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holding on

photography and reflexive ethnography

Jean-Robert Dantou, Florence Weber & Ninon Bonzom - March 23, 2023

the original language of this article is English

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What resources do people facing great difficulties linked to the increase in social inequalities between territories use daily? Why do some people in precarious situations move from one region to another and not others? How do these relocations, endured or chosen, contribute to locking them in or giving them back control over their lives? A loss of income or the hope of an easier life may lead to residential relocation to areas where the cost of living is lower (rent, food), where relatives are available to share domestic tasks in the broadest sense. Staying put when neighbors leave, having to leave a neighborhood where the cost of living has risen sharply, seeing one’s neighborhood become impoverished, empty, collapsed, seeing adjacent neighborhoods get richer: all these factors obfuscate attitudes towards the future and lead to emotions such as anger, shame, or sadness. These questions are raised by a collaborative social science study that examines the role of economic dynamics and public authorities in the selective collapse of portions of the French territory.

The photographic investigation conducted in Tonnerre between 2017 and 2022 is the first unit implemented by this collective research. It focuses on the conditions necessary for photography to be an effective heuristic tool in the service of scientific knowledge. Formally, the work is part of a lineage partially interrupted during the second half of the twentieth century, that of alliances between photography and social sciences forged a century earlier in Europe (Thomson and Smith), in Australia (Gillen and Spencer), and in the United States (Boas and Hastings). The project advocates the notion of photographic and ethnographic practice closer to a craft rather than an art form, a profession rather than an artistic gesture, for production of knowledge at the service of accretion of understanding and interdisciplinary cooperation rather than the competitive search for innovation.

On the platform, the visual essay unfolds on three levels. The first layer presents a map of the city of Tonnerre that highlights the important structures for the survey: pictograms indicate the entry points to the territory, the caring institutions that allow people to survive, the vacant places that play a key role in the arrival of precarious populations, and the shelters that provide protection from the cold and rain.

The second layer shows a selection of portraits, with captions providing information on the different ways in which people have settled in Tonnerre over the past ten years. The framework engages the people photographed at several stages of the production. They have chosen the places where the pictures were taken. They have also chosen the places to which their portraits are linked on the map, either because they spend time there, or because they have in those locations an emotional connection, related to their hopes and doubts. And they have also coauthored the captions accompanying the photographs, to explain their singular relationship to the area.

The third layer follows two rationales: the places identified on the map refer to photographic documentation of the territory, while each portrait refers to the resources mobilized to deal with daily life as well as photographic situations. From an epistemological perspective, this is about restoring the gap between the observed world and its photographic representation, a reminder that photographic materials, in order to be usable, must be related to the singular context of their production: the distance between photographer and subject; monochromatic effects; and things that are out-of-frame, such as the photographer’s body language during the shoot.

More information about the images can be found in the “illustration rights and references” section.


authors: Jean Robert Dantou, Florence Weber, and Ninon Bonzom

photographs and artistic direction: Jean-Robert Dantou, photographer, PhD candidate SACRe ENS, Université PSL, Agence VU’
scientific director: Florence Weber, sociologist and anthropologist, ENS, Université PSL
graphic design: Ninon Bonzom
coordination and project management: Léa Saint-Raymond, ENS, Université PSL
supported by: Published with the support of Ministère de la Culture – Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Grande commande nationale “Radioscopie de la France : regards sur un pays traversé par la crise sanitaire”), École universitaire de recherche Translitteræ (Investissements d’avenir program ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL and ANR-17-EURE-0025), and the EA SACRe-PSL.

(See references and rights below for image captions)

references and rights

illustration rights and references

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Dantou, Jean-Robert, Florence Weber and Ninon Bonzom. 2021. First layer: Map of the city of Tonnerre. Credits © 2021 Ninon Bonzom. Reproduced with permission.

Dantou, Jean-Robert. 2019-2021. Portraits from the photography series “Arriver”. Photos © 2019-2021 Jean-Robert Dantou/SACRe ENS PSL/Agence VU’. Reproduced with permission.

Dantou, Jean-Robert. 2019-2021. Portraits from the photography series “Tenir”. Photos © 2019-2022 Jean-Robert Dantou/BNF/SACRe ENS PSL/Agence VU’. Reproduced with permission.

Dantou, Jean-Robert. 2021. Portraits from the photography series “Photographier”. Photos © 2021 Jean-Robert Dantou/SACRe ENS PSL/Agence VU’. Reproduced with permission.

W152       Bouchra, Prés Hauts district, January 2021.

W101       Olivia, Prés Hauts district, December 2020.

W114       Ludovic, Prés Hauts district, December 2020.

W132       Éric Felder, Prés Hauts district, January 2021.

W135       Sébastien, Prés Hauts district, January 2021.

W141       Gérald, Prés Hauts district, January 2021.

W086       Luca, Canal de Bourgogne, November 2020.

W206       Isabel, Quartier de l’Europe,  February 2021.

DAJ_8140 Patrick, Les Lices district, June 2019.

W100       Bachir, Tonnerre Heights, December 2020.

DAJ_8276 Giuseppe Trotti, Rue du Général Campenon, March 2019.

W169 Lugrid Valdi, “La Cascade”, February 2021.

W152 Bouchra arrived in Tonnerre in February 2020, at the age of 43, after spending several months in a night shelter in Migennes. Her portrait appears on the map at the level of the limestone cliff that overlooks the city, which corresponds to the horizon she sees from her bedroom window, from the Prés-Hauts district. She describes this hill as a “horizon to overcome,” a metaphor for the daily difficulties of leaving her room and apartment. Behind her portrait appears a series of screenshots that put into perspective the long time it took to take the picture.

