Nationale 7: trip to the borders of France

Mathias Depardon should have fixed this spring from the banks of the Tiger, in Iraq. Or at least that is what was on his agenda, before the pandemic and the border closure kept him in France. His country, which he had not yet photographed since 2009 – and at the time, already, by his band most widely open to the multiplicity of elsewhere, in Calais. In the meantime, he spent years in Turkey, where he built a documentary work often exhibited, in Arles and abroad, before being subjected to arbitrary imprisonment there in May 2017 – accused of ” propaganda terrorist ”for having documented the action of the PKK, enemy of Ankara -, and to be released, expelled, only after a hunger strike and weeks of insistence by the French State .

Confined to France and prevented from practicing beyond, but released from travel restrictions by his press card, he proposed to Release, from the first days of the state of health emergency, to cross the country by the National 7, from Paris to the border of an Italy where the virus already exerted its ravages – not far from Nice where it was born, in 1980 Paris, Orly, Fontainebleau, Nemours, Montargis, Briare, Nevers, Moulins, the Loire, the Lyon region, and then the South which is gradually opening, Valence, Montélimar, Avignon, Fréjus, Cannes, Nice, up to in Menton. At the option of some 3,300 kilometers driven in two weeks on the road to a sun that shone for almost no one, he set out to portray less urban centers or the eternity of postcards of spring landscapes than their interstices , their folds, these outskirts of cities and roads where, despite everything, a people often masked and wary. He returns to the state of France recounted in hollow by this strange journey which Released today publishes the beautiful fruits, together with the intimate echoes of what the threat of the virus has worked in us.


“I had never done this route before, the longest in France with 996 km. There was a symbolic meaning to follow that one, whose departure adjoins the Chinatown of Paris – just like the virus had left China – to come up against the closed border of Italy, the epicenter of the epidemic in Europe. I set out to drive 200 or 300 kilometers a day, with many stops. This Nationale 7, which was the holiday route, has lost its glamor, it has undergone various forms of downgrading. We walk along areas of supermarkets, commercial areas, fields, roundabouts by the thousands – this passion and French specificity. Like all roads in France, it is almost empty these days. There are just a few more truckers there than on the motorways, for economic reasons – only French people. It becomes very beautiful in the South, on the middle ledge, overlooking the Mediterranean. A kind of French-style Mulholland Drive, a bit magical. ”

N7, km 295, Moulins (Allier). Loubna, disabled, goes out shopping for the first time in 72 hours. Failing to find masks, she protects herself with her scarf. Photos Mathias Depardon Photo Mathias Depardon for Liberation


“There was the excitement of the first Porte d’Italie day in Paris. And very quickly a melancholy, an ambient sadness to photograph this abandonment, this void of interstitial areas that were really not easy to grasp. I did not want to attach myself, as I had already seen a lot, to the large deserted squares, especially since it anchored the photo in a specific place, whereas I wanted rather to try to enter a shared condition on this geographical extent yet vast. But I expected to cross more scenes of life. I like, in my work, to isolate a subject from a context of activity, but there it was very difficult, since all my possible protagonists were already isolated by the force of things. However, I felt the social or geographic divisions, by doing a lot of portraits. I interviewed those I photographed, if only for the sake of exchange, but people are not easy to approach today, there is a mixture of psychosis and susceptibility. Everyone is suspicious, vis-à-vis everyone, it requires an additional effort.

“There were days when I had a harder time reaching out to people to talk to them, and I went into street photo mode, but every time I did it it boosted my spirits . I met all kinds of people, situations, homeless people, young people who worked at the Samu social, liberal nurses, truck drivers, farmers, delivery people, people who had set up disinfection companies, retired people who went out to do shopping … There were few families, few children. I was very struck to see a lot of elderly people on the streets, often isolated, neglected, who therefore had to go out well, but I also found that it was sometimes due to the fact that seniors have a hard time breaking their habits. . “

N7, km 164, Bonny-sur-Loire (Loiret). Photo Mathias Depardon for Liberation


“I crossed all possible makeshift masks, I was surprised by their number, but I found that the more I moved away from Paris, the less the zones seemed affected. Then there were the farmers who seemed to live in a parallel reality, whose life in the fields, on the tractor, has not really changed, as if social distancing was already their business all year round. I also felt strongly that for a large segment of rural life, the Covid was an urban evil from Paris – which is not entirely unfounded, of course. During the meetings, I heard all kinds of things, of dissatisfaction with the management of public authorities, a lot of concerns in particular among certain restaurateurs who feared that their restaurants would go there if it lasts. All kinds of more or less conspiratorial theories, too. But above all, when I asked people about their feelings in this crisis, many spoke of awareness, how to consume, the desire to refocus on more universal values ​​or to get out of a form of individualism. A butcher told me he was happy to see people showing a concern for eating healthier. Fishermen told me that they had never seen the sea like that, for them alone, with nature that lives again, that takes back its rights. It was very present. “

Julien Gester photos Mathias Depardon


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