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Hidden World of South Sudan: An Interview with Photojournalist Camille Lepage

Camille Lepage, 25, is an independent French photographer living in South Sudan. She works on long term projects about topics that do not make to the mainstream media and looks at the consequences of the politics on the populations.

For over a year now, documentary photographer Camille Lepage has been photographing the struggles of South Sudan. As a new country, sovereign since 2011, South Sudan can be considered a hotbed for social, political, and religious conflicts. These conflicts are laid bare by Lepage through a strong, intuitive eye and a determination to get her shot.

Her two on-going bodies of work, You Will Forget Me and Vanishing Youth (which are on display below) contain stirring imagery that speak of the violence, and the religious and cultural dissonance that permeates this young country and its people.

PetaPixel: First Camille, when did you become interested in photography, and what most inspired you about it?

Camille Lepage: I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures, but never thought about taking it to a professional level until 2011, as I was traveling around different countries for my journalism degree. I had my camera with me, and probably took more care of taking well composed pictures to go with the stories I was covering than the actual writing. Then, a few months later as I was in my last year of University, I got to think about what I really wanted to do, and realized that photography took the biggest part of my heart.

I decided to go for it and give myself five years to see if I could become good at it, and make a living out of it. What fascinates me about photography is its universal language. Unlike other media, anyone can understand a picture, feel it, it speaks to the viewers. I probably say that as I’m a photographer but I feel that picture you love lives in you, you can think about it and they get you where the photographer was, which is amazing.

PP: Soon after finishing school, you left home to photograph in South Sudan. Tell us about this decision: What drove you to go to South Sudan? Why not someplace else?

CL: Since I was very little, I’ve always wanted to go and live in a place where no one else wants to go, and cover in-depth conflict related stories. I followed thoroughly the independence process of South Sudan and was shocked by the little coverage it got… plus all the pessimism around it really annoyed me.

Then, while doing research, I discovered the conflict in the Nuba Mountains. I became even more outraged by the fact that, except from a few media, no one talked about it. It became an obvious choice, I had to go and report from there. Yet, as a first experience in Africa, it seemed like a dangerous one. So I was trying to find alternatives.

I thought about moving to Uganda and going back and forth between the two countries. Then I realized I could probably get a job in a local paper and start within a structure instead of throwing myself out there with no contact, no portfolio and above all very little experience. So that’s what I did.

PP: You have described yourself as being most interested in “forgotten” people and causes, to whom no one pays attention.  What makes these types of subjects so important to you?

CL: Throughout my journalism degree at Southampton Solent University in the UK, we studied a lot of journalism’s ethics. I became very keen on the duty of a journalist to tell stories and make them accessible to a broad audience.

I also realized what the media agenda was, and how so many serious stories were missing from the headlines simply because they don’t fit within that agenda, or the advertising company’s interests. I can’t accept that people’s tragedies are silenced simply because no one can make money out of them. I decided to do it myself, and bring some light to them no matter what.

PP: The images you’ve made there so far are consistently engaging, both in compositional style and through the sheer intimacy you portray. Talk briefly about your photographic goals in this country, what do you want your viewers to take away from your  pictures?

CL: I want the viewers to feel what the people are going through, I’d like them to empathize with them as human beings, rather than seeing them as another bunch of Africans suffering from war somewhere in this dark continent. I wish they think “why on earth are those people in living hell, why don’t we know about it and why is no one doing anything?” I would like the viewers to be ashamed of their government for knowing about it without doing anything to make it end.

The killings of civilians in the Nuba, Blue Nile and Darfur have been going on for 30 years, and yet all the governments are still turning a blind eye on them. I don’t understand what makes it okay for Omar Al-Bashir to kill thousands of innocent people with no one saying anything!

PP:  Please give our readers an overview of the political and social issues that define South Sudan as it is today.

CL: South Sudan is still under construction, it’s facing a lot of difficulties in terms of infrastructure and development. The former government was very corrupted (the government changed in August) which slowed down the development of the whole country a lot.

In terms of political issues, South Sudan is still very tied up to Sudan over the oil issue, which is problematic as each economy depends on the other. The North cannot let it go, as it would go bankrupt otherwise. This is one of the reasons why Sudan is still fueling a rebel group in Jonglei state, near the border with Ethiopia, so South Sudan cannot build any pipelines reaching its neighbor country.

Sudan also accuses South Sudan of supporting the rebels in South Kordofan, that’s the card they pull out every time they discuss the oil issue. There’s been no proof of this, unlike Sudan’s weapons supply to the rebels in Jonglei.

PP: Your Vanishing Youth series takes a look at a group of young men who are both killers, and victims of their circumstances. Tell us more about the story here, and about the challenges in photographing such an emotionally charged story.

