Olivier Laban-Mattei has had an extensive career as a photojournalist: while working for Agence France Presse, he covered conflict-prone areas such as Iraq, Iran, Gaza Strip, Georgia Burma, Haiti and Tunisia. He then veered onto the path of a freelancer and began covering the refugee crisis: recently, following migrants along the Serbian-Hungarian border.
A Blink user, MYOP member, and recently appointed director of the agency, Laban-Mattei spoke to Kyla Woods about the benefits of working with an agency and the ethics behind working for non-government organizations.
KW: How did you start your career as a photojournalist?
OLM: I began my professional career in 1999, in Corsica (my mother’s home island). It began after hanging around as an assistant photographer at the Sipa Press Agency in Paris.
At the time, Corsica was a bit of a hothouse. The island was going through dark times, with the assassination of Prefect Erignac, the misdeeds of his successor Prefect Bonnet, the chase to track down the Erignac assassin, major fires, clandestine meetings out in the wilds in the middle of the night, political and mafia killings…Even if these events affected me directly, I can say, objectively, that the island was a very interesting terrain for a photojournalist, especially for someone who was just starting out. So, I started working with a Corsican press agency in Ajaccio from 1999 to 2000, before becoming one of the many worldwide Agence France-Presse freelancers beginning in 2000.
KW: So tell us about your experience with Agence France-Presse (AFP).
OLM: I worked for AFP for ten years in all, five years as a freelancer in Corsica, and five years as a staff photographer in Paris.
AFP represented a learning curve for me. Firstly, it taught me about journalism. In France, there is no state establishment dedicated to teaching photojournalism, and we mostly learn on the ground, through meeting people, getting things right and wrong, through misfortune and good luck. My time at AFP happened at the start of my career, and thus was a very lucky opportunity for me to move quickly beyond simply shooting pictures to learning to consider photography as a narrative tool, and to making progress in investigative and interview techniques.
I’ve met many young people who throw themselves wholeheartedly into the business without knowing which path to take, or knowing the basic rules of journalism, or even its ethical code. AFP was my chance to learn all that. And above all, it taught me discipline.
KW: So why did you leave AFP?
OLM: Despite the significant advantages it offered, AFP no longer completely satisfied my expectations. I didn’t feel I got to go on assignment enough, even though I did have the opportunity to cover some of the major worldwide events at the time. And above all, each subject was treated in a purely factual manner, with no attention paid to analysis of the background or the potential consequences. To sum up, I had to make do with reporting events only in the present tense.
After the Haiti earthquake, which was a major catalyst in my professional life, I finally decided to leave AFP to be able to take on more long-term projects, whilst still covering news events that I wanted to approach from my own, distinctive, sideways angle.
KW: When do you first start covering war? Can you speak a bit about this experience?
OLM: I was first confronted with conflict in the summer of 2007, when I was “embedded” with the U.S. Army in Iraq, in Baghdad and Baqubah. It was a new world to me, an unknown situation. It was modern-day warfare in all that it entails, in terms of injustice. It was a country destroyed, filled with people I couldn’t approach.
Also, I found in the U.S. Army a group that was far from the clichéd views that we have of it in Europe. I found kids there who had quickly discovered that they were fighting an illegitimate war, youngsters who had signed up to serve after September 11 and were finally realizing that they were just pawns being played in a lost cause. I discovered “death caused by mankind” on a massive scale. I learned fear. I learned to love life.
KW: Was there a point when you wanted to move away from covering conflicts and natural disasters?
OLM: I have never wanted to stop covering those events. I now look for ways to tell those stories another way.
I try to adapt Capas’s famous words—”If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”—to a version I prefer: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you haven’t taken a step back.”
I don’t believe that conflict is at its most comprehensible from the front line.
KW: You’ve won numerous awards—can you speak about which of these awards meant the most to you? Do you have a particular image or story that has special import for you?
OLM: I won a number of awards when I was working for AFP, including three World Press awards in three consecutive years. It was a period of plenty, so to speak, and it seemed that my photography corresponded to the standards that competition juries were looking for. The prizes meant that I gained a level of recognition, which made it easier to launch my post-AFP career as an independent photographer.
KW: Can you talk about positive and challenging aspects of being a freelancer, in comparison to working for a news agency?
OLM: Being a freelance photographer means living permanently with financial risk. It’s made a big difference to me, compared with my position at AFP where I was guaranteed a permanent job, a top salary, as well as fixers and hotel rooms booked and paid for in advance for each assignment. Secure, comfortable employment is the ultimate dream for many photographers, which I can easily understand.
But in the end, it became a handicap for me—there is certain amount of insecurity that forces a photographer to remain sharp, imaginative, and combative. I’d go even further and say: every failure leads to a renaissance. There is always a bit of a kick that results from overcoming a hurdle, from picking yourself up and moving on (for example, after financing is refused). Packing up your bundle and setting out again is one of the intellectually interesting aspects of this business.
Now, within certain limits, of course: you go too far and there’s a risk of sinking into depression. It’s a risk you need to be aware of, ready to pull back from the cliff’s edge. The challenge is in being able to adapt to the difficulties thrown up by the market without leaving your convictions and your projects behind. It’s a high-stakes game, at which most photographers lose. I am not immune to that myself.
