Tearing Away at the Time Escaping: Lou Stoppard on Pairing Photographs with Annie Ernaux’s Exteriors


When the French writer Annie Ernaux delivered her lecture upon receiving the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, the announcement cited the “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory.” Almost a year earlier, the curator and writer Lou Stoppard had been noticing the Ernaux phenomenon take hold organically around her. “It seemed that every time I took the underground in London, where I live, I would see women in their twenties or thirties intently reading Simple Passion or The Years,” she writes in her essay accompanying Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (Mack, 2024). They seemed to be vividly, intensely identifying with the autofictional qualities of Ernaux’s work.

Stoppard, meanwhile, found herself drawn instead to a relative anomaly of a title in Ernaux’s bibliography, Exteriors, a diary-like book of observations which represents a period from 1985 to 1992, in and around Cergy-Pontoise, where Ernaux had just moved. In Exteriors, Ernaux attempts to reveal as little intimate truth about herself as possible, instead aiming “to describe reality as through the eyes of a photographer and to perceive the mystery and opacity of the lives I encountered.” What might the act of comparing a book like that with photographs by others reveal about the way we approach literature, as opposed to photography, Stoppard wondered? Over the course of a residency at Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, while in conversations with Ernaux, Stoppard paired a long excerpt from Ernaux’s book of the same name with dozens of photographs, inviting and reinvigorating a new reading of Ernaux and the themes of her book.

As Stoppard observes at one point in our conversation below, “Photo people don’t really talk to literature people.” For those of us who occupy both worlds, this rings absolutely true, though Stoppard’s essays on photography (for Aperture, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Financial Times), offer a consistently fresh and engaging conduit between those realms. Stoppard previously edited the books Shirley Baker (Mack, 2019), a survey of the work of the street photographer and Pools (Rizzoli, 2020), an exploration of swimming in photography.

Her latest book from Mack shares a title with the exhibition “Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography,” on view at MEP through early June. In a recent phone conversation between New York and London, Stoppard and I spoke about photographic and fictional truth, the “pulsing strangeness” in the everyday worlds of Ernaux’s work, and meeting Annie Ernaux herself.

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Rebecca Bengal: Before you landed on the idea of doing a project like this, before you were thinking about Ernaux’s work in terms of photography, what drew you to her writing?

Lou Stoppard: The way her books have been disseminated and talked about, is primarily centered on the way she plays with the idea of the self, of herself, the way she interrogates the self. But I read Exteriors and felt that it was nothing like that at all. It disrupted that narrative that I felt people were associating with her, this almost confessional style of writing. I thought no, this is something much more complicated.

Exteriors isn’t “about” her in the sense of this internal-looking heroine that people were describing, it’s someone who’s having this complex relationship with reality. I thought, hang on, there’s something more interesting going on here. What I also found fascinating about Exteriors is that there are many, many references to pictures of her parents, her memories, elements of pop culture, all rendered in very photographic ways. It was really this journal of observations.

16 6 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 of Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation, Akio Nagasawa Gallery, MACK and MEP.

RB: “Someone should exhibit these texts as photographs,” you write. It’s such a compelling pairing that it seems obvious, yet no one had done it before.

LS: I’m always interested in writers who engage with photography in complex or unexpected ways. Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti are good examples of that. Photography in relationship to reality. Photography as element of classism, consumer culture. I was interested in the way Ernaux writes about being of the working class, and about her father’s awkwardness around photography.

I remember having the idea and typing it into Google. I was expecting someone to have done a book or a Tumblr or something. And there is some writing about Annie and photography, but it exists more prominently in academia. I was surprised to find some of the bigger profiles of her don’t mention photography. But, then again, photo people don’t really talk to literature people.

RB: In Exteriors, Ernaux has just uprooted and moved to the outskirts of Paris in the mid-1980s, a new area for her at the time. You get a sense of her activated, heightened seeing, the way a photographer might encounter a place or a new body of work. Even more so than in many of her other books, her “I” protagonist here really reads as a character of her own making. How did you see her protagonist? Did you see her as a bit of a photographer?

LS: I thought about this a lot. Though Exteriors is made of observations, it has an element of refinement and ordering. It’s different from a diary in that sense. At some points Ernaux is kind of anonymous; she could almost be anyone. Though she’s engaged with what she’s witnessing, the people she’s watching and writing about never really interact with her—she’s a bit of a ghost in that way. Perhaps that invisibility is part of her self-conception.

