Sociologist-turned-photographer Kevin Faingnaert shows alternative life at the ZAD

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Since 2009, around 400 acres of land in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a commune in the west of France, has been home to Europe’s largest rural protest camp. Led by a mix of environmental activists and locals, the ZAD (which roughly translates to ‘Zone To Defend’ in English) developed in opposition to the construction of an international airport that would wipe out the wildlife and villages of the area. Though these plans have stalled for several years now, the ZAD has taken root, growing into a self-sufficient community complete with its own markets, bakery, brewery, theatre space, newspaper and even a pirate radio station.

Intrigued by people and the structures that bind them, sociologist-turned-photographer Kevin Faingnaert spent a month documenting the ZAD as part of his participation in World Press Photo’s most recent Joop Swart Masterclass. “I’m fascinated by people who turn their ideals into real deeds through hard work,” explains the Belgian photographer. “The more ambitious and crazy they are about their work, the more fascinated I get.”

Having already made a project about Matavenero, an isolated eco-village in the mountains of Spain, Faingnaert quickly became captivated by the ZAD way of life during a four-day visit with a friend. Pursuing this interest was not the easiest task; it took over 18 months for him to return for a longer period of time, partially due to the overriding anti-journalist sentiment that pervades the camp. “I knew I was welcome as a person, but not as a photographer,” he says. “Numerous ‘no camera’ signs around the zone made this clear.”

From the series The ZAD © Kevin Faingnaert

For the first two weeks, Faingnaert took no photographs, spending his time helping out and getting to know the Zadists and their stories. What he discovered was a group of very different people coming together to express a profound desire for change and an alternative lifestyle that extended far beyond the primary aim of blocking the construction of the airport.

“It’s a micro-society where, together with some remaining original inhabitants and farmers, activists try to live together in a self-sufficient and ecological way,” he says. “Their main objective is to show the world that living self-sufficiently, taking the law into their own hands and living another way and closer to nature is possible.”

The future of the camp remains uncertain, caught between its temporary nature and more long-term targets. It is unlikely that the airport will be built, but police eviction is improbable as the community is now so well organised. “The government hopes that the Zadists will go away,” says Faingnaert. “But that’s when they go for part two of their mission: to be recognised as a lawless state in the Republic of France.” This article was first published in the February issue of BJP, available via 

The 12-meter-high, makeshift lookout tower of the Bellish collective. From the series The ZAD © Kevin Faingnaert
Schopy, the oldest inhabitant of the ZAD. From the series The ZAD © Kevin Faingnaert
Beatrix’s wooden cabin, the only American woman living in the ZAD. From the series The ZAD © Kevin Faingnaert
The ZAD reception at La Rolandière, where first-time visitors can find more information about the ZAD. On the wall is a map which shows the occupied zone and the different collectives along the territory. From the series The ZAD © Kevin Faingnaert
Gregorio, one of the inhabitants of The Far West collective. From the series The ZAD © Kevin Faingnaert
Alex’s cave. Alex has single-handedly dug a 6m deep hole in the ground to get fresh water out of the earth. From the series The ZAD © Kevin Faingnaert