The Uses of Photography by Annie Ernaux

Extract from L’Usage de la photo (The Uses of Photography) by Annie Ernaux and Marc Marie (Paris: Gallimard 2005).

Extract (opening pages 9-13 of the original text)

by Annie Ernaux, translated by Lyn Thomas


Often, from the beginning of our relationship, when I woke up the next morning I would be stopped in my tracks, fascinated by the sight of the remains of our dinner still on the table, the chairs out of place, our clothes mixed up together and thrown onto the floor while making love. It was a different landscape each time. Destroying it by separating the clothes and each one of us reclaiming our own things was painful. I felt I was erasing the only tangible trace of our ecstasy.

One morning I got up after M. had left. When I went downstairs and saw the items of clothing and underwear, the shoes, scattered on the tiles of the corridor in the sunlight, I felt pain and a sense of beauty. For the first time I thought I should photograph this haphazard arrangement, born out of desire and destined to vanish. I went to get my camera. When I told M. what I had done, he admitted that he had already felt the same desire.

Tacitly, from then on, as if making love was not enough, as if we needed to keep a material representation of the act, we continued to take photographs. Some were taken immediately after making love, others the next morning. The morning pictures were the most moving. These objects, which our bodies had cast off, had spent the whole night in the positions created by the direction of their fall. They were the remains of a celebration which already belonged to a bygone era. Finding them again in the light of day was to experience time.

Very soon we became curious, excited even, about discovering together and photographing the ever-changing and unpredictable composition, whose elements ­– sweaters, stockings, shoes – had organised themselves according to unknown laws, movements and gestures we had forgotten, that we had not been aware of.

A rule spontaneously imposed itself on us: never to change the arrangement of the clothes. Moving a court shoe or a tee-shirt would have constituted a fault – as impossible for me as changing the order of words in my diary – it would have been an attack on the reality of our act of love. And if one of us had without thinking picked up an item of clothing it was never put back in place for the photograph.

  1. usually took several shots of the scene, framing it differently to capture the totality of the things scattered on the ground. I preferred it if he took the picture. Unlike him, I have little experience of photography, which until now I’ve practised only occasionally, in a desultory kind of way. At first he used my heavy black Samsung camera, then the Minolta which had belonged to his dead father, later on the little Olympus which replaced my Samsung when it broke. All three were silver-based[1] cameras.

A gap of a few weeks, the time it took to finish the film and get it developed by Photoservice, separated the moment of taking the photos from that of looking at them for the first time. This second moment was enacted according to a ritual:

  • the person who collected the prints was not allowed to open the packet
  • we would sit next to each other, on the sofa, with a drink, and music playing
  • we would take the photos out one by one, and look at them together.

Each time it was a surprise. We did not immediately recognise the room in the house where the photograph had been taken, or the clothes. It was no longer the scene we had looked at, that we had wanted to preserve from loss, but a strange picture, often richly coloured and enigmatically formed. We had theimpression that the morning’s or the night’s act of love (whose exact date we already could not quite remember) had been translated both into a material and a transfigured form, that now it existed elsewhere, in a mysterious space.

For several months we were happy enough taking the photos, looking at them and collecting them. The idea of writing coming out of them struck us one night while we were having dinner. I don’t remember which of us had the idea first, but we knew straightaway that we both wanted the idea to take shape. As if what we had thought up until then was enough to preserve a trace of our moments of love – the photos – in fact was not, as if we needed something more, we needed to write.

From the pile of photos, around forty, we chose fourteen, and we agreed that each one of us would write independently, completely freely, without ever showing the text to the other before it was finished, or changing a word of it. This rule was applied rigorously, until the end.

There was one exception. When we started taking the pictures I was being treated for breast cancer. While writing, very soon I felt the need to evoke the ‘“other scene”, the scene of the battle which was being played out in my body – a blind, stupefying – “is this really happening to me?” – struggle between life and death. I communicated this to M. He could not conceal this either, an essential element of our relationship, over many months. This was the only time we spoke of the content of our “compositions” – a provisional term we had stumbled on to describe our project, and which corresponded to what they were for us, in both senses of the term.

I cannot ascertain the value or interest of our endeavour. In a way it matches the frenetic transformation of life into images which more and more characterises our times. Photography, writing, each time for us it was about making those moments of pleasure more real, despite their ephemerality and resistance to representation. Capturing the unreal quality of sex in the reality of the traces. Reality at the deepest level, however, will only be reached, if these ‘written photographs’ become other scenes in the memories and imaginations of readers.

Cergy, 22nd October, 2004

[1] This term, which has appeared in the last few years to differentiate from ‘digital’, just as vinyl differentiates from CD in music – is a distinction which announces the planned disappearance of the former in favour of the latter. It seems to me to be incongruous, impossible to apply it to what for me will remain forever, simply, a camera.

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