But the key to success for a freelance photographer, even more important than talent, is the network you are able to create around yourself. Without a network it’s difficult, indeed impossible to “exist.”
As a freelancer you have to be above all your own best salesperson. You have to be capable of fighting for your projects through all stages of the process from the initial idea to publication, and ensuring after-sales service too. In a sense, Blink responds in part to this demand by bringing photographers and clients together and saving precious time. In my case, it’s probably my greatest failing: I’m aware that I’m not a great networker. I’m not great at using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram et al. I tend to prefer solitude, fleeing crowds, noise and the latest fads.
It’s an effort for me: not to go off-radar for too long, at risk of being forgotten, but also to remain visible for the right reasons.
KW: Can you talk a bit about the Mongolian Project? Is it your first long-term project? How did you start it?
OLM: I set up The Mongolian Project in 2013—it brought together three journalists, a videographer and a scientist, motivated by the desire to document Mongolian society as it currently exists. The project arose from the observation that the mining boom in Mongolia had brought about true social and economic revolution.
At the heart of The Mongolian Project was the desire to tell the tale of that revolution, in-depth, over a long period of time. I therefore decided to live there, in Ulan Bator, along with the two writers and the videographer. How would it be possible to understand a society without living in it on a daily basis?
This documentary work was intended to be an in-depth report on the major changes currently taking place in the country. The first part of the project was completed after a year, with an exhibition at the Visa Pour l’Image. Unfortunately, the rest has never been achieved due to lack of financing.
KW: You joined MYOP agency in 2013, how has this helped your career as a photojournalist?
OLM: MYOP is an agency that is like a large family and teeming with life. We enjoy being with each other, we argue, we laugh and we create. After my agency experience, I didn’t want another experience of a classic hierarchy, with a rigid structure and bosses making decisions for me.
MYOP brings together very differing “eyes” and eclectic styles of photography, and includes artists as well as photojournalists. We all take inspiration from each other, thus progressing in our reflection, vision of photography and personal work. Though it doesn’t provide for my daily living, it does offer mutual assistance, enriching discussions, collaborative projects and pooling of contacts and networks.
KW: You’ve made a transition from war photography, to mainly working for organizations like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)—how did this happen?
OLM: I don’t feel that I have really changed in my choice of photographic subjects. My work with NGOs enables me to make a living while continuing to cover the same subjects as always. Actually, I’ve just finished a six-month project on the victims of the crisis in the Central African Republic, and the trauma caused by conflict. The question of refugees is a central one in war.
KW: What are some of the challenges and positives of working with organizations like this? The access you have to new subjects would be a plus, but do you need to negotiate your contracts with them?
OLM: There are certain advantages and some special restrictions when working for an NGO. Depending on the size and structure, field of action, reputation, local or worldwide scope, legal status (an international organisation such as the UN or a private NGO such as Médecins sans frontiers), or even the nationality of its members, experiences will be different.
One thing is certain: more and more photojournalists are turning to work with humanitarian organisations. There are two main reasons for this—there is still money available, and the subjects covered are often close to the subject they would like to cover.
Then, everything depends on the contract agreed with the organisation: apart from the salary involved, consideration has to be given to how the photos will be distributed, and to the share of usage rights. These aspects vary hugely from one organisation to another. In some cases, NGOs request the photographer to communicate on the group’s actions by photographing their personnel on the ground, for example. This is a specific “corporate” type of work; it’s “advertorial” work, really.
KW: What about the freedoms that a photographer might have when working with an NGO?
OLM: Sometimes, they allow photographers to document the crisis situation with their own eyes (without even mentioning the presence of the NGO on the ground). In such a situation, the photographer is able to offer his work to newspapers since it corresponds to the basic ethical criteria of journalism. This means, NGOs are frequently becoming providers of informative content and have even surpassed a good number of newspapers who, due to the costs involved, can no longer send photographers on assignments lasting several weeks.
I made the choice of continuing to tell the stories of those involved in or around conflict with the organizations that made it possible for me to do so. As a result, I find myself in particular humanitarian situations where photography is able to bring about changes which are quickly visible and very concrete (targeted supplies of aid, political decisions taken, for example).
And a final advantage is that working with NGOs sometimes makes access possible in restricted or even prohibited zones. The photographer can thus contribute a different vision of the conflict, an additional angle and point of view of the catastrophe.
KW: And what’s the interest for the NGOs in hiring photojournalists such as yourself?
OLM: Hiring a photographer presents several advantages. Firstly, an independent eye gives the message worth. Also, the story benefits from the photographer’s network, and is thus more easily broadcast out to the media and to a wider audience through exhibitions, conferences and publications (books, for example). For these reasons, I think that in the coming years, photographers will come to work more and more with NGOs.
However, care needs to be taken on the photographer’s part to find the right terms of collaboration. Foremost: there must be a clear moral contract. If an NGO hires a photojournalist, they must agree that the photojournalist remains faithful to journalistic ethics and can avoid criticism about being mere “communicators.” It must be understood that the status of “journalist” does not stop with the employer, nor with a plastic ID card. A journalist’s role is, above all, to be at the service of the population.
—Olivier Laban-Mattei, interviewed by Kyla Woods