There are moments, though, where she inserts herself in the text. At Saint-Lazare Station, she eavesdrops on a couple, and the guy is talking very intensely about how he wants to be burned after he dies, instead of being cremated in an oven. And there’s such a strong interior line from Annie after, a moment where you see her reacting to what she’s heard. She writes: “I am visited by people and their lives—like a whore.”

That line comes back to a question that I think is one of the most clichéd in photography, and in writing: of trying to be an observer, finding a place where there’s no bias, where it’s all truth. She describes her intention almost in those terms. You see the truth of that in her reflecting: Why do I describe in detail that particular scene? She’s encountering and engaging with that, the self and how we see. I found that ebbing and flowing of her—as a character and a decision-maker and an observer—really fascinating. When I met her, we talked about that: how she wrote herself into that scene more than she expected she would.

I was surprised to find some of the bigger profiles of Ernaux don’t mention photography. But, then again, photo people don’t really talk to literature people.
15 5 Mohamed Bourouissa, ‘L’impasse (The impasse), 2007, from the series ‘Périphérique’, 2007, C-type print, MEP Collection, Paris, Acquired in 2008 thanks to the support of the Neuflize Vie Fondation,’ from Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy of the artist, Mennour Paris, MACK and MEP.

RB: You write, at one point in your essay: “Perhaps Ernaux is not only photographer and subject but camera too.” With photography, as you said just a moment ago, there’s this presumption of the “truth” of the camera, which is also an expectation that a writer like Ernaux, who uses the first-person deliberately, comes up against. In her case, the presumption that the first-person is “true” and not fictive.

LS: Annie uses the word inaccessible. Meaning she aimed to write that scene so that nothing would help you enter it—there would be no moralizing, no justification from her. But I said to her, through the act of writing about it, in choosing what you focus on and describe, you do put your judgments on it. She replied, In a way perhaps I failed my project. But for me that felt even more photographic. In writing it becomes evident, how you see something, how you presume, what you notice.

RB: When I was reading Exteriors, I thought of a review you wrote a few years ago of The Shabbiness of Beauty (Mack, 2021), a book in which the artist and writer Moyra Davey responds through her work to the archives of the photographer Peter Hujar. You discussed what Davey says about observation and Janet Malcolm, who wrote so extraordinarily about so many things, including photography:

“Malcolm’s perceptions thrill because they signal ‘truth’ in the way that strange, eccentric details nearly always do.”

“Strange, eccentric details” help conjure a sense of honesty, of the oppressive mask of polite life slipping away, and of a conspiratorial association between the viewer, whoever is revealing something in the photo, and whoever saw fit to capture it, to celebrate it.

I’m curious, how did “strange, eccentric details” inform your photographic choices with Exteriors?

LS: I think that it’s that sense of simultaneous banality… how banal things become strange and eccentric in public spaces. For Annie, a supermarket has as much meaning and human truth as anywhere else. We’re used to seeing people in really difficult circumstances and turning a blind eye. Annie describes these things as a kind of violence in the everyday:

I believe that desire, frustration and social and cultural inequality are reflected in the way we examine the contents of our shopping trolley or in the words we use to order a cut of beef or to pay tribute to a painting…that the violence and shame inherent in society can be found in the contempt a customer shows for a cashier or in the vagrant begging for money who is shunned by his peers – in anything that appears to be unimportant and meaningless simply because it is familiar or ordinary…. 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.

I wanted to find pictures that captured that balance between the banal and the extreme, where there’s a real pulsing strangeness the way there is in everyday life. Talking to Annie absolutely confirmed this book didn’t need to be illustrative, and I also set out to find pictures across photographers from all ages, nationalities, and locations, including not necessarily the locations of the pictures.

6 16 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 of the artist, MACK and MEP.

RB: How did you achieve that balance? Do you want to talk about any particular passages and photo pairings?

LS: I had insisted on keeping Annie’s text in the same order it appears in the book, but at one point there was a member of MEP who was really keen to reorder Annie’s text, to tie it more directly to the images. I told them that would be literally turning them into captions and illustrations, and also why? I do like to think of myself as a nice person to collaborate with, but my reaction to that suggestion was so strong it helped solidify to me how integral it was that the images and text weren’t relating in a sense of obvious content. It had to be certain shared themes or ideas. Often, it’s about how normal shocking things are in our lives.

