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France’s lawless lands

An Amerindian man in Camopi, French Guiana An Amerindian man in Camopi, French Guiana Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation
05 Nov
Far from the Château de Versailles, indigenous people in remote French Guiana are French citizens inadvertently living outside the law

In the depths of the French Guianese rainforest, there remain hermetic societies who live largely by their own laws and social codes. And yet, since becoming a colony of the French Republic in 1946 (indeed, the largest département – French region) inhabitants of French Guiana are in fact French citizens – members of the European Union, even – and in theory should live according to French law. However, their remote locations mean those laws are frequently ignored or unknown, making them into fascinating ‘lawless’ areas of France.

Images of these people have been poignantly captured thanks to the efforts of French photographer Christophe Gin, who spent five months in early 2015 exploring the most isolated corners of the region – often several days journey time – documenting the lives of people living in this peculiar situation, for his collection Colonie. For his efforts, Gin was awarded the 2015 Carmignac photojournalism award, organised by the Carmignac Foundation, which ‘aims to support and promote works of investigative photojournalism documenting areas often underrepresented in mainstream news coverage’.

gin4Founded by gold prospectors in the 19th century, Saint-Élie is one of the oldest villages in French Guiana. Today, almost no one sets foot in it (Image: Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation)

‘I have a particular attachment to Guiana, having worked there on and off for almost a decade,’ says Gin. ‘I’ve been able to maintain relationships and firm friendships that have allowed me to gain access to legal and illegal settings, and achieve some insight into the complex issues behind each one. I don’t see it as a lawless territory, but rather as a region composed of unique enclaves, and shaped by the French Republic. This territory is one of the last areas of freedom, and has now become a collection of zones operating outside the laws of the French State.’

gin3The Deputy Prefect for East Guiana and the traditional chiefs of the Camopi region await the arrival of the French Minister of Overseas Territories (Image: Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation)

Sandwiched between Suriname and Brazil on the North Atlantic coast of South America, French Guiana sits on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, with half its population of only 250,000 living in the capital, Cayenne, and the other half spread across the forested interior. Gin focused his work on six spots around the region’s border, including the towns of Saint-Georges, Papaïchton, Trois Sauts, and Saint-Laurent du Maroni, as well as the interior, formerly independent region of Inini.

‘I wanted to show the audience a photographic documentary touching upon the antagonisms that exist in contemporary Guiana,’ continues Gin. ‘The timeframe for completing the project – December to March – coincided with a brief rainy season in Guiana. The rivers are high and navigable, making it easier to go deeper inland, but the light was much more complicated and hard to predict as the sky was very overcast. For these kinds of conditions I prefer to work in black and white, which allows me to avoid any facile exoticism and to show different worlds with a sense of unity.’

gin2Officers have to make long journeys into the rainforest to locate and register Amerindian inhabitants as official French citizens (Image: Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation)

His black-and-white images depict a world almost lost in time, featuring people seemingly pushed into a world they were unprepared for. Many Amerindians in French Guiana now have to balance their traditional self-sustaining hunting lifestyle with the lifestyle offered by the modern French Republic, which brings with it essential state welfare, but also alcoholism, disaffection and even suicide.

Colonie gets its UK launch at Carmignac Photojournalism Award: A Retrospective, which takes place from 18 November to 13 December at London’s Saatchi Gallery, and also features past winners of the Carmignac photojournalism award. Gin’s project is also being exhibited at the Chapelle des Beaux-Arts in Paris, from 5 November to 5 December.

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