Art & Photography

Lawlessness in French Guiana

Photographer Christophe Gin writes about his South American expedition to capture lawlessness in French Guiana, a project that won him the 2015 Carmignac Photojournalism Award

Christophe Gin, Camopi, March 2015 © Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation
Christophe Gin, Camopi, March 2015 © Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation

French Guiana is an exceptional territory. Partly because of its location in South America, and partly because of its expanse. But it’s also exceptional on a human level for the broad ethnic diversity of its inhabitants, the prevalence of their individual cultures and its recent unification with France. It stands apart economically, as a result of the underdevelopment of the land, and the breadth of the concealment of current activities.

It’s a region full of variation and contrasts. On the one hand, there’s the coastal area – a major metropolis with public services and state infrastructure, including places like the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou (the main equatorial launch site for the European Space Agency). Here, local residents are mostly civil servants and are fully integrated into the community.

On the other hand, there’s the entire inland area of Guiana, which is where I went to investigate the notion of laws and rights in the region. Inland Guiana is vast and difficult to gain access to, since it’s composed primarily of tropical forests, and was made a French Departement much later than the coastal regions.

Up until 1946, the Guianan inland was an autonomous expanse under the territory of Inini. After the area became integrated into the rest of French Guiana, its highly fertile subsoil in the area attracted a series of gold hunts. Even if there may be some truth to people’s ideas of a European El Dorado at the heart of Latin America, the fixation on this impression has resulted in a rather cliched perspective on the country.

Through my project, I was largely trying to demonstrate the complex interplay of historical, social and geopolitical factors that make French Guiana so difficult to capture as a whole. I’ve been photographing French Guiana for the last 15 years. This time, my aim was to find a route into the heart of the inland communities and to demonstrate how Guiana is a kind of patchwork, composed of exceptional regions ruled by codes and laws all of their own.

Christophe Gin, Saint Élie, 2015 © Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation
Christophe Gin, Saint Élie, 2015 © Christophe Gin for the Carmignac Foundation

The main aim of my work was always to provide a means of understanding the underlying causes for the situations I encountered. For example, having been struck by the predicament of the indigenous peoples of the Americas marginalised by an ineffectual school system, blighted by alcoholism and without opportunities in life, I opted to encapsulate this by depicting the queues of people waiting in the Post Office for benefits payments at the start of the month. Through this, I aimed to demonstrate the dependency of this socio-economic group, having adopted citizenship.

Similarly, in my treatment of the issue of illegal gold panning, I depict foreign workers breaking across the ‘border’ rivers with unnerving ease. Historically, these rivers acted as channels of communication connecting Guiana with neighbouring territories, Brazil and Suriname, instead of providing divisions between sovereign states. I photographed ghostly villages and mining sites formerly explored by clandestine gold hunters, nowadays exploited by legal gold-mining companies that limit access to the area.

For me, I don’t see a lawless territory, but a series of exceptional areas; I see a region held in tension with the French Republic, which is trying to encourage a particular conception of the law and rights that are not always applicable.

Carmignac Photojournalism Award: A Retrospective, organised by the Carmignac Foundation, is taking place from 18th November – 13th December at the Saatchi Gallery. For further information, visit /em>