In the name of the parents



Photography and auto-sociobiography in Édouard Louis and Didier Eribon


To what extent is the photographic image capable of providing clues about the subjects portrayed? Édouard Louis' auto-sociobiographical accounts[1] and Didier Eribon provide some answers to this question. The first starts Struggles and metamorphoses of a woman (2021) with a detailed description of a self-portrait of the mother:

“The photo was taken by her when she was twenty years old. I imagine she had to hold the camera upside down to frame her own face in the lens. At the time, cell phones didn't exist and photographing yourself wasn't an obvious thing. She had her head tilted to the side and was smiling a little, her hair combed straight across her forehead, flawless, her blonde hair around her green eyes. As if she wanted to seduce. She can't find the words to explain it, but everything in this photo, her pose, her gaze, the movement of her hair, evokes freedom, an infinity of possibilities in front of her, and perhaps also, happiness.”

The chance encounter of the self-portrait, of which he was unaware of the existence, activates a memory process in Édouard Louis, who understands that he did not realize, when he lived in his father's house, that his mother had been “perforce young and full of dreams”. The sight of his youthful and confident face triggers an awareness: “Looking at this image, I felt the words escape me. Seeing her free, projected with her entire body into the future, brought back to my mind the years of her life shared with my father, the humiliations imposed by him, poverty, twenty years of her life mutilated and almost destroyed by male violence and poverty, between twenty-five and forty-five years old, the age at which people experience life, freedom, travel, self-knowledge”.

“Seeing this photo reminded me that these twenty years of life destroyed were not a natural thing, they happened through the action of forces external to her – society, masculinity, my father – and that, therefore, things could have been different . The sight of happiness made me feel the injustice of its destruction.”

Although lacking Annie Ernaux's stylistic resources, the author adopts, at first glance, her method of describing the “image in absentia” (Véronique Montémont), which allows her to externalize and expose (in every sense) a certain situation from the past (Fabien Arribert-Narce). Guided, in the same way as Annie Ernaux, by the conception of photography as evidence, Édouard Louis ends up avoiding the “image in absentia”, when confronting the reader, in the final pages of the volume, with the self-portrait that served as a driving instrument for writing.

Monique's youthful and confident face contrasts with what her son writes about that moment: “At the age of twenty she had two children, no diploma and a husband she already hated, after just a few years of living with him”. This life of deprivation does not appear in the image which, due to its concentration on the face, does not provide any social indicator.

Having seen her “unhappy at home” even after her second marriage, the writer reveals what moved him to narrate her maternal story: “the happiness on her face seemed to me like a scandal, a deception, a lie that needed to be unmasked. as soon as possible". This is done not only through writing, with which he reconstructs Monique's difficult life alongside her father, but also thanks to a photograph, which reveals a “context of misery and tension”.

Inserted in the middle of the narrative, but without any specific relationship with it, the image shows a couple sitting at the table in a modest kitchen. Neither of them seems to be happy. The same can be said about the boy, who appears behind the male figure, absorbed in contemplation of the gas cylinder.

The presence of this image generates the feeling that Édouard Louis does not fully trust the word as an instrument for reconstituting an environment, resorting to the visual dimension to corroborate the non-fictional aspect of his story. This impression is consolidated when the reader comes across a second photograph, in which Monique Belleguele – who considered herself “the French Monica Bellucci” – poses smiling with her famous son, after breaking up with her second husband and moving to Paris. . It is up to the image to prove how happy she felt for having become a person “who bought clothes” and for doing “what all women do: putting on makeup, taking care of herself, doing her hair”.

The use of photographs to corroborate the life story of a woman who managed to turn things around and reinvent herself demonstrates that Édouard Louis is unable to complete the method adopted by Annie Ernaux in the books that make up the “family saga” (The place, 1983; A woman, 1987; The shame, 1997; and The other daughter, 2011). Thanks to the description of images, the writer activates not only a private memory, but paves the way for the configuration of an auto-sociobiography, in which the personal and the social meet and merge.

Willing to talk about himself through others, the author does not take advantage of Who killed my father (2018) of a strange find made in an “old family album eaten by moths and humidity”. The fact that he found photos of his father “dressed up as a woman, as a goalkeeper” in the repository of family memory, in that space where a story to be transmitted to future generations is constructed, does not arouse any perplexity.

What matters most is establishing a confrontation between the father's machismo and homophobia and the feeling of joy that emanated from the images in drag: “Since I was born I have seen you despise all signs of femininity in a man, I have heard you say that a man should never behave like a woman, ever. You looked like you were about thirty in the photos, I think I was already born. I kept looking until the end of the night at this image of your body, of your body dressed in a skirt, of the wig on your head, of the lipstick on your lips, of the fake breasts that you must have made with cotton and a bra under your t-shirt. The most amazing thing for me is that you seemed happy. You smiled. I stole the photo and tried to decipher it later, several times during the week, taking it out of the drawer in which I had hidden it. I didn’t say anything to you.”

