“I want to see where people live, how their living room looks, what their kitchen smells like. I want to talk to them and hear what they think,” says Kevin Faingnaert of his photographic approach.
Faingnaert, a former sociologist, is drawn to subcultures. In 2016, he photographed a group of about 300 activists who had been occupying a 4,000-acre area on the outskirts of the village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes in western France known as the ZAD (a French acronym which translates to “zone to defend”).
The first Zadists, as the protestors are known, arrived in 2008 to add their voices in opposition to the construction of an airport on the land, a project which had been in the works since the 1960s. After 50 years of fielding a chorus of voices both for and against the project, the French government decided in January 2018 to abandon the construction plans. The inhabitants of the ZAD were ordered to leave by spring. Faingnaert says, “I think a lot of them will leave, but a lot will stay.”
Opposition of the airport was shared by everyone in the ZAD, but many of the activists feel a second calling to live in a self-sufficient, anti-capitalist society that values the collective over the rise of the individual. “They want to continue with their experiment,” says Faingnaert.
The Zadists welcome all who want to help their cause, but typically don’t invite or accommodate journalists and photographers. Multiple clashes with law enforcement have begged the question of whether they are "green terrorists" or "eco-activists." For that reason, Faingnaert explains that “a lot of them are afraid that if they are in a picture or their full name is used, there will be consequences later on.”
Out of the three weeks Faingnaert lived in the ZAD, he spent only a few hours photographing. The rest of the time was spent building trust. Leaving his camera under his bed inside the abandoned farmhouse where he slept, Faingnaert gained the Zadists’ confidence by helping with things like planting leeks and potatoes in the garden, cleaning the library, cooking, and working in the bakery. He even delivered the weekly newspaper, which, he says, was a superb way of getting to know people and learning his way around.
The breakthrough came when he accompanied a man named Gregorio on an illicit dumpster diving mission. Afterward the people “didn’t see me as just a photographer,” says Faingnaert. They saw he was sincere about partaking in activities crucial to the function and self-sufficiency of the camp, and that he was serious about making a nonpoliticized photo story, albeit within the political climate of the ZAD.
Faingnaert, who is captivated by people who transform their ideals into something tangible, felt that stepping over the barricades surrounding the ZAD was like walking into a faraway, magical, world. The dedication, eccentricity, and escapist nature of the Zadists, plus the quirky, ad hoc homes they’ve built among the trees reminded him of Peter Pan’s Neverland.
“A lot of stuff made me catch my breath,” says Faingnaert recalling the cave-like home made out of mud by a settler named Alex. With a desire to live in balance with nature and survive completely on his own, Alex subsists by gathering fruits in the forest and from food grown in his garden. He draws fresh water from a deep hole dug inside his earthen home. “When I talked to him he was very shy, you felt he was somebody who hadn’t been in society for a couple years,” says Faingnaert.
“People are really happy there,” he adds, “people who couldn’t find their place in society, but found it in the ZAD.