Ulaanbaatar, Bayanzürkh. Even in the center of the capital city, there are districts, such as Bayanzürkh (meaning “rich heart”), that do not have running water. With poor hygiene, tuberculosis can spread quickly in such areas. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

“I Don’t Believe That Conflict Is Most Comprehensible From The Frontline”

Olivier Laban-Mattei on journalism ethics and taking steps back


From a decade with Agence France Presse in conflict prone areas such as Iraq, Iran, Gaza Strip, Georgia Burma and Haiti, to freelancing today covering the Central African Republic refugee crisis, Olivier Laban-Mattei has had an extensive career as a photojournalist. He is a Blink user and member and recently-appointed co-director of MYOP agency. Laban-Mattei spoke with Kyla Woods about the benefits of working with a wire, 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, after hanging around as an assistant photographer at 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 assassination commando, major fires, clandestine meetings out in the wilds in the middle of the night, political and mafia assassinations. Even if these events affected me directly, I would say very soberly, that the island was at the time 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 AFP freelancers from 2000.

Narangiin Khogiin Tseg dump, Ulaanbaatar. Collecting plastic to sell to Chinese recycling companies. Waste causes severe health problems for the local community. With more than a third of the population living below the poverty line, a parallel subsistence economy has developed, providing for entire communities that have given up all hope in the state. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

KW: Please 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. AFP happened at the start of my career, and was a very lucky opportunity for me to move quickly beyond simple 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 professional discipline.

Central African Republic police officers guard the entrance to the National Security Centre in Bangui on 2 June 2015, transformed for the occasion into a distribution centre. Hundreds of internally displaced people have been queuing for the doors to open since early morning to obtain tarpaulins and food from foreign NGO’s. As the temperature rises tempers quickly become inflamed and tension strains the atmosphere amongst these exhausted men and women. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

KW: 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 photo 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 to do with reporting events 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 a sideways angle.

Young girls warm up in a room of the old circus of Ulaanbaatar, shortly before the beginning of their show. Mongolian contortion schools are very famous in the world and represent a huge hope for poor families who gamble on the success of their daughters to access to a better life. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

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, a country destroyed and people I couldn’t approach. And an army 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 realising 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 adapt Capa’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 that step back.”

I don’t believe that conflict is most comprehensible from the front line.

Suleiman, 12 November 2014. He washes in the river, several kilometres into the bush from the Timangolo refugee camp in eastern Cameroon. He and his mother have been living there for five months. He is hardly 16 years old, but that Suleiman is alive is a miracle. During an anti-balaka attack on his village in Central African Republic (CAR), he received several machete blows to the head and was left for dead, thrown into a mass grave. His mother found him and took him to the nearest dispensary, several days’ walk away. Suleiman was unconscious for three months. When he came to, it was to see the dispensary attacked in turn. His mother managed to escape with him into Cameroon, but Suleiman no longer has any taste for life. The severe headaches he suffers from prevent him leading a normal life. And his nightmares overwhelm him. He often dreams that he is being murdered in the worst possible ways. To escape his fears, Suleiman takes refuge in drugs. Tramadol and boyli have become his companions of misfortune. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

KW: You’ve won numerous awards — can you speak to that? Do you have a particular story that means a lot to 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 at the time corresponded to the standards that competition juries were looking for. The same can no longer be said of my current work.

The prizes I won meant that I gained a level of recognition which made it easier to launch my post-AFP career as an independent photographer.

If I had to choose to keep only one of my prizes, I would keep the 2011 World Press Photo 1st place in the General News Story category for my photos in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. David Burnett handed me the award, a man I respect and admire intensely.

Nigerian refugees arrive on the beach of Baga Sola, on the chadian coast of the Lake Chad, on February 8, 2015, rescued by Chadian authorities from islands where they were hiding after fleeing from the attacks of Boko Haram.Olivier Laban-Mattei has had an extensive career as a photojournalist, from working for prominent news agency, Agence France Presse, in conflict prone areas such as Iraq, Iran, Gaza Strip, Georgia Burma, Haiti and Tunisia, to veering onto the path of a freelancer and covering the refugee crisis, where he followed migrants along the Serbian-Hungarian border. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

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 to the 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 to facing up to a hurdle, picking yourself up, and moving on (for example, after financing is refused). Packing up your bundle once more and setting out again is one of the intellectually interesting aspects of the business. Within certain limits of course, 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 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.

“Packing up your bundle and setting out again is one of the intellectually interesting aspects of the business. The challenge is in being able to adapt to the difficulties thrown up by the market without leaving your convictions behind.”

