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Young Native Americans caught between two worlds

Jacket with fringes on the shoulders, feathered headdress, face carved in clay. This serious-looking Indian poses as guardian of the earth and protector of the water. Zen Lefort took this shot in 2016 on the Standing Rock reservation, during the long mobilization of the Sioux of North Dakota against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, this “black snake” which threatened to destroy their sacred lands and pollute their water. The young photographer thought he would only stay ten days, the time for a classic report. He finally took root, sharing the daily life of the insurgents and their icy nights, when the mercury drops to -30°C.

To frontal battle scenes, Zen Lefort prefers downtime, waiting and the adrenaline rush.

For three months, Zen Lefort photographed the thousands of Native Americans and environmental defenders who converged on this historic reserve where Sitting Bull, a prominent figure in the Indian struggles, was assassinated in 1890. From these months of violent clashes with the forces of order, he retained only a handful of photos in his book Indian Land (Hatje Cantz), which will be released on October 13. Hooded faces, silhouettes draped in the star-spangled banner, the thick layer of black smoke floating above policemen who, truncheons in hand, are preparing to launch an assault… To frontal scenes of battle, Zen Lefort prefers downtime, waiting and the adrenaline rush.

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Between the insurgents of Standing Rock and Zen Lefort a strong bond has been woven over the weeks. In particular with Cyrus Norcross, a Navajo Indian veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, whom he will later photograph in his reserve, Nike flip-flops on his feet, weapon in hand. From 2017, the photographer went back and forth between France and the United States to crisscross the wild vastness of the Great West, capturing the dreary daily life of five reserves. Its objective, modest, does not track their misery nor the bitterness vis-a-vis the discriminatory policies of the American federal government. But poverty can be guessed in the obesity of adults, the mistrust of fierce kids who share a Pepsi. “Most photographers dwell on the ravages of alcoholism, depression, massive unemployment and violence, says Zen Lefort. I wanted to avoid this trap, even if it is also the reality. »

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Rather than the effects, the photographer has chosen to insist on the causes of the evil that plagues the Amerindians. In particular the disarray of a youth torn between two identities, one Native American and the other American. A photo alone sums up this paradox. Taken near Crawford, Nebraska, it depicts a young Lakota Indian riding his horse bareback in front of a gas station. Two worlds in collision: the animal imagination, associated with indigenous peoples, and the car, symbol of the American dream.

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