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Denis Darzacq: Shop till you drop

Denis Darzacq takes haunting pictures of free-falling figures in french hypermarkets. what does it all mean? John Lichfield finds out

A young man dressed in white floats limply in the wrapping paper department of a supermarket. A young woman in a brown hoodie shirt is flung, as if by a punch or by an explosion, from a supermarket flower stall. A young man in a green shirt and trainers walks on air past shelves loaded with light-shades and plastic dustbins.

None of these images has been "Photoshopped" or tampered with. They are surreal photographs of real moments – or real 1,000ths of a moment. Young, amateur dancers and sports men and women in Rouen, in Normandy, are offering their bodies and their talent to the disturbing, witty and compelling lens of the French photographer Denis Darzacq.

"You could say that this is a meditation on being and having," says Darzacq. "These photographs were taken in aggressive, garish hypermarkets, with names like Attac and King Kong. I was interested in showing bodies of young people, as if imprisoned in the aisles of consumer goods. I asked them to perform the actions that they might perform in their sporting activities or dances. At the peak of the action, I asked them to relax all their muscles at once to give the impression that they were floating or flying through the air.

"The images have a political meaning, if you like. They ask questions about a society in which we are expected to define ourselves by what we have – what house, what car, what clothes, what shampoo – rather than by what we are. But they should also work at another level, as surprising and beautiful images that a child of eight could enjoy as much as a person of 80."

Darzacq, 47, belongs to VU, a photo agency founded and run by photographers, which seeks, among other things, to remove the boundary between "documentary" and "art" photography. Darzacq used to be a news photographer for Le Monde and Libération but has won great acclaim in the past three years for work that is elaborately posed, rather than plucked from raw reportage.

Last year, he won a World Press Photo award for a series of photographs called La Chute (The Fall) shot in the troubled, multi-racial banlieues (suburbs) of Paris. They showed young men in apparent free fall about to come crashing to the ground against mournful backdrops of shuttered buildings. "After the suburban riots of 2005, I wanted to find some way of expressing what was happening to the young people of the banlieues," says Darzacq. "I wanted to make the bodies of young people the centre of the image. It is always through their bodies that young people can best express themselves."

While photographing hip-hop dancers in Algeria, Darzacq found accidental images which suggested the idea for La Chute. He showed them to amateur hip-hop and break dancers in the Paris banlieues and explained to them what he wanted: not pictures of break-dancing but pictures using break-dancing techniques to create images of a society in free-fall.

"My work depends on getting to know the people with whom I work and making use of their talents," says Darzacq. "You can call that posed or faked or whatever you like. But I think the distinction that people once made between documentary photography and art photography is now a thing of the past. A planned photograph can be as much a sincere statement about reality as a piece of raw reportage."

The city of Rouen asked him to do some work in one of its own troubled suburban estates. Rather than simply repeat La Chute, Darzacq asked for permission to photograph in a couple of the hypermarkets that litter the approaches to all large towns in France.

He approached local sports and dance clubs and persuaded a handful of young people to join him in the supermarkets at 5.30am, before the customers arrived. "I wanted two kinds of images," Darzacq says. "First, images of people falling or floating, like in La Chute, but more intimate, closer-up, within the cage of the hypermarket shelves. Second, I wanted to recreate the 'gran maniera' style of the Italian painters of the early 16th century, in which people are often shown in the midst of apparently unnecessary gestures or actions."

The young people added a third category: scenes rather like those in cartoons, in which their bodies are shown reacting to non-existent blows or explosions.

For the suburban pictures in La Chute, Darzacq used a traditional film camera. For the hypermarket images, he switched to a digital camera, which helped him to capture the soap-packet garishness of the surrounding shelves.

His next project will complete a trilogy on the theme of how the human body survives in the environment of the city. The subject will be the plight, and courage, of the handicapped.

"The idea came to me when I was in Trafalgar Square in London," he said. "I saw the statue of the pregnant woman with no arms and legs. I thought, what an extraordinarily beautiful work of art – and what a subject for photography."