The Age of Weakness and the Age of Strength


An interview with Sandra Mehl

Sandra Mehl won our recent theme ‘Youthhood’ with her wonderfully dynamic image of a young French girl, Maddelena, climbing the wall next to her home. It’s an image imbued with youthful imagination, celebrating an escape from dull surroundings, in an aesthetically rich composition.

The image comes from Sandra’s social documentary series ‘Maddelena et Ilona’, which follows the exploits of these two captivating young girls, and in doing so comments on how the media tends to portray the working class. It’s a poignant and timely message, captured through gorgeous, intimate compositions.

We sat down with Sandra to ask her more about how the series developed, about her journey into photography, and about how she uses a personal subject matter to frame a type of social activism.



Hi Sandra – Firstly, congratulations on winning our eighth theme ‘Youthhood’. Can you tell us a little more about the image?

This image was taken last December, on the day of Maddelena’s birthday. She became 11 years old. For the occasion, she wore a golden dress with sparkles, and vivid red fake nails. She was very happy and decided to go out, even though it was cold. She climbed the wall of her building, the unit 26 of the Gély neighbourhood, with a lot of freedom, without taking into account the looks of people.

Tell us about your background? How did you first get into photography, and what led you down a documentarian path?

I am a self-taught photographer, with a background in social sciences: I have masters degrees in both sociology and political sciences. I started photography when I was teenager and my passion has always been photographing people: my family, my friends and the people I meet when travelling. I started working on long term projects 4 years ago. For me, there is a narrow link between social sciences and photography: on one hand you try to understand the way societies function, and on the other hand you show it with images.



The first image I made of Maddelena and Ilona, in front of their building in the Gély neighbourhood of Montpellier, while they were walking their three dogs.

The image is from your series ‘Ilona et Maddelena’. Tell us what that series is about, and how it fits into your larger body of work about ‘France’s forgotten class’. How did you meet Ilona and Maddelena, and what first attracted you to photographing them?

I started this series in July 2015. I wanted to develop a project about the neighbourhood called the “Cité Gély”, which is next to the one I live in, in Montpellier, south of France. It is a poor neighbourhood, and I wanted to tell the stories of its people. I met Ilona and Maddelena walking their dogs at the bottom of their neighbourhood, and I decided to concentrate on their daily life. I was immediately struck by the imaginary fantasy world they seem to hold inside of themselves.

This project fits into a bigger project of mine about the French working class. Every time the media deals with the working class, the view is that it lacks everything (education, income, healthy people etc…). My aim is to show that people from this social class also hold a real and solid culture.

There’s a real intimacy to your work – it seems like you had unprecedented access into Maddelena and Ilona’s lives, and that they became very comfortable with having you around. How did the relationship develop?

I come from the working class. And when I was their age, I used to live in a similar neighbourhood. I felt immediately at ease when I met theirs parents and when I spent time with them. Maybe there is a mutual understanding between us that enables me to be intimate with them.

I’ve told Maddelena, Ilona and their parents about the prizes and press this work has received, but it’s like the wind passing through their living room – they are happy, but then daily life returns very quickly. They’re always very interested in the images I give to them. Their mother knows that I’m building An account of family memories for the two girls, and I think this is the main reason she lets me photograph them with so much freedom.