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In the Sweat of Their Brow

For several years, the French photographer Victorine Alisse has shared her daily life with farmers and fishermen of France. Here she tells the story of the last chapter in her series On avait tous un paysan dans la famille [We’ve All Had a Farmer in the Family].

“The peasant is the only poet who does not realize that he is a poet,” said the French writer Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. In the region of the Bay of Saint Brieuc, North of France, I went in search of those who provide the food for on our table. On a pier in the port of Saint-Quay-Portrieux, along a country road in La Harmoye, or at the café in Quintin, some have accepted to share a little bit of their life, their everyday.

For three years now, I have been regularly sharing the daily life of farmers and fishermen, capturing their gestures and their work, and reminiscing about the times spent with my grandparents. I was developing the series On avait tous un paysan dans la famille [We’ve All Had a Farmer in the Family]. “À la sueur de leur front” [In the Sweat of Their Brow] is the last chapter of this long-term project.

© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse
© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse

I tried to put my finger on the pulse of the world in order to understand what ties these farmers to their land and these fishermen to the sea. I went wherever life erupts: to a pasture where a farmer slowly prods his cattle along, into the shade of a stable… It is such moments, lived alongside these people that I would like to share, like a travel diary where feelings and impressions take precedence over figures and reports.

On board the Alcyon 2

3PM. I embark for the first time on board of the trawler Alcyon 2. Cézembre and Samy are mending the fish nets, while Thierry begins to maneuver. The anchor is raised. The lights of the port fade away little by little. In the cabin, Samy is brewing coffee. The down comforters are laid out for the night. “There is less and less fish,” one of them tells me. There are also fewer and fewer boats in circulation. The voice of Cézembre, 24, resonates with the call to the open sea. “I can see the boat from my window,” he announces, excited. He is a fisherman, yes, but, he says, above all he is a sailor.

© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse
© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse

3AM. The sound of metal clanking under the chains. Samy and Cézembre take a few seconds to slip on their fishing gear before heading back to the stern. They pull the net with all their strength. The catch is not very good tonight. The seagulls circle around us greedy for a feast. On the deck, the two fishermen are sorting the fish and shellfish into huge blue tanks.

“I’ve already gone overboard one stormy night”

The wind whips across their faces. The trawler is reeling… “I’ve already gone overboard one stormy night,” Samy tells me. Thierry adds: “I threw him down cable rope to pull him up. He tied it around himself, and the machine scooped him out in one go. He landed on the bridge, soaked from head to toe, looking like a giant fish. But his boots were still in the water. You’ll never guess what he did next: he dove right back to get them!”

© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse
© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse

Is this part of the charm and the drama of this job? As soon as the net is emptied, it is put back into the water for another haul. The crew then takes care of sorting, gutting, washing, and icing the catch. It is time to return to the port. Thierry turns a knob, and music, picked by salt-saturated wind, sweeps over the deck. Samy and Cézembre observe the horizon growing more distinct as the sun rises. The tired bodies silently savor the satisfaction of work well done.

Working the land, all in the family

Back on land, at the La Vallée café in Quintin. The oldest of the farmers is leaning against the counter, a scarf pulled over his head. He is a regular. This is the local watering hole. 

The morning light timidly pierces the mist. The countryside is dotted with cute, old stone farm buildings. Most of them have been renovated and converted into homes, and often stand empty. Others are abandoned. As everywhere in France, those who cultivate the land are less and less numerous

On Jean-Paul’s advice, I meet with Danièle that morning. She is a sturdy farmer with a passion for coffee. Her son, Samuel, is also at the table. Anto, a friend of the family made a special trip to tend to the slopes. He will head out with firewood for the winter.

© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse
© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse

Wearing tall boots, we cross wet meadows dotted with big poplars that transect the horizon. With his hard hat on, Samuel cuts birches, oaks, and hazelnut trees, whose branches crash on the ground. The river flows a few steps away. In Brittany, as anywhere in France, most of the embankments have disappeared. They have been razed. It is the race to expand. To maximize output.

In any case, Danièle and Patrick are among a handful of dairy farmers left in the area. “This is due to the fact that a cattle farm is work-intensive, the income is not commensurate with the work and the investment, and the physical demands are great,” says Mathieu Gaillet, territorial coordinator at the Chambers of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The couple do the morning and evening milking together. Danièle knows her Holstein cows well: “Each has its own character, just like humans,” she says with a piercing look. In the milking parlor, Samuel, their son, takes a moment to show his daughter how the milking machine works. He has decided to take over the family farm.

© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse
© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse

Where the fields plunge into the bay

One Sunday afternoon, while driving through the countryside near Hillion, I spot a farmer repairing his tractor near a slate-colored barn. The fields surrounding the farm seem to sink into the foggy Bay of Saint Brieuc. Sébastien invites me to come back the next day to feed the cows.