The description of these unusual images of the father is preceded by the mother's revelation that he loved to dance. The fact that the paternal body “had already done something so free, so beautiful and so incompatible with his obsession with masculinity” leads the son to understand that perhaps his father “had been someone else” in the past. Interested in unraveling the paternal “paradox”, revealed by a third episode – his emotion when watching an opera on television –, the writer does not ask himself whether the photographs of his father disguised as a woman had not been taken during Carnival, a time when social norms can be reversed and violated without any sanctions. This would explain its presence in the family album, since the spectacle of a new bodily grammar did not call patriarchal society and its normative codes into question.

A disciple of Pierre Bourdieu, Édouard Louis could have seen in his father's unusual images a “technique of reiteration of the party, designed to capture the most euphoric and euphoric moments” of a state of deconcentration. Made to be seen later as a “good moment”, this type of photography “sovereigns in reverse”, works against the “rules of decorum”, at the same time that it “expresses and reinforces, by expressing it, the ordered disorder from the party". If the author had analyzed the paternal photographs based on this variable, he could have formulated a disturbing question: wouldn't the act of cross-dressing have represented for the father a borderline experience with the body and desire?


Quite another had been the attitude of Didier Eribon, a self-confessed admirer of Annie Ernaux, who, in Return to Reims (2009), proposes an intriguing reflection on the relationship between the individual, memory and society based on photographic images. The reunion with his mother after a long time takes place in an environment cluttered with framed photographs. Thanks to them, Didier Eribon became aware of the transformations undergone by his brothers over thirty years. The big revelation occurs with the opening of boxes of photographs kept by his mother, which confront him with his own personal and social past. Although they were not yet engraved in his spirit and in his flesh, those images returned to the author “that working-class environment in which I had lived and that working-class misery that can be read in the physiognomy of the houses in the background, in the interiors, in the clothes, in the very bodies.”

A reader of Pierre Bourdieu, Didier Eribon knows that photography is neither a universal nor a neutral image, as it bears the mark of the social group of the individuals who photograph and are photographed. This type of perception leads him to state that “it is always dizzying to see to what extent photographed bodies from the past […] immediately present themselves to the eye as social bodies, class bodies. And to see to what extent photography as a 'souvenir', by taking an individual – in this case, me – to his family past, anchors him in his social past. The sphere of the private, and even of intimacy, as it resurfaces in old clichés, reinscribes us within the scope of the social world from which we came, in places marked by class belonging, in a topography in which what seems to stand out from more fundamental relationships Personal experiences place us in a collective history and geography (as if individual genealogy were inseparable from a social archeology or topology that each person carries with them as one of their deepest, if not the most conscious, truths).

The author provides an eloquent example of a class body when he recalls his mother's labor vicissitudes: first, a cleaner and then a factory worker. Her observation is not free from a feeling of guilt (she sacrificed herself so that her son could study): “When I see her today, her body damaged by the pain linked to the harshness of the tasks she would carry out for almost fifteen years, standing on a assembly line […], with the right to replace ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the afternoon to go to the bathroom, I am amazed at what social inequality means concretely, physically. And even the word “inequality” seems to me to be a euphemism that does not capture what it is about: the raw violence of exploitation. A body of workers, when it ages, shows to all eyes what the reality of the existence of classes is.”

Central to Didier Eribon's considerations, the idea of ​​the class body appears at other moments in the story. By reviewing photos spread around his mother's house, the writer receives information about the “expanded family: my brothers' children, a cousin and her husband, a cousin and his wife, etc. […] The answers outlined a cartography of today’s popular classes.” The family’s “social homogeneity” was corroborated by the mother’s answers: “‘He works at factory Social advancement was personified in the figure of such a cousin, employed in the department that handles taxes, or such a sister-in-law, secretary. We are far from the misery of the past, the one I knew in my childhood – 'They are not bad', 'She earns well', my mother said after [she] told me the profession of the person I pointed to. But this leads back to the same position in the social space: an entire family constellation whose situation, whose relational inscription in the class world has not changed.”

The photos spread “in every corner, on the furniture, on the walls” of Muizon’s house are clear proof of the “family function” performed by the technical image. As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, photography cannot be dissociated from the function that the family group attributes to it: “to solemnize and immortalize the great moments of the family's life”, in addition to being an object of exchange that does nothing more than reaffirm the integration of group.

Didier Eribon offers a vivid example of the family function analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu when he dwells on some clichés taken on the occasion of the first communion: “I found at my mother's house photographs of my brother and myself, that day, quite ridiculous, with uncles and aunts, cousins, in front of my paternal grandmother's house, where, after the ceremony, this entire small crowd met for a festive lunch, for which these religious practices undoubtedly served only as a pretext or permission: religious rituals , however absurd they may be, they provide the opportunity for a very pagan meeting and therefore exercise a function of family integration, with the preservation of a bond between brothers and sisters and the creation of a bond between their children – my cousins ​​and my cousins ​​–, and also the concomitant reaffirmation of a social self, as the homogeneity, professional and cultural, of class was always total, without anyone being able to be discarded since the previous family reunion”.

