There are intimate, whispered confidences, spirited scrambling and clambering over any and all surfaces, bleary-eyed mornings in the half-dark, crafty cigarettes at the bus stop, and, of course, plenty of snogging. This is how adolescents get to and from school: forget the passive mundanity of an adult's commute, these journeys are stuffed full of small, everyday teenage dramas.
French photographer Stéphanie Tétu was commissioned by the General Council of Morbihan, in Brittany, to undertake a project called The Long Way Round, snapping the region's middle school pupils –aged between 11 and 14 – as they journey from their homes to their schools. The Council was inspired by an ambitious Unesco art exhibition, shown in Paris, called Journeys to School, which showed pupils all over the world making their daily trip.
And while Tétu's remit is naturally more focused, and, she acknowledges, "not so exotic", the aim was still to show the "different contrasts" of the Morbihan region: "the coast is very rich and in the middle, it's very rural. They wanted to show every side: the city, the suburb, also immigrant-origin pupils – it's political!" she concludes with a laugh. The images have just gone on display at a photography festival in La Gacilly in southern Brittany, where they'll be exhibited until September.
Tétu's work often involves photographing families, and she enjoyed being able to focus on young people. But there were challenges. "I wasn't really allowed to enter into their homes – people in Brittany are a bit shy, or prude," as she puts it. Many of the children also had to get upf very early – when it was still dark – so capturing the mornings wasn't always easy.
She photographed pupils from nine schools across the region; some of these were more welcoming than others. "[Photographing] was very quick till 8am, and after that they said 'OK, bye bye, see you at five' when they get out! It was a bit difficult – some schools opened the classrooms and playgrounds [to me], some were very strict."
If she was able to talk to pupils during their breaks, then after-school shoots became much easier: she could gain their trust – and their mobile numbers – so that they could arrange a time to take a few snaps (some still send her little text updates on their love-lives today).
While many of Tetu's images have an almost documentary style, as if the pupils are unaware of her presence or ignoring the camera, she explains this was not the case. Tetu actually chatted to them all a lot before any of the shots, getting to know them – and she says the teenagers were often quite happy to pose for the camera, or be caught kissing or larking about with each other.
"It's their principle preoccupation: [this journey time] was a way of seducing, of growing up, getting a boyfriend or girlfriend," she says. "After school, they were thinking of that all the time – it was fun."
While a lot of journeys were a fairly dull combination of "lift to the bus stop, get on the bus", Tétu liked to turn her lens on those with more unusual routes: pupils who were trusted to cycle by themselves, who had to walk through a wood, or even take a boat in order to get to school. The freedom of these moments of transition, between home and school, appealed to her.
Tétu's favourite journey was that of a small gaggle of kids who go to school on the island of Houat, travelling from another island called Hoedic by boat. The islands were so small that there were only a handful of pupils, and they all knew each other very well: "After school they went to the beach. Even though it was cold they went swimming. There were some cars on the island, but very few. They are very free and close to nature".
Stéphanie Tétu's photographs are on display at Festival Photo La Gacilly until 30 September; festivalphoto-lagacilly.com