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.

Peter Watkins

The Unforgetting

Essay by Edwin Coomasaru

The Regency Town House, Brighton
04.10.14 – 2.11.14

There’s this memory I have where we’re driving down a long straight road. The windscreen wipers are going at continuous, and vision is dull and mostly grey. My mother is seated front left, in the passenger side, and my father is driving, wearing a merino jumper with interconnecting diamond shapes; the kind golfers wear. I recall leaning forward and asking a question with an equal measure of naivety and boldness – the kind of question that seems to arise from some existential place that children of a certain age develop. I am curious which of my parents will die first, and I go about asking them their ages. My father, at the wheel, turns his head slightly, and explains that he’s eighteen years older than my mother. I pause briefly, before declaring that in this case my father will die first, followed by my mother, who will die many years later. I forget what my mother was wearing.”

On the 15 February 1993, Peter Watkins’ mother walked off Zandvoort Beach into the North Sea. Her final act haunts Watkins’ series The Unforgetting (2013-14), recently on display at the Regency Town House as part of the 2014 Brighton Photo Fringe. Watkins’ autobiographical photographs incorporate a plethora of sculptural elements, such as casting, stacking and obscuring, and are hung on skeletal timber frames and to draw attention to the listed building’s furnishings. Encouraging connections whilst complicating the relationship between the two, the exhibition contemplates both the role of museums and family histories as sites and discourses of collective memory.

The Unforgetting pieces together fragments from Watkins’ mother’s life. Take Taufe (2014), which depicts the dress she was baptised in. Closely cropped and with a shallow depth of field, there are few indicators of scale: giving the impression that this garment could belong to a grown woman. The deliberate evocation of Ute Watkins’ drowning is imbued with a deeply haunting quality: the floating garment is weightlessly suspended and the net curtain hangs thick like rain. As a result, the spectral character is infused with an impression of liquidity: a molecular materiality, porous and fluid.

Historically water has been associated with femininity, in contrast to the normative male body: robust, firm, muscular and taut – an ideal soldier. Liquidity, associated with blood and wounding, has conventionally been perceived a threat to the hardened surface of a male body. Cuts and tears to the skin are a reminder that the notion of masculine flesh as impenetrable and sealed is a fantasy. Fluids, by their potential capacity to render solids porous, threaten the collapse of borders. This sense of abjection threatens to brim, spill and soak in Taufe. It is almost as though a spectral sea has floated the dress aloft, the muffled silence of the black and white image echoing with underwater acoustics.

The Unforgetting is notable, however, for its lack of tears. While black and white photography is traditionally associated with nostalgia, the work is spared of sentimentality: objects are catalogued and composed in a manner that evokes early scientific photography or evidence gathered at a crime scene. Ancestry (2012) appears rational, ordered, controlled. There is even a sense of stoicism, a hallmark of macho behaviour. Yet, The Unforgetting is also about a man mourning. Consider: Self Portrait (2011), an image that pictures the artist stripped from the waist up and seated on a hard wooden chair. His face is cast down, fist clenched, shoulders hunched. Numerous large circles scar his smooth skin: the legacy of cupping, a well-known Chinese treatment for depression.

Self Portrait is an image of masculinity subject to extreme vulnerability. Reflecting on the US government’s military response to 9/11, gender theorist Judith Butler has considered the pacifist potential of vulnerability: ‘the wound itself testifies to the fact that I am impressionable, given over to the Other’. In this regard, the relationship between the liquidity in Taufe and the subject‘s portrayal in Self Portrait is key. Together the two works picture a notion of masculinity outside the conventional stereotype. Rather than clad in armour, such a body is traumatised and fragile; given over to its wounding.

Watkins’ potent portrait of the consequences of violence is important to consider at a time when the UK is considering resuming military involvement in Iraq. The Unforgetting testifies to the terrible toll of violence. Taufe’s spectral liquidity provokes reflection on how the notion of the impenetrable, sturdy soldierly-male body is threatened by fluids. Across Watkins’ series an image of masculinity outside the norm emerges – vulnerable and marked by trauma and loss. Self Portrait contests the stoicism and aggressive posturing of macho stereotypes, examining how wounding implicates an individual in their Other – be that an opponent or the external world. 

All images courtesy of the artist. © Peter Watkins

Edwin Coomasuru is the founder and director of the International New Media Gallery. He is also an AHRC-funded student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, writing on Northern Irish masculinities and the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ in contemporary art.