W101 Olivia arrived in Tonnerre in September 2020, at the age of 30, after a long hospitalization in Auxerre. Her portrait presents an ordinary everyday scene, during which she listens to Ethiopian music on her cell phone. Olivia wanted her photograph to appear on the map at the Pavillon Bleu, a brasserie where she goes almost every day to buy her tobacco and meet a friend.

W114 Ludovic arrived in Tonnerre in 2010, at the age of 40, after several years on the street. His portrait was taken at his home at the end of the day, in December, in the winter light, at the table where he explains he used to sit to think. His portrait is attached to some photographs from the series Photographier taken at a place called “La Cascade”, which question the issue of distance in the photographic relationship.

W132 Eric Felder arrived in Tonnerre in 2010, at the age of 42, after having lived in a hostel in Auxerre for two years. His portrait appears on the map at the Bar des Sports, where he likes to stop for a coffee on the terrace: “This morning I had eight or ten coffees. I drink one, smoke a cigarette, and order another.” Eric doesn’t like his portrait very much; he thinks he leans his head too much, that it’s unbalanced. His portrait is linked to photographs from the series Photographier­­ a reflective documentation of the operation of cutting up the world which the photographic act does.

W135 Sébastien arrived at the Résidence Accueil in the Prés-Hauts district in 2020, at the age of 43. He wanted his portrait to appear on the map at the Cascade: “I don’t like it, Tonnerre, there is no work, it’s dead. The only quiet place is the Cascade.” His portrait is attached to photographs questioning one of the paradigms of the photographic relationship: the choice of background.

W141 Gérald is originally from Tonnerre; he arrived at the Résidence Accueil in the Prés-Hauts district five years ago, at the age of 47. Here he poses on the bed in his room, which he describes as the place where he spends most of his time. Gérald wanted his portrait to appear on the map at “La Glacière”, a cave near the house where he arrived in Tonnerre at the age of three. His portrait is linked to photographs from the series Photographier in a reflexive documentation of the photographic gesture.

W086 Luca arrived in Tonnerre at the end of October 2020, at the age of 20, after a month spent on the streets of Auxerre. His portrait is linked to three forms of resistance that are part of his daily life: regular weight training, a knife to defend himself, and drawing. Luca left town a few days after we met, and we have since lost contact with him. His portrait appears on the map at the location where the photograph was taken.

W206 Isabel arrived in Tonnerre from Portugal in August 2013, at the age of 41, to join her husband, who had found a job in the vineyards in Chablis a few months earlier. She describes her exile and arrival in Tonnerre as a difficult ordeal. Her portrait is attached to a sequence of photographs taken moments later, for which she brought together her children and husband. Her portrait appears on the map at Notre Dame de Tonnerre Church: “Every Sunday or so, I come to light a candle and say a prayer so that one day I can go back to my country.”

DAJ_8140 Patrick arrived in Tonnerre with his partner Céline in May 2015. He was 60 years old at the time, and she was almost 40. Originally from the inner suburbs of Paris, they arrived in Tonnerre after staying with a cousin in Saint-Ouen for several years. They got married in Tonnerre on May 14, 2016. Patrick’s portrait appears on the map at La Cascade, where they like to go for a walk, meet friends, or have a picnic. The last layer shows a series of photographs presenting both the circulation of photographs in the investigation and Patrick’s close family (his wife, brother, and nephews).

W100 Bachir arrived in Tonnerre at the end of November 2020, at the age of 54, after staying for a few months with friends in a nearby town. He was only in Tonnerre for a few days, before finding social housing about 50 kilometers away, in the town of Joigny. Two photographs appear behind his portrait: a scene of rest on the cell phone in the emergency housing of the Centre Communal d’Action Sociale, and a portrait dressed for boxing, a sport he practices daily to keep fit and stay in shape. His portrait appears on the map at the location where the photograph was taken.

DAJ_8276 Giuseppe Trotti has lived on Rue Campenon for about sixty years. Regarded as one of the best dancers in the city, he poses here in March 2019, in ballroom attire in the street in front of his home. Almost every morning, Giuseppe rides his bike to buy bread and run a few errands, before returning to make lunch for his wife. He wanted his portrait to appear on the map at the level of Rue Campenon, which he describes as the place where he founded his family. His portrait is linked to a series of photographs from the Tenir series which, on the one hand, depicts a morning routine structuring his days, and on the other hand, refers to the rhythm of the fieldwork relationship: Jean-Robert Dantou spent approximately one week every six weeks in Tonnerre, and each of his field days begins with a photograph of Giuseppe on his bicycle, at the same street corner, usually between 8:30 and 9:00 am.

W169 Lugrid Valdi arrived in Tonnerre in March 2020, at the age of 40, after several months in a parenting center in Auxerre. Her portrait is linked to a series of photographs taken a few minutes later, on the banks of the Armançon River, where she likes to come for a walk. Lugrid wanted her portrait to appear on the map at the train station: “I wasn’t used to seeing an abandoned train station. It affected me not to find an agent to ask what time the train was passing; I was used to Paris, I was completely lost here.”

bibliography and references

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Gramain, Agnès, and Samuel Neuberg. 2009. “Réagencements territoriaux récents et conduite des politiques sociales à l’échelle locale.” Travail et Emploi 119: 77–87.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schwartz, Olivier. 2011. “La pénétration de la ‘culture psychologique de masse’ dans un groupe populaire: paroles de conducteurs de bus.”  Sociologie, 2 (4): 345–361.

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to cite this article

This article is using Chicago format for its references

Dantou, Jean-Robert, Florence Weber, and Ninon Bonzom. 2023. “Holding on: Photography and Reflexive Ethnography.” .able journal:

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