The ZAD is a micro-society in rural France where activists, farmers and free-spirits live in harmony. Photographer Kevin Faingnaert tried to find out why.
Kevin Faingnaert is a photographer fascinated by unconventional people who band together on the fringes of society.
That could be DIY race car drivers, wrestlers or a remote eco-village up in the hills – as long as it’s a community of independently-minded people, the 31-year-old Belgian is curious about the structures that bind them.
Although Kevin got his first camera at the age of 14, mainly taking pictures of his friends skateboarding, it was his degree in sociology that cemented an interest in what drives people.
“Most of all, I’m fascinated by people who turn their ideals into real deeds through hard work,” he says. “The more ambitious and crazy they are about their work, the more fascinated I get.”
It was only in the last two years, however, that Kevin leapt into photography full-time, using a camera as a means to get close to people for weeks at a time.
After being selected to participate in World Press Photo’s Joop Swart Masterclass last November, Kevin needed a project to focus on and thought back to La ZAD – a protest camp on the outskirts of Brittany in France – where had visited for four days in 2016.
“I had always thought about making a project about it but postponed it all the time because I was afraid it would be too difficult,” he says. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind, though.”
Kevin was right to anticipate difficult. La ZAD (Zone A Défendre) is Europe’s largest postcapitalist land occupation.
Ever since 2009, this 4,000-acre space comprised of farms, woodland and abandoned properties has been taken over by environmentalists opposing the construction of an international airport – part of a long-term development project that threatens to turn the surrounding countryside into a sprawling metropolis.
The commune, however, has developed a community of its own – one with its own theatre spaces, bakery, bike workshops and even a pirate radio station – and Kevin wanted to see what the ZAD looked like from the inside, to understand why people dedicated themselves to this radical way of life. But as signposts around the occupation made clear, cameras were out of the question.
“There’s something intimidating when entering the ZAD – the barricades, the makeshift watchtowers, the people who are always suspicious, the anti-journalist signs and the continuous threat of a hard police eviction. I knew I was welcome as a person, but not as a photographer.”
To develop a sense of trust, Kevin spent a month at the ZAD – half of it while staying in a squatted farm there, the other half in a tent he pitched on one of the fields. The first few weeks were spent helping out wherever he could: planting leeks and potatoes, cleaning the library, cooking and doing the washing-up, repairing a cabin, even going out dumpster-diving with others.
“Helping out builds a connection, especially in places where there’s a need for as much help as possible” he says now.
Days working in the fields inevitably led to drinks or dinner in the evening, giving Kevin a chance to chat (in French) about day-to-day stuff and get to know people better.
One character, named Béatrix, lived alone in a shack deep the forest; another guy called Alex dug an eight-metre-deep cave where he wants to live in next year.
“At times, I couldn’t believe I was in France,” says Kevin. “It’s not easy living at a protest site, with almost no electricity and drinkable water, but somehow it was magic for me… and I came to believe it is for them as well.”
Over time, Kevin felt like he could tell certain people about his interest in shooting a documentary photo project ZAD – people who trusted him and understood what he wanted to achieve.
“My camera was in its bag about 90 per cent of the time,” he says. “I didn’t want to ruin my chances of getting to know people by running around with a camera. I only took it out when I got the permission to make a portrait or to photograph somebody’s house.”
The resulting images represent something of a breakthrough in Kevin’s work. In the past, he explains, finding a signature style felt like a struggle. He tried to be someone different than who he really was: photographing with flash and trying to make screamy images.
In real life, Kevin adds, he’s a quiet person – and so he’s learned to work and edit in keeping with that sensibility, shooting images that feel soft or even tranquil.
The way this project came together not only allowed him to feel connect to every picture, but proved that the individual shots can add up to something much greater than the sum of their parts. A photo of a cabin is just a photo of a cabin, but combined with portraits and still lifes it can be so much more.
Along the way, Kevin learned a lot from the diversity behind La ZAD. The zone is actually divided into different communities or groups of people and the photographer couldn’t help marvelling at how this micro-society works together.
“I always thought of them as a community of environmental activists, but I was wrong,” he says. “These are people who are united against the construction of an airport but, aside from that, they all have their own reasons to be there.
“For more than half of the inhabitants, the struggle against the airport is only a part of their mission. Their main objective is to show the world that living self-sufficient, taking law into their own hands, living another way and closer to nature, is possible.
“For the farmers, it’s about protecting the land that was once theirs. They grew up there and want to stay there.
“There are also people who live at the ZAD to find inner peace, to live truly free, because there aren’t any laws at the ZAD and they don’t live for work or money.
“Of course, some are there to flee from their previous lives. For some, it’s a place where you can party as much as you want.”