Piémanson was one of the last refuges of wild camping; a 10km stretch of sand in the heart of the Camargue Regional Nature Reserve. Open to campers from the 1st of May each year, come the 1st of September the police would close it off for the winter, and the inhabitants would join together to mark the occasion with a huge bonfire, all of the makeshift elements of their temporary homes going up in smoke.
The beach’s history began in the 1970s when locals set up camp there with no rights or deeds. There was no running water, but the draw of the close-to-nature experience brought families back year after year, as generation introduced the next generation to the perfect beach town idyl with up to 5000 people living on the beach by the peak August weeks.
Since then, thousands of campers from all over Europe got together every summer season, looking for a freedom that they couldn’t find anywhere else.
Piémanson together with three friends who got together to publish it, setting up a company called Chose Commune. The book contains just 36 pictures from the 3,000 that he took over those five years.
“When erecting these forts, adults become children again,” Vasantha Yogananthan remembered. “Like Robinson Crusoe, they constantly try to improve their hut and impress their neighbors. Some even spend the winter drafting plans that would make any architect green with envy.”
For two weeks each year, Yogananthan lived with Piémanson’s inhabitants, both eating and sleeping with them. He worked on the book seriously during 2012-2014. Although his friends advised him to stop shooting the project he felt it was important to return and document the freedom before it could be taken away. The last summer was a very important one – even though he didn’t take many pictures, some of these later images became essential to the narrative.
The official line was that the campers could stay for one night without charge but many stayed for the entire summer. During that time they constructed some amazing Swallows & Amazons type temporary structures using wood, plastic sheeting, and any materials they could source locally, or bring with them for the journey.
There was almost a sense of competition and a great deal of pride within the community for making the best possible homes for their stay and harking back to our instincts of providing shelter for our families. There was also a lot of ingenuity and creativity with a nod to the commune-like experiences that on the other side of the world, the mega-rich try to experience in places like The Burning Man festival.
It has to be said that the community at Piémanson who had been coming to live here for free on the beach since the 1970s were not hippies nor were they gypsies – they were simply regular families who cannot afford vacations elsewhere and saw a great opportunity to live on a beach for the summer. It was open to all who are free in mind enough to try it.
During five summers, from 2009 to 2014, Vasantha Yogananthan shared the lives of the inhabitants of Piémanson. In 2016, the French government sadly closed the beach once and for all, ending a shared utopia that lasted for more than half a century.
For more information on the project and to purchase the book, please visit http://www.vasantha.fr/piemanson/piemanson/