CL: The series was shot in two parts. The first part was shot in a hospital in Bor. At first I remember that I was taking pictures like those young men were patients suffering from diseases. At some point I stood back and realized that they were all killers, but they all looked so weaken, almost fragile below their strong and warrior-looking bodies, it didn’t make sense. I decided to continue shooting at the hospital for 5 more days. I was hoping to get them to take me along to follow their story longer but it didn’t happen.

The second part was shot in Yuai, when the rest of the youth who hadn’t been wounded came back to their village. Again, it was mixed feelings: happy to be home, shocked and weaken by the war, and sad to have lost some of their brothers.

I’m trying to show how they don’t have a choice, and how at such a young ages, they’re already ravaged by violence. They don’t have any way to escape, they can’t go to school as there is none because of the war. Their only option is to go and fight to protect their cattle, it’s important to understand that they really don’t have a choice, they must go and fight. It’s sad because behind their scary looks and heavy guns, they’re nice guys…

PP: I’m very interested in how close you seem to your subjects. What were the challenges of gaining the trust of the people and groups you photographed? How did you come to be accepted as not only a foreigner but as a photographer as well?

CL: The fact that I live in South Sudan for a while really helps. I live in a local house in local neighborhood, with no electricity and little comfort, so I don’t see myself as being very different from them. At first it was challenging to gain the trust to take pictures anywhere. South Sudanese aren’t very keen on being photographed; at the beginning people would shout at me or be even violent sometimes.

Now I don’t struggle anymore, I think I’ve learned the codes: it’s important to be polite, make jokes, feel the physical distance you should have and, above all, accept when they don’t want to be photographed.

After living so many years at war, South Sudanese and Sudanese can read into someone’s eyes very quickly and clearly. I’m convinced by what I’m doing, so perhaps that’s why they feel that they can trust me.

PP: What lessons have you taken away from your experiences in South Sudan to this point? What personal experiences have been sticking with you?

CL: Since I’ve moved to South Sudan, I’ve probably changed a lot as a person, become more mature I suppose and more aware of and open to others. The whole moving to South Sudan is an experience by itself, I’ve realized that we don’t need much to live or be happy, simplicity is often more than enough. One important thing is to keep an open heart towards others and what I might not understand — I’m not one to judge, and the best I can do is to learn from each other’s differences. Differences are what makes each of us unique and fascinating.

PP: Talk about the joys of your career as a photojournalist. What about the pitfalls?

CL: Not sure I can talk about my ‘career’ just yet, I’m still just getting started! I find it amazing to be able to travel probably to some of the most remote areas, meet wonderful people everywhere and being able to document them.

I also like seeing people respond to my pictures. I had my first exhibition in September, and the curators Les Tisseurs d’Images organized a conference where some people from Sudan congratulated me afterwards. One of them was so moved that tears were rolling on his cheeks while holding my hands thanking me for my work and saying it showed exactly how it is there. So I started sobbing too, happy that he appreciated it, but sad that the situation hasn’t changed since he left Sudan years ago…

What’s truly frustrating is that the media is indeed not interested! I was secretly hoping to make things change, but quickly realized it’s going to take longer than I thought. I sincerely hope that once the stories are complete, it would be easier to get them out, if not through media, through books, or perhaps exhibitions.

PP: What advice do you have for the next generation of photojournalists trying to establish their vision and craft?

CL: I’m still part of this generation, I would say work hard and be very critical of your own work. If you’re not happy with it, find out why and try again, and again, and again! I can’t recommend enough the quote from Ira Glass on story-telling, and how it’s normal that you can’t be as good as you want over days, weeks, or years even! You have to work hard to meet your ambitions, but never give up!

Also follow your heart, and don’t mind if people disagree with you. So many people tried to discourage me from following my dream, doing photography and above all going to South Sudan. I can’t blame them, it was a crazy bet. But now, they’re proud of me, respect what I do and understand why I do it. If I had listened to them, I honestly have no idea what I would be doing… but I certainly wouldn’t be as happy. So in conclusion, one has to find their own little ‘Sudan,’ this story that they live for and miss dearly when not covering it.

PP: To round things off, what’s ahead for you over the next year, photographically or otherwise?

CL: I’m currently in the Central African Republic, working on a new photography project there for a few months before heading back to South Sudan and Sudan. I’d like to spend a few months in the Nuba during the dry season and the rainy season and continue working on Vanishing Youth. I’d like to complete the story You’ll Forget Me by the end of 2013 and perhaps publish a book the following year.

As I mentioned, it’s so frustrating to be covering something so tragic, that no one wants to publish and that can’t see the public light apart from social media…

As regards to ‘otherwise,’ it’s kind of sad but I don’t really have any… I work a lot, so even if I love socializing, I can be kind of nerdy, so I’ll probably enjoy more hours looking at photographers’ work or harassing editors to get them to give me an answer on whether or not they’re interested in the story!

[via PetaPixel]

[via PetaPixel]

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