Lise Sarfati, She, Sandra S. Phillips

Aperture Magazine 194, Spring 2009

The peo­ple in Lise Sarfati’s pic­tures never seem to be doing much of any­thing. They hang out, smoke cig­a­rettes, sit on their beds, pour them­selves cof­fee. They are usu­ally alone, and most of them are women. They seem to be wait­ing. Will some­thing hap­pen to amuse or inter­est them?

Sarfati is best known for her pho­tographs of young peo­ple, mainly teenagers try­ing to fig­ure out who they are, what they will do, where they will be. We sense in these pic­tures, as we often do with ado­les­cents, that they are hid­ing them­selves, con­ceal­ing some­thing, play­ing at being some­one, even though Sarfati is open and sym­pa­thetic to them. Many of the young girls she pho­tographs have made them­selves up with inge­nious and col­or­ful makeup and hair, a dis­guise as much as an expres­sion. Or they recline in their rooms like volup­tuous odal­isques-​but pri­vately, just for them­selves. Hardly aware of the per­son mak­ing the pic­tures, they reveal an impen­e­tra­ble lan­guorous­ness that is beau­ti­ful and par­tic­u­lar and also some­how unnerv­ing.

Sarfati has said: Perhaps ado­les­cence is the only true time of life.” She has also stated: I like dou­bles, like moth­ers and daugh­ters, or sis­ters, or reflec­tions. This rep­re­sents my research in women’s iden­tity… I am inter­ested in fix­ing that insta­bil­ity.” What Sarfati calls her pho­to­graphic research” into the insta­bil­ity” of women’s iden­tity has evolved in the course of three dis­tinct projects, con­ceived as a total­ity. The first project, Immaculate (2006−07), looked at the rar­efied world of Catholic girls’ schools sur­rounded by gar­dens (“like Eden,” Sarfati notes). The chil­dren who attend these schools are pro­tected in a kind of cul­tural bell jar; they seem strangely, even dis­turbingly untouched, and sep­a­rated from the con­cerns of the world out­side.

That bell jar cracks open in the next part of Sarfati’s series, The New Life (2005), which exam­ines a num­ber of ado­les­cents-​both boys and girls-​liv­ing in towns and cities across the United States. Among the sub­jects in this series are two sis­ters, Sloane and Sasha, who, when Sarfati first met them in 2003, were cop­ing with a rad­i­cal geo­graph­i­cal, cul­tural, and psy­cho­log­i­cal tran­si­tion. They had recently moved to Oakland, California, from Phoenix, where they had lived with their grand­par­ents in a large, con­ven­tional sub­ur­ban home near their father, attend­ing a rather proper school that required uni­forms. Sarfati pho­tographed the sis­ters’ rein­vented, uncon­ven­tional lives with their mother in the Oakland loft.

What is per­haps most aston­ish­ing about the pic­tures of Sasha and Sloane in The New Life is that the girls are hardly rec­og­niz­able as the same peo­ple, though accord­ing to Sarfati the pho­tographs of them were nearly all taken on the same day. The most mem­o­rable pic­ture-​one of Sarfati’s most rec­og­nized-​is the por­trait of Sloane in a long orange wig, wear­ing a bril­liant red dress and enor­mous sun­glasses, glanc­ing down­ward. In another pic­ture, again in the funky Oakland loft, she is blond and smokes a cig­a­rette, look­ing at the pho­tog­ra­pher bemus­edly, inquis­i­tively.

Sarfati’s cur­rent project, She, in a sense dou­bles the stakes of her inves­ti­ga­tion into famil­ial pair­ings: it revis­its the two sis­ters, now a few years older, along­side their mother, Christine, and her sis­ter, Gina. Sloane and Sasha no longer live with their mother; now each girl shares an apart­ment with other room­mates in Oakland. Gina too lives in Oakland, while Christine lives in Los Angeles, pur­su­ing a singing career. Sarfati is care­ful to point out that though her two last series share two sub­jects, they are dif­fer­ent projects. Here, no one is pho­tographed with any­one else; every­one is seen alone, in her own space. Sarfati is inter­ested in the implied drama enacted here between the two younger women and two older women. The mood of these pic­tures, in less expert or sen­si­tive hands, might recall the emo­tional level of a soap operaone has the sense that the issues are ongo­ing, as they are on TV dra­mas. Though there are anx­i­eties and real com­pet­i­tive­ness man­i­fested in the way they all dress and com­port them­selves, we also sense an emo­tional cohe­sion among these four women. They look as though they belong to the same tribe, will stick together, are con­scious of one another, worry about one another.

As dif­fi­cult as it is to tell who is who in the ear­lier pic­tures, it is per­haps even harder now. Not only do the two younger girls look dif­fer­ent in almost every pic­ture, the older women have slen­der, angu­lar bod­ies, like the girls. Christine, their dark-haired mother, can hardly be dis­tin­guished from her sis­ter, Gina, who is nat­u­rally blond but wears a black wig. Christine has the same inward gaze and the same out­ward sense of cos­tume her daugh­ters have. The mother and the aunt have tat­toos on their shoul­ders. Christine puts on a bridal dress for the cam­era, a cos­tume she keeps even though she was never mar­ried in it. Like her chil­dren, the mother is shown in intense thought, caught up in her own imag­i­na­tion; we see her hes­i­tat­ing on the stairs between the house and the street, as though try­ing to remem­ber some­thing she has for­got­ten. Sarfati pho­tographed Sloane sit­ting in a San Francisco home, hold­ing up a toddler’s one-piece wrap, exam­in­ing it as though she is try­ing to find some­thing in it. Sloane is at her first job, as a babysit­ter, and as she folds the clothes, seated on the floor with the light com­ing in from the win­dow behind her, she seems older in her new blond hair than the self-​con­scious-​look­ing young woman in red hair stand­ing just inside a room in Oakland. Sarfati notes that Sloane’s sis­ter, Sasha, has a tat­too that reads Mother” on her shoul­der. So while it may seem that roles are mal­leable, that self-​inven­tion is not only pos­si­ble but lib­er­at­ing, Sarfati finds the essen­tial and per­cep­ti­ble links that weave these women together.