For instance, there’s a passage where she writes about walking into an underground car park where the “rumble” of the exhaust fans is so loud, that if she were attacked down there, no one would hear it. The left-facing photograph, which is by Henry Wessel, shows two boys playing in a front yard, as seen through the open window of a car. One boy has pushed the other to the ground, and from a passing car, it’s hard to tell if it’s just play. You sense violence, or the possibility of that: When kids play, it’s almost like dogs, there can be a very fine line between innocence and violence, and it can just jump instantly between the two.

3 20 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.

RB: There are plenty of photographs in Paris and France, where her book is set, but there’s quite a bit elsewhere too: Japan, St. Petersburg, the UK. You have work by Henry Wessel. William Klein, Moriyama, Garry Winogrand, Luigi Ghirri. The material of the pictures hops around between supermarkets, streets, television screens.

When we first met, Annie described to me what she wants to do as a writer, with time: that time is escaping, and she wants to tear away at that escaping.

LS: I like the way you say “hopping around.” I had this image in my head that the photographs could have been Annie’s scenes, that you could slot them right together but also that they could have be what she’d have seen in a parallel time, they could represent her in another possible moment. There’s an idea Annie has about herself in her work about being multiple Annies: She sees women in the supermarket and imagines they’re future and past versions of herself, like Russian dolls, where you could pull them apart and put them back together. They’re multiple Annies exploding across time: exploding things and being exploded. And I worked on the book while I was pregnant and while I was starting to raise my child, which felt like an Annie-ish moment in my own life.

tokyo shinjuku 24 03 1998 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 of the artist, MACK and MEP.

RB: The book is also an exhibition. How did you approach the curation of that, versus the book?

LS: Annie is someone who people connect with intensely, but after she won the Nobel, I knew the project would be even more visible. That familiarity that exists when people engage with Annie’s writing, this sensation of having yourself being reflected back at you from the page, I thought about how to elicit that in the exhibition. It needed to feel instinctive. It needed to have that sense of recognizability, the simplicity that is so wondrous in Annie’s writing.

In the same way she’s said she wants her work to be “flat writing” and “a cut below literature,” I felt like this needed to be a cut below an exhibition. I didn’t want it to feel as if you were being schooled. I wanted almost no text on the walls (we settled on captions that you can choose to read with a QR code). I wanted people to see and feel the exhibit as if their experience of it would be the most valid thing. The most important person in the exhibition is not me, I was keenly aware, but the person experiencing it.

RB: In encountering someone in real life who’s written so much about herself, what surprised you most about meeting Ernaux?

LS: I met her really early on in the project. I remember getting her email: “Your project sounds interesting.” It was really intimidating. I went to her home, I took a train and then a bus, and I went to the Cergy-Pontoise neighborhood where Exteriors is set. I felt I was entering the book, walking in her footsteps. Annie is so unsentimental in her writing, that I was caught off guard by how warm she is, how she’s got a real conspiratorial demeanor about her. It was refreshing to see someone of that position to be so open, to be so willing to give up control when it came to this project. But Annie’s never been particularly enamored of literature in the first place.

We fell into this thing where we write to each other pretty frequently now. Speaking to her about navigating pregnancy, about the total annihilation of the self that happens with a child, was really clarifying.

RB: At the outset of the project, you posed for yourself the question of discovering what curating a speculative show tied to Ernaux’s work would reveal about how we approach literature. What connections did emerge for you?

LS: What surprised me was how concretely her texts became images to me. That happened very, very quickly. I still struggle to understand why. Other writers make descriptive scenes. But I’ve never felt this so intensely with anything else, maybe because I was spending so much time with her work — though Barthes’ Incidents comes close. His observations are so similar to hers; there’s a funny synergy.

When we first met, Annie described to me what she wants to do as a writer, with time: that time is escaping, and she wants to tear away at that escaping. To me, this recalls that Susan Sontag line about photographs being like “casual fragments”: this idea of wanting to rip out reality and hold it, and have this physical thing, that physicality, these torn-off moments in reality.

9 9 Clarisse Hahn, ‘Ombre (Shadow), 2021, C-type print,’ from Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Jousse Entreprise, Paris, MACK and MEP.

RB: “Tearing away at the time escaping” is a stunning and perfect phrase. It makes me think again, of the presence of the writer, or of the photographer: Why did the hand tear that particular bit away, and does the presence of the hand make it any less real?

LS: It’s always a question of interpretation, and these are always the questions we’ll turn back to. And still: You know, I’ve spent so much time thinking that it’s a cliché that we can take photography as truth. But hearing Annie describe this, the attempt at capturing the sensation of reality, it undid some of my cynicism. It ignited something for me in photography again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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