“It’s a pity that economic interests have taken precedence over the love of the job”

I arrive early in the morning before pale winter light has yet chased away the night. Sébastien and Philippe feed the calves while the dog plays in the straw. Two calves will be auctioned in Lamballe. Sébastien takes them in his arms and puts them in the back of his truck. Philippe, meanwhile, cleans the barn and makes sure the milking machines work well.

“It’s a pity that economic interests have taken precedence over the love of the job,” he says as he cleans the straw. You can tell he loves his cows. He talks to them. The son of a farmer, Philippe became an employee. Having a farm entails heavy economic responsibilities. There are fewer and fewer farms in the bay area… it’s a race to expand.

As we arrive in Lamballe, we hear the auctioneer’s loudspeaker announce the breed of the calves and their weight. Two former breeders watch the scene with a concentrated look. They have come to check out the cows of their respective sons. Others seem to have come out of nostalgia.

© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse
© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse

Perhaps they used to come with their father when they were little? Do they remember a time when sellers led their cows on a tether around the farmyards or through the village square? The cows are waiting in line, anxious. Now, a metal barrier prompts them to move forward.

One by one, they file in front the buyers perched on the bleachers, attentively observing the animals through their binoculars. A little further on, a breeder waits impatiently for his cow to be called. I look for details to photograph: the way an animal moves, the way it looks… The tether used to guide the calves catches my attention.

As I am photographing it, a farmer calls out to me: “You know, this rope reminds me of something else…” “So, have you seen it?” the farmer asks me just before leaving. He hesitantly shows me his invoice, “She’s been sold….” This former breeder is not in a good mood: he was forced to sell his cows to make ends meet. 

© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse
© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse

Before we take off, I meet Jean-Christophe, 25, an employee at MOL Trucks, where he cleans the vehicles. His father is a farmer with a hundred acres of land and is about to retire. The look in his eyes says a lot about his defining passion for the job. He is reluctant to take over from his father because of the difficult economic situation. He works twenty-five hours at MOL and helps out on the farm the rest of the time.

“At the beginning, my dad had six cows. He had to build two 1,200-square-meter chicken coops just to make ends meet,” he explains. Eventually, he decided to sell the cows, and started raising draught horses and pigs. “Nowadays, one knows the names of the GAECs [Groupements Agricoles d’Exploitation en Commun, collective farming associations] rather than farms…,” he says regretfully. It’s as if family farms were giving way to anonymous groupings.

Taking care of the land, of others, and of oneself

To return to the land to take care of one’s own. In La Harmoye, Jessica, in her thirties, and her partner Balla, decided to settle down on the family farm to be close to her father, Jean-Paul. Surrounded by books on alternative medicine, permaculture, and food self-sufficiency, Jessica tells me about her project. She wants to become a farmer-herbalist and take care of the land, the plants, the animals, and all the beings that surround her. 

She wants to spread awareness about the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Snow creaks underfoot. The greenhouse has recently been refurbished. Her mother used to raise calves. Jessica wants to turn the old building into a storage space for equipment, as well as fruit and vegetables, and third space to dry medicinal and aromatic plants.

Another old farm building houses Grandpa Lucien’s bright red Same tractor. “I’ve spent hours on this tractor plowing, sowing and making hay, planting cabbage, etc.,” says Jean-Paul. Jessica uses it to mow grass in the field. On this land, family ties contribute to the soil, and the tools are handed down from generation to generation.

© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse
© À la sueur de leur front — Victorine Alisse

The Cèdre Bleu farm: a family story

In Ploeuc-L’Hermitage, I discovered another family story. The restaurant L’Aromatic’s list of growers and suppliers includes the Cèdre Bleu farm. The family business here is sorting potatoes. The tubers bob on a motorized conveyor belt. David, a farmer, and his mother, Monique, sort them by size.

“I’ve been in it since I was a kid ”

Stéphane, David’s brother-in-law and his partner at the Cèdre Bleu farm, does the bagging with the help of nineteen-year-old Emile. The potatoes will be sold to communities, restaurants, and schools. “When I was younger, I used to come here with my older brother. I’ve been in it since I was a kid,” says Emile, who is now an employee on the farm. His thing is tractors. 

Passionate about farm equipment, he would like to open a transport company. One can feel a sense of complicity between David and his father, Jean-Claude, a retired farmer. Jean-Claude is beaming, full of patience and understanding. He and Monique ensure that everything runs smoothly. David represents the fourth generation of farmers on this farm. “It’s a different life when there’s continuity. It’s very satisfying to see one’s children working by your side. One builds a dynamic, and it never gets boring,” sums up Jean-Claude.

Victorine Alisse’s work is on view at the Saint Brieuc Photo Festival, France, until August 27, 2023. 

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