Pierre Bourdieu's reflection is the evident matrix of Didier Eribon's writing, which derives from him the idea of ​​commemorative photography as “a rite of domestic worship, in which the family is, at the same time, subject and object, because it expresses the feeling of the celebration that the family group offers itself – a feeling that it reinforces when expressing it –, the need for photographs and the need to photograph (internalization of the social function of this practice) are felt so much more vividly when the group is more integrated, when it goes through its moment of greater integration”.

Didier Eribon's strangeness with several photographs found in his mother's house reaches its peak when he comes across the image of a man “thin, hunched over, his eyes lost, aged terribly”, in which he does not recognize his father. Amazed by the information given by his mother, he needs a few minutes to “make the connection between the image of this weakened body and the man I had known, ranting about everything, stupid and violent, the man who had inspired me with so much contempt. At that moment, I felt a little disturbed as I realized that in the months, years perhaps, that preceded his death, he had gone from being the person I hated to this pathetic being: a fallen, harmless, ancient domestic tyrant. without strength, overcome by age and illness.”

The non-recognition of the paternal image does not call into question the realistic status of the photograph, as it mobilizes in the author the need to come to terms with the past: “The pain, or perhaps, in my case – since the extinction of hatred had not awakened in I had no pain – an urgent obligation to question myself, a pressing desire to go back in time to understand the reasons why it had been so difficult for me to have even the slightest exchange with this man who, deep down, I barely knew. When I try to reflect, I admit that I don't know much about my father. What did he think? Yes, what did he think of the world he lived in? His own? And the others? How did he see things in life? The things in his life? […]

I never – never! – I had had a conversation with him. He was incapable (at least with me, and I with him) of that. It's too late to regret. But there are so many questions I would now like to ask you, just to write this book.”

The suspicion that his maternal grandmother could have been a collaborator led Didier Eribon to examine, when the occasion arose, photographs of scenes of humiliation suffered by French women accused of relationships with Germans during the Second World War. Aware of the existence of a double standard, which spared high-level collaborators from contempt, degradation and the “violence of public revenge”, the writer seeks to detect whether “there was an indication of where the cliché had been taken”, wondering if the grandmother was one of the women portrayed: “Who knows, maybe one of those distressed faces, one of those scared looks is yours? How did she manage to forget?” Given the impossibility of forging a glorious story – a grandmother who was part of the resistance, hiding Jews, putting her life at risk, sabotaging parts in the factory where she worked –, the author has no other option than to see how her choices (abandonment children and stay in Germany) had repercussions on his mother's life, on the formation of her personality and her subjectivity and, by extension, on the young years of her grandson and “those who followed them”.

The reader who is familiar with Annie Ernaux's works and the reasons that led her to resort to describing photographs immediately perceives Didier Eribon's proximity to her method. In Return to Reims, the author uses the photographic image as an evocation of a past reality and as a source of emotions that allow him to confront two temporalities, one personal, the other collective. This strategy is used particularly in the case of First Communion photographs, transformed into a single image, and the paternal portrait, a source of estrangement also present in Annie Ernaux's books, particularly in A woman e The other daughter. Although he does not resort to description in the typification of the class body and in the episode of the punishment of female collaborators, Didier Eribon shows that he conceives photography as a document endowed with sociological density, going beyond the Ernaultian operation in a work such as The place.

One of Annie Ernaux's fundamental goals—to use a detailed prose description of the “image in absentia” to bring to life photographs unseen by the reader – is apparently at the basis of the opening pages of Struggles and metamorphoses of a woman. Louis, however, ends up distancing himself from this strategy, to which Annie Ernaux entrusted the task of preventing the real photograph from taking the place of the one imagined by the reader, calling into question the possibility of a proper and personal representation.

If Édouard Louis fails in this objective when he reveals his mother's physiognomy, transforming the photograph into a simple illustration, Didier Eribon demonstrates that he understood the strategy. Even in the more sociological sections of the book, he invites the reader to carry out an imaginary exercise: producing images specific to the social body or female collaborators, thus demonstrating that he has understood the socio-historical mechanisms that govern the photographic image.

* Annateresa Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Visual Arts at ECA-USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reality and fiction in Latin American photography (UFRGS Publisher).


ARRIBERT-NARCE, Fabien. “Ekphraseis photographiques dans memoire de fille” (2020). Available in: .

_______. “Vers une écriture 'photo-socio-biographique' du réel. Entertainment with Annie Ernaux” (June 2011). Available in:>

BOURDIEU, Pierre. “Unit worship and cultural differences”. In: BOURDIEU, Pierre (org.). Photography: an intermediate art. Mexico: Editorial Nueva Imagen, 1979.

ERIBON, Didier. Return to Reims; trans. Cecilia Schuback. Belo Horizonte/Venice: Âyiné, 2020.

LOUIS, Édouard. Struggles and metamorphoses of a woman; trans. Marília Scalzo. São Paulo: However, 2023.

_______. Who killed my father; trans. Marília Scalzo. São Paulo: However, 2023.

MONTÉMONT, Véronique. “Vous et moi: usage autobiographique du material documentaire” (2012). Available in: .


[1] Registered as Eddy Belleguele, the author was authorized, in 2013, to use the name Édouard Louis.

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