The pied piper of Rue Saint Denis.

The Come and the Go of Sex-Workers and passers-by in Rue Saint Denis, Paris


It is one of the oldest streets in Paris. The route of Rue Saint-Denis was first laid out in the 1st century by the Romans, and then extended north in the Middle Ages. Its name derives from it being the historic route where the kings of France would pass to enter Paris coming from the Saint-Denis Basilica. The Rue (and adjacent area) was the site of many barricades and protests during the early part of the 19th century. Ever since the Middle Ages and up to the present day, the street has been known as a place of prostitution.

All photos in this article were taken between 1984 and 1992.

Rue Saint Denis is a street of the prêt à porter ateliers. Day and night street based sex-workers still advertise themselves. The neighborhood is full of life in every sense; locals continually come and go, voyeurs wander and loiter, people who work in the ateliers pass by daily, women post up on corners and in alleys, and their clients scuttle to them.

A typical passage that leads to the prêt à porter ateliers
Rue Saint Denis, Paris.

French Flair and Impudence

Rue Saint Denis is not comparable to the notorious and sleazy red-light districts of northern Europe. It tries to preserve its own peculiar gaiety and French impudence. The film Irma la Douce by Billy Wilder is set in the Rue Saint Denis neighborhood. B-M. Koltès’ dark, tragic, mixed-up monologue La Nuit Juste Avant les Forêts/The Night Just Before the Forests was based on events and characters here. I have shared it below as a backdrop to these photographs.

I made these photographs, which date back to the mid-eighties and early nineties, over the course of several visits, and I made them for the because I was interested and because I wanted to make a socio-cultural record of the time and the milieu.

Rue Saint Denis, Paris. See more at my website

Now, the open practice of prostitution is greatly reduced, due mainly to property speculation (Saint Denis is in the center of Paris) and also due to neo-moralizing campaigns to which the organized movement of the Parisian sex workers opposed. Instead, sex workers organized the annual Pute Pride, a festival similar to the common gay pride celebrations but with the rights of sex workers at its core.

Rue Saint Denis, Paris. “Les miroirs de Rue Saint Denis” : video

An excerpt from The Night Just Before the Forests / La Nuit Juste Avant les Forêts (1977):

[…] –, I look, that’s it and this is alright: there’s music, far away, at my back, one who’s got to be begging for money at the end of the corridor (it’s ok, man, but whatever you do, do not move), right in front, on the other platform, sitting, a crazy old lady, dressed all in yellow, waving with smiles (I’m looking, I’m listening, this is still alright), on the guardrail, up there, there’s a woman who stopped dead to catch her breath, right next to me an Arab is sitting down and sings to himself things in Arabic (I say to myself: don’t get worked up about it, man, whatever you do), and in front of me I see, I am sure that I see: a girl in a nightgown, her hair down her back, she passes in front of me with her fists closed tight, in her white nightgown, and, right in front of me, her face’s all mixed up, she starts crying, and keeps on passing to the end of the platform, her hair tangled, her fists like this, and her nightgown, then, all of a sudden, me, I’ve had it up to here, this time that’s it, I can’t hold it in any longer, I’ve had it up to here, me, with everybody here, everybody with his own little story in his own little world, and all their faces, I’ve had it up to here with everybody and I want to throw punches, the woman up there hanging to the rail, I want to punch her, and the Arab singing his thing just to himself, I want to punch him, the coughed-up behind my back, at the end of corridor, and the crazy old lady right in front, I’ve had it up to here with their faces and with all this wreck, with the girl in the nightgown, at the other end of the platform, who keeps crying, and me, I’m going to throw some punches, I feel like beating up, man, old ladies, the Arabs, the coughed-ups, the tiled walls, the subway trains, the conductors, the cops, punch the ticket-machines, the signs, the lights, this filthy smell, this filthy noise, I think about the gallons of beer I had already drunk and that I could still be drinking, until my belly can’t hold it in anymore, I kept sitting with this urge to punch, until everything ends, until everything stops, and then, all of a sudden, everything stops for good: the trains don’t come anymore, the Arab turns silent, the woman up there stops breathing, and the girl in the nightgown, no one hears her sniffing anymore, everything stops all of a sudden, except the music in the back, and the crazy old lady who’s opened her mouth and starts singing with a voice that ain’t possible, the coughed-up’s playing this, back there, without being seen, and she sings this, they’re answering back to one another and go together like it was rehearsed (a music that ain’t possible, something of an opera or some shit like that), but so loud, so together, that everything stopped for real, and the old lady all in yellow, her voice fills up everything, me I say to myself: ok, I get up, I rush through the corridor, I leap up the stairs, I come out the underground, and I run on the outside, I still dream of beer, I run, of beer, of beer, I say to myself: what a wreck, the opera arias, the women, the cold earth, the girl in the nightgown, the whores and the cemeteries, and I run and I don’t feel myself anymore, I’m looking for something that looks like grass in the middle of this wreck, and the doves fly above the forest and the soldiers shoot at them, the coughed-ups beg for money, the thugs all dressed up chase the young rats, I run, I run, I run, I dream of the secret song of the Arabs between themselves, brothers, I’ve found you and I grab you by the arm, I need a room so bad and I am soaking wet, mama, mama, mama, say nothing, do not move, I look at you, I love you, brother, brother, me, I’ve looked for someone who would be like an angel in the middle of this mess, and here you are, I love you, and the rest, some beer, some beer, and I still don’t know how I could say it, what a wreck, what a mess, brother, and still the rain, the rain, the rain, the rain.”

— Bernard-Marie Koltès

Curious by-passers come and go on Rue Saint Denis, Paris.

Photographs by Massimo Sormonta

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