The world is watching France as its divisive election looms on 7 May amid growing political tensions – but American photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti has been examining the country for the past year. In 2016, the San Francisco-based Sanguinetti spent several months traveling and photographing French cities such as Calais, Marseille, Nice, and Boulogne-sur-Mer, as the second laureate of the Immersion programme sponsored by Fondation d’entreprise Hermès in alliance with the Aperture Foundation in New York.

Prior to the project, Sanguinetti had an outsider’s perspective of France, but the country she captured is deeply intimate; photographs of animals, refugees, immigrants and the French throughout their everyday lives acquire heightened gravity under her lens.

The body of work, Le Gendarme Sur La Colline (‘The Policeman on the Hill’) is named for Sanguinetti’s first days in Calais, where she noticed that the police were stationed on the hills bordering the Jungle refugee camp. ‘The figure watching over the border could be protecting these fields or threatening them, depending on where the main character is positioned,’ Sanguinetti says. ‘It’s an allusion to the dominant plot in folk tales where dark forests with unpredictable dangers loom over sunny fields and happy lives.’

Claudine, Deauville, 2016

Photographs of a girl in a bright pink leotard in the splits in front of a desolate building, a shot of a glamorous older woman lounging, donkeys and horses, both alone and with their owners and jockeys being weighed before a race further allude to these folkloric elements, as well as a sense of performance and time passing.

A theme of insider-outsider and of ‘where the main character is’ emerges often: Muslim women soberly picnicking, a nun praying, moviegoers sitting in an empty theatre. ‘I was sensitive to the division between the “French” and the “rest”. They pass each other like ghosts until something happens. They don’t mix. You can sense the unease, almost touch it,’ Sanguinetti says.

The project touches on a side of France that is not generally presented, but that is not foreign either. Sanguinetti’s photographs of a changing society and a general mal du siècle are very French, but also, simply, life.

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