In her atten­tion to dress and pos­ture, Sarfati presents per­son­al­ity as a pro­tean entity, as though you can change your mood, and who you think you are, with the same ease as you change your clothes. But there is also a kind of impen­e­tra­ble core that resists change, and this tor­sion is what Sarfati finds espe­cially telling. The girls can have pink hair or blond hair or dark hair-have they for­got­ten what color their hair really is? Sloane can look like Alice clos­ing the door to her Wonderland room in her high-waisted blue dress, or have the sophis­ti­ca­tion and sex­ual ten­sion of an older woman when she crawls over a bed in high heels or lounges on another bed, throw­ing her newly blond hair over so it glances the pol­ished floor below. Perhaps it is not sur­pris­ing that none of these women live in any of the spaces where they are pho­tographed; none of these rooms is an actual home-instead, they are sub­sti­tutes for what home rep­re­sents. Sarfati is dis­creet: she is a friendly observer, not an impos­ing one. Not much is asked; not much is told. What she finds so expres­sive is the pow­er­ful psy­cho­log­i­cal res­o­nance of her sub­jects-​so real and pal­pa­ble it is almost like hav­ing another per­son in the room.

Sarfati is inter­ested in the lives of peo­ple who live not in the biggest cities, but in smaller, less heroic ones, where life is slower. She finds it eas­ier to get to know peo­ple in such places: they tend to be more open, more invit­ing, and she says she dis­cov­ers a kind of par­al­lel between her sub­jects and the places where they live, par­tic­u­larly in these rel­a­tively quiet places. Pictures in The New Life were made in Austin, Portland, New Orleans, and else­where. Sarfati is attracted to the appear­ance of nor­malcy.” She observes that these places are unlike France, for instance, where archi­tec­ture can dom­i­nate the peo­ple who live and work in grand spaces.

Sarfati grew up in Nice, on the Italian bor­der, where sum­mer tourists visit the beaches on the Mediterranean Sea. She lived for ten years in Russia, where she says she learned the feel­ing of being nowhere in an unde­ter­mined ter­ri­tory.” She prefers the United States now, she says, because of its immen­sity. Space is a con­di­tion to real­ize our­selves.” Since 2003 she has spent more than half of her time here. Sarfati observes: I am inter­ested in mar­gin­al­ity, in imma­tu­rity, in naïveté, in illu­sion, in fic­tions, in tran­si­tions, in the fact that at a cer­tain moment in life there is no limit. I would like my pho­tog­ra­phy to pose a ques­tion rather than make a pre­cise state­ment.” One can­not look at her pic­tures with­out think­ing that Sarfati, like many Europeans, has been touched by an exis­ten­tial­ist acquain­tance with dread, lone­li­ness, and other mod­ern anx­i­eties of the post­war period. When she was young she was part of a group that fol­lowed Guy Debord’s Situationist ideas; she was inter­ested in those who wrote about the imma­tu­rity of the cul­ture, and who resisted the con­ven­tion­al­ity and author­i­tar­i­an­ism of the pre­war past: the Polish nov­el­ist Witold Gombrowicz, the German drama­tist Frank Wedekind, the French poet Gérard de Nerval. Probably most impor­tant to her, how­ever, was the writ­ing of Julia Kristeva, the fem­i­nist, struc­tural­ist the­o­rist who, as a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, is inter­ested in devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­ogy, espe­cially the ties between moth­ers and their daugh­ters. Kristeva’s 1989 book Black Sun is a med­i­ta­tion on depres­sion and melan­cho­lia shared between moth­ers and daugh­ters: she writes of this rela­tion­ship both the­o­ret­i­cally and poet­i­cally, refer­ring to the 1853 Nerval poem El Desdichado (espe­cially the phrase le soleil noir de la Mélancolie”: The Black Sun of Melancholia”).

Sarfati says: I am not inter­ested in psy­chol­ogy but I am inter­ested in psy­cho­analy­sis.” She is respon­sive to ten­sions, to the sit­u­a­tion itself-but it would be wrong to say that she is a roman­tic, or that she is inter­ested in sto­ry­telling. She has found the peo­ple she pho­tographs because they are com­pelling to her; she finds out about their lives later. I am not inter­ested in bio­graph­i­cal details even if they could be infor­ma­tive,” she says. Indeed, they are not cen­tral to my approach. When I started work­ing with (these women), I was not aware of their fam­ily story and their rela­tion­ships.”

Here in the United States we con­sider phys­i­cal appear­ance to be muta­ble. Our pop­u­lar cul­ture is largely directed toward ado­les­cents and at the same time is based on an ideal of per­pet­ual ado­les­cence: its tastes, its look. (How many aging rock stars do we need to see who per­sist in not grow­ing up-who look and act like teenagers?) We also have come to believe-if you fol­low tele­vi­sion or the Web-that much of what we want or miss in our lives can be sat­is­fied by buy­ing things, and for women, by buy­ing things to adorn our­selves, to change or enhance” our appear­ance. On the other hand, we seem not too inter­ested in inquiry, or in poetry (although we are anx­ious about reli­gion on some essen­tial level). Sarfati’s pic­tures, respect­ful and non­in­va­sive, of these women and what they invis­i­bly share are an imag­i­na­tive med­i­ta­tion not only on who they are, but also on who we are-beyond what we look like and what we wear-what we bring to life and what we might expect of it.