In November of last year, a pregnant young woman working as a supermarket cashier in northern France was suffering from extreme pain in her stomach. She asked for a break but was ignored by her supervisors. As the pain grew worse, even her customers were worried. When she told these customers to checkout at a different register, she was told by management to stay seated, as this wasn’t her break time. In tears, she noticed blood on her chair. She had had a miscarriage.
The incident created a national wave of indignation. On his Facebook page, presidential candidate Manuel Valls called the incident “revolting,” and saw in it a sign of a “dehumanized” society. He called for a political agenda that would reintegrate respect in the workplace. Other candidates followed suit, and then moved on.
Photographer Valérie Couteron spent two years in a similar supermarket, getting to know the women who work there and their working conditions. As part of her 15-year-long investigation into how work impacts people’s lives, she photographed them and many other women and men with jobs seen as undesirable. She spoke to R&K from Paris.
Roads & Kingdoms: Your series about cashiers is part of a larger body of work called “Corps Oubliés” (Forgotten Bodies). Could you tell us more about it?
Valérie Couteron: I have been looking at the role of work in people’s lives since 1998. At that time, I started with black and white, documentary-style photography in French factories. I was documenting the life of the working class. I photographed 10 to 15 factories, and would take photos of men and women at their work stations, and of their work environment. Little by little, my practice evolved and I got into color photography and I started concentrating on portraits. After that, my third phase turned to other places of work, like this supermarket in La Défense, near Paris, where I went for nearly two years.