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French photographer, Lise Sarfati first came to prominence with her photographs made in Russia in her evocative book Acta Est [2000]. As a record of intense experiences of post-Soviet decay, and the brutal bohemia of the lives that she moved through and revisited, the book proved that Sarfati was a sensitive and imaginative observer. An observer of post-apocalyptic, decaying industrial sites, metaphors of chronic loss and waste, shown alongside elliptical portrayals of physically and socially ostracised young people.

Though undeniably photo-documentary in nature, Sarfati’s work is defined through opposition to the editorial urge to fix narratives to her subjects. Her images create a loose, layered and intensely rich visual project that allows us, the viewers, to consider the complexities of any place or time, triggering emotions and thoughts that move well beyond the ostensible subjects of her photographs. Sarfati’s importance in today’s debates about the role and visual languages of socially engaged photography also rests in her resistance to fully objectify the subjects that compel her to make imagery.

In her ongoing and most recent series of work entitled The New Life, Sarfati has recorded young people, particularly young women, in the United States, from Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon and California. These adolescents, on the cusp of adult responsibility, could be construed as the latest addition to contemporary photography’s familiar interest with this highly photogenic stage of human life. However, Sarfati avoids patronising her subjects; her curiosity with, and projection onto, the young women that she met in shopping malls and on streets in America is not intended to be a nostalgic road trip. As the series develops Sarfati has also moved her focus to other countries, producing a series of powerful portraits from Lithuania, and now working back in the States.

Sarfati does not overtly choreograph her sitters and, instead, is carried by her own adage that through creating her photographs, she was exploring and understanding them. While her presence acts upon these young people, she also creates the psychological space for them, in turn, to act upon her and to act up – or down – for the camera. The cumulative effect of her series transpires to be less about the individual women represented, and more a highly personal exploration into the tension between intimacy and distance, between what is knowable and what cannot be defined.

This perhaps accounts for Sarfati’s success in re-presenting American young people as, simply, individually and universally the carriers of states of minds. Her acute compositional sense combined with an instinctive feel for colour, texture and contrast create a physical and psychological space which is both engaging and, ultimately, elusive.