Joan Bardeletti is a French photographer and film director based in Spain. To fund his recent story on small businesses growing in Africa, he had to become an entrepreneur himself. Blink’s Laurence Cornet spoke to the Panos photographer and World Press Photo Winner about this project and the alternatives he found to funding long-term projects.

LC: Can you introduce yourself and the story?

JB: I have been working as a photographer for ten years now. I began with traditional reportage but soon turned to a long-term project. I started to think about ways to finance it while being free to work as I wanted, and so I reached out to private and public institutions. They supported a four-year long project about the African middle class, for which I was left carte blanche to do the things I really wanted. I won a World Press Photo Award and worked more on the subject. That’s when I have decided to set up a production company in order to develop a project called “Small is Powerful” (Les Grands Moyens in French) that has just been released.

LC: Can you tell me more about this project?

JB: The idea was to show how small African companies are fostering the development of the African continent. In other words, I was interested in covering stories that are in the middle. While you might easily get powerful images from wars, crisis and corruption, it is the middle class that’s growing in Africa and I wanted to document it. Most of the time, when people think about economy in Africa, they have in mind micro-credits or multi-national robbing of the land, but that’s not everything. There is great creativity and growth coming from small companies.

I have been working on that subject for three years now. It’s a step forward from the way I had been working until then because I conceived the project with experts from other fields. So, my life as a photographer is now split in three parts: traditional assignments, project development with specialists, and coordination with other creative people.

LC: Concretely, how did you take this step?

JB: I understood that a lot of institutions involved in development had a hard time talking about these small companies. So, I designed a project and set up a partnership with the French Agency for Development (AFD) and with a fund investing in those companies. We chose five companies, in five different countries (Mauritania, Senegal, Nigeria, Benin, Madagascar), working in five different areas: renewable energy, health, recycling, aquaculture, agriculture. We then documented how those small companies are changing the lives of the people around them.

To do so, I teamed up with a specialist of impact analysis. For each company, we worked for three or four months ahead of the reportage and set-up a matrix defining how this company affects the life of its clients, its employees, and of the population around it in terms of economy, environment, and infrastructure. I would then go to the field for about two to three weeks and shoot photos and videos of the issues highlighted by our study.

LC: What was the result of the project?

JB: For each company, we did a photo series, a three to ten minutes movie, and graphics that represent the impact. In fact, the impact analysis is open source and available to the public. Then, in order to touch a wider audience, I created an exhibition that will travel around France and other countries in Europe and Africa. There is also a web documentary that is being broadcast by Le Monde in France and Internazionale in Italy. Finally, I will release a book at the end of the year. It’s going to be 1,000 copies and it’s not a classic book: it will be a box with five 30-pages books, along with some posters and postcards. I didn’t want it to be traditional because the project already had many different forms.

LC: Are you also planning to reach the African audience?

JB: I’m working on that. I partnered with companies based in Africa to spread the message there. Also, before Small is Powerful, three photographers and I were embedded in African newspapers because we wanted to see and catch news from a local perspective. So, I’m going to restart the partnership with these four newspapers to have them publish — for free — the content I’ve produced so far.

Also, we have purposely developed a very light version of the web documentary in order to be sure to touch the African continent. A few African universities also present the work and initiate a dialogue. It’s the hardest part, but our social media outreach is big now. We have almost 5,000 followers on our Facebook page, two thirds of whom are African.

LC: How about your experience of being embedded in local newspapers?

JB: There is a gap between what we, foreign journalists, are working on, and what the African audience is reading. People are talking a lot about corruption, or the fact that journalists in Africa get bribes. But, in fact, it’s not really that the journalists are corrupted; it’s the way the whole media industry functions. Very few newspapers offer decent salaries to journalists and protect them and their freedom of speech. Working in this context, I think they actually do a pretty good job at trying to tell the truth in the best way they can (without being fired).

LC: While collaborating with photographers and multimedia specialists, what do you find to be the challenges and advantages of collaboration?

JB: I don’t see how I could work without collaboration. The best work I’m doing by collaborating on something other than just a publication. One of the biggest challenges is time management. When you work with an editor, a graphic designer, an analysis expert, a sound engineer, and so on, you end up spending 70% of your time not taking pictures but finding the best way to work with other people.

Today, you’ve got to broadcast your work on so many channels in order for it to exist in the continuous flow of images, you can only do that through collaboration. The challenge is to find a good balance so that you preserve some time to stay creative.

I run different projects through my production company, Collateral Creations, and though it’s very hard to have people from very different fields work together, that’s also the way to provide out-of-the-box propositions. It’s critical to target people who have a very different way of thinking, very different areas of expertise than you, because they are the ones who will bring new insights and help you produce something different. And, this has a good chance to interest companies and institutions that can finance and help you produce some interesting visual stories.

LC: Is it the direction in which you think photojournalism will evolve?

JB: Traditional media are not able to finance long-term projects; you cannot work for two years on a project and live with 4,000 euros.

So, you have to find an institution, if possible public, and convince them that you will help advocate their cause. All this, while keeping your artistic freedom. If you work as an author, showing your point of view, the story will be visible, and the action of the partners will be obvious as well. More and more, institutions understand this, so I’ve found it’s becoming easier to convince them.

—Joan Bardeletti interviewed by Laurence Cornet