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 etc. 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.

Ulaanbaatar, Bayan Khoshuu. On a cold winter’s morning, residents from the yurt district set off for work and school, in a cloud of smoke from the home fires. The average wage-earner in Ulan Bator is paid 600 000 tugriks a month, and struggles to survive. Nearly 1.5 million people, which is half the population of Mongolia, now live in the capital city. Severe pollution in winter causes major disruptions to business in the country’s one economic hub. A large proportion of the small number of people in employment suffer from serious and incapacitating respiratory conditions, problems which could ultimately become a major obstacle to the country’s future development. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

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, after I had initially completed a project in Mongolia the previous year with my son Lisandru, who was then aged 11. “The Mongolian Project” brought together three journalists, a videographer and a scientist, motivated by the desire to document Mongolian society as it currently exists in-depth. The project arose from the observation that the mining boom in Mongolia had brought about true social and economic revolution.

Ult Valley, Arkhangaï. Batjargal searches for gold, unofficially. The “ninjas” use picks and pans, working near the official mines, risking their lives for a few grams of gold to help feed their families. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

OLM: At the heart of The Mongolian Project was the desire to tell the tale of that revolution, in-depth, over a long period. I therefore decided to live there, in Ulaanbaatar, along with the two writers and the videographer. How, in fact, 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 finance.

KW: You joined MYOP agency in 2013, how has this helped your career as a photojournalist?

OLM: MYOP 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.

“Without a network it’s difficult, indeed impossible to exist. As a freelancer you have to be above all your own best salesperson.”

It 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, our 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.

Nalaikh, Mongolia. Illegal coal miners finishing work after twelve hours. The authorities tolerate illegal mining as there are no other jobs. Many families get by on this income which forms the basis of the local economy. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

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 NGO’s enables me to make a living whilst continuing to cover the same subjects as always. I really haven’t changed my reference point.

Actually, I’ve just finished a six months’ work 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.

Amina, a Central African Republic refugee, dreams of marrying an older man who will take care of her. Under her mother’s inquisitive and protective gaze in their tent in Gado, Cameroon, she thinks about her future. She would also like to go to school, mostly through curiosity. Her mother doesn’t encourage this idea, thinking that school’s no place for a country girl and that anyway she wouldn’t be able to keep up. Married at a young age, children guarantee a better life for the whole family, especially when there is no man at home. Survival remains the major concern of Central Africans in exile and in the circumstances early marriage seems a concrete solution to their daily worries. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

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 involved in working for an NGO. Depending on the size and structure, field of action, reputation, local or worldwide scope, legal status (an international organization 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 organizations. 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 organization: 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 organization to another.

In some cases, NGO’s request the photographer to communicate on their actions by photographing their personnel on the ground, for example. This is a specific “corporate” type of work; it’s “advertorial” work.

Central African survivors just arrived at the Cameroon border town of Garoua-Boulaï on 30 October 2014, are transferred by the Red Cross in Cameroon to the Gado refugee camp 20 kilometres away. Anxiety is etched on their faces. After months of wandering in the bush, fleeing their attackers, this new group of exiles wonders what is to become of them. One woman, staring out of the bus window as it enters the camp, wonders aloud: “So this is what refugees are?” © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

KW: Can you talk about the freedoms that a photographer may have when working with an NGO?

OLM: Sometimes, they allow photographers to document the crisis situation with his 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, NGO’s 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. It’s a sad commentary in one sense, since photojournalists are intended to work with the press.

“NGO’s are frequently becoming providers of informative content, and have even surpassed a good number of newspapers.”

I myself 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 etc). And a final advantage is that working with NGO’s 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.

A woman and her son struggle through a storm on 28 May 2015 in the M’Poko displaced persons camp in Bangui, where living conditions are appalling. The camp’s residents were amongst the first to flee the atrocities in December 2013. © Olivier Laban-Mattei.

KW: Can you talk about the advantage of NGO’s hiring photojournalists, such as yourself?

OLM: Hiring a photographer presents several advantages. Firstly, an independent eye makes gives the message worth. Also, the guarantee of benefitting from the photographer’s network, and thus more easily broadcasting the information in the media and to a wide audience through exhibitions, conferences and publications (newspapers, books, social networks).

In the future, photographers will come to work more and more with NGO’s. However, care needs to be taken not to agree to collaborate in this way under any terms. 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 thus avoid criticism about being simple “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.


Kyla Woods is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Long Cours, Le Figaro, Le Point, This is the What, and Foam Magazine.

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