be leading a double life as the lover and live-in partner of another woman known as A. The text frames and contextualises the photographs within the book, a collection which is part-fact and part-fiction, and which abounds with emotional and ethical complexity.

In the book, Hiraldo Voleau, a Dominican-French artist photographer based in Lausanne, Switzerland, includes a small number of original photographs that were taken on a mobile phone camera during her relationship with X. The majority of the images in the book, however, have been recreated especially for the project, faithfully and painstakingly remade at the same locations and using highly similar objects and garments as props and costumes for the new photographs. In-the-moment snaps thus become examined and forensically re-staged tableaux. As a rule, where the face of X appears, the man presented alongside the artist is, in fact, an actor paid by her to play the role. This is a role that she is (re)performing too in an editing of memory, image and story. “It’s about 80 per cent reconstruction, 20 per cent true,” Hiraldo Voleau explains. However painful and however problematic casting a similar-looking actor as her ex-lover might be, she asserts Another Love Story as an attempt to reclaim her story and her experiences for herself.

In design terms, Another Love Story is reminiscent of a scrapbook, using torn strips of masking tape to roughly affix images so as to seem informal, some of which are afforded an additional sense of casual intimacy through domestic settings. In April, however, spectacular mountain views are made backdrop to a shot with the actor playing X’s head cut clean off and the photographer’s shown. In an adjacent image, further psychological layering takes place through multiple reflections in glass, splintering and fragmenting X as subject through the photographer’s gaze. In a number of instances, Hiraldo Voleau includes intensive repetition of the man’s face, as if the photographer (or viewer) is trying to work X out or, perhaps, as if to search for comparisons between X and the actor she has cast to play him. At the least, there is something verging on the voyeuristic in the repetitions, subjects that the photographer has explored in past bodies of work such as Hola Mi Amol (2019). A range of formats including small-scale prints arranged in lines and grids are mixed with full-bleeds. Resolution varies, and, while reaffirming the materiality of the images, the design of the book also references social media feeds and mobile phone camera rolls, those digital spaces that document, shape and underpin the ways lives are lived. These spaces are also part of the mechanisms through which relationships might be created and conveyed publicly, notable because in Hiraldo Voleau’s project, she intentionally re-visits and re-produces images that are personally significant after the fact.

May, the penultimate chapter, begins with sweaty bodies and smiling faces. These make way overleaf for images where photographer and actor-X are depicted wearing face masks on public transport, the bottom half of their faces redacted and unreadable. Actor-X sits at a restaurant table with his head in his hands, his face again hidden from sight. With June comes further obfuscation, a laptop now covering the lower half of his face. The concluding photograph in the book is a view in a car. Actor-X wears sunglasses, with the top half of his face glimpsed in the rear-view mirror in the top portion of the photograph. Through the windscreen, an open road lies ahead.

Three further text messages form an epilogue to the book. In this conversation between Hiraldo Voleau and A, who have formed, in a more genuinely surprising narrative twist, some sort of cathartic alliance in their shared experiences of X, there are self-reflexive mentions of the project, including its exhibition iterations which began with a display at MEP Studio in Paris in 2022. Optimistically, these snatches of text give both women some sense of closure. Hiraldo Voleau concludes: “Thank you. Nothing changes, I’m still so grateful that it is YOU in all of this. The show being in quite a long time, I’ll invite you to come later on. Please feel free to do so if you want! All the best til then!” ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Mörel © Karla Hiraldo Voleau

Another Love Story is published by Mörel.

Anneka French is a Curator at Coventry Biennial and Project Editor for Anomie, an international publishing house for the arts. She contributes to Art Quarterly, Burlington Contemporary and Photomonitor, and has had written and editorial commissions from Turner Prize, Fire Station Artists’ Studios, TACO!, Photoworks+ and Grain Projects. French served as Co-ordinator and then Director at New Art West Midlands, Editorial Manager at this is tomorrow and has worked at Tate Modern, London, Ikon, Birmingham and The New Art Gallery Walsall. 

1000 Words

City Guides

#6 Paris

Jeu de Paume
1 Place de la Concorde
75008 Paris
+33 1 47 03 12 50

Located at the entrance of the Tuileries Garden, Jeu de Paume operates at the forefront of the capital’s photographic scene. Since the arrival of director Marta Gili in 2006, the institution has hosted a range of major retrospectives, celebrating some of the nest photographers of the
20th century such as Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Joel Meyerowitz, Susan Meiselas and Robert Adams, but also younger artists like Mathieu Pernot, Cyprien Gaillard and Ismail Bahri, as well as writers and thinkers such as Pierre Bourdieu and Georges Didi-Huberman. With each exhibition accompanied by a rich programme of in-house talks and conferences, Jeu de Paume has also extended its internet presence, most notably through the online magazine Le magazine, an invaluable educational source intended to stimulate debate around the role of the image in the digital age.

Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP)
5–7 Rue de Fourcy
75004 Paris
+33 1 44 78 75 00

For over two decades since its establishment, the MEP has been a
key player in the evolution of Paris’ photographic scene, with Jean-Luc Monterosso, founder of the now legendary Mois de la Photo in 1980, directing the gallery until May 2017. While the MEP has somewhat lost a bit of its aura in recent years – the curse of any institution led too long by the same personnel – the fairly recent appointment of British curator Simon Baker, former Curator of Photography and International Art at Tate in London, as the gallery’s new director announces a promising new era.

6 Impasse de la Défense
75018 Paris
+33 1 44 70 75 51

After seven years as a Director of Magnum Photos, Diane Dufour co-founded LE BAL in 2010 with the vision of providing Paris with a contemporary space dedicated to documentary photography. LE BAL serves as a compelling photographic platform, a place to discover visual storytellers working in locations across the globe, particularly in the Middle East. Critically engaged, LE BAL doesn’t shy away from explicitly political and conceptual work, such as that of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Samuel Gratacap and Mohamed Bourouissa, including in the mix giants like Mark Cohen and Chris Killip. Offering exhibitions that boast innovative, scenographic design and a rich educational programme to boot, LE BAL occupies a bold position in the field of documentary image-making and dissemination.

Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire
17 Rue des Filles du Calvaire
75003 Paris
+33 1 42 74 47 05

Directed until recently by curator extraordinaire Christine Ollier, the Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire is resolutely contemporary. Though not exclusively dedicated to photography – or perhaps precisely because it is not – the gallery makes a large contribution to today’s conversation about the medium. Amongst the works represented by the gallery are the strange constellations of the artist Thierry Fontaine, the raw bodies of Antoine d’Agata, the black-and-white diary of Yusuf Sevincli, and, more recently, the feminist investigations of Laia Abril. The curator’s voice also expands beyond their exhibitions since the gallery organises in-house discussions as and co-produces numerous exhibitions shows throughout France and internationally.

Centre Photographique d’Ile-de-France (CPIF)
107 Avenue de la République
77340 Pontault-Combault
+33 1 70 05 49 80

Located in the outskirts of Paris, the CPIF embodies the cultural dynamism of the French suburbs as well as the appropriation of local heritage by art institutions. Set in the barn of an old farm, the CPIF is devoted to conceptual photography, from the study of chaos by David De Beyter to Clare Strand’s mise-en-scene of the unexpected. Its programme reflects an ongoing preoccupation with the intersections between photography and the moving image, as well as digital interventions in the medium. A space for  endless experimentation, the CPIF also offers two residency programmes – one which explores production, while the other focusses on research and creation.

Laurence Cornet

Image: View of the exhibition Sigmar Polke’s Photographic infamies at LE BAL, 2019. Photo:Mathieu Samadet. Courtesy: LE BAL