The Wretched of the Earth
In The Face of Silence — Christophe Agou
Book Review by Edward Welch
Published by: Dewi Lewis
Winner of the European Publishers Award for Photography in 2010, Cristophe Agou’s elegantly produced book explores peasant life in the wild, remote and often harsh uplands of South Eastern France. France is a country which still talks happily of peasants, and peasant life continues to loom large in the French cultural imaginary, as reflected in the commercial and critical success of Raymond Depardon’s film trilogy, Profils Paysans (Peasant Profiles), over the course of the last decade.
The farms and small holdings which get what they can from often difficult soil have helped to shape landscapes framed and consumed as picturesque during the tourist seasons. And in many ways, rural France and its modes of life serve as the antipode and antidote to the modernised and often ravaged urban environments surrounding the country’s major cities. Yet, as Agou’s images remind us, France’s rural populations are themselves subject to problems of poverty and social exclusion. Where Depardon’s wide angles locate his peasants firmly in their broader context, and bestow on them a certain nobility, Agou’s images are dominated by a sense of claustrophobia. Shot at close range, his peasants are tired, haggard and unkempt, and their environment dark, moody and unforgiving. A certain air of miserablism aside, Agou’s volume is a welcome intervention in debates around the complexities of French identity, and the extent to which its different facets – from the pre-modern to the postcolonial – can ever now be properly reconciled.