I met Camille Lepage in South Sudan last September when I arrived in the capital Juba on a two-week assignment. She had already been living there for almost two months, and has been there ever since. She was a huge help in getting our story off of the ground and filling my colleague and I in on how South Sudan works, with all the necessary tips and tricks that help make things happen there. And there are a lot of tips and tricks needed.
At the time she had just finished a stint at a local newspaper, The Citizen, and was starting work as a stringer for AFP. Since I met her, she has traveled all over South Sudan and the border region and begun to produce impressive stories on her own. I wanted to feature her project “The Silent War” from South Kordofan, which was was photographed in October and November last year and published this week in Le Monde. We also wanted to ask her a few questions about what life is like as a freelance photographer in South Sudan.
Dvafoto: When did you arrive in South Sudan?
I arrived in South Sudan in July 2012, just after finishing my degree in journalism at Southampton Solent University in the UK.
What was the main story you wanted to cover when you set out?
The wars at the borders with Sudan really pushed me to come to South Sudan. They are going on in complete silence and I have always wanted to cover underreported (if reported at all) wars or humanitarian crises, so I figured going to South Sudan, which was a new nation under construction, would probably be a good way to start. On top of that, I thought it was very unfair that a one year old country was constantly referred to as doomed or failed so I wanted to see it for myself and perhaps bring some new light on it.
How has the story you’re pursuing changed?
I think I really have two main focuses. The first is the humanitarian crisis in both Blue Nile State and South Kordofan where locals are being bombed by the Sudanese government, where NGOs and journalists are forbidden. Since June 2011, it has led hundreds of thousands of people to be displaced to other countries. I didn’t think I would spend so much time and energy on this, but after having spent 3 weeks in South Kordofan last November, I know I have to go back as often as I can. I also want to make my way to Blue Nile, which is trickier and much more costly too. Also, I can only go to those places during the dry season, when roads are practicable, so from November to May. I also need to finance those trips by working for NGOs at the same time, it’s a little challenging.
The second story is on the quest for identity of South Sudan and how a country that has been at war for decades can become a united nation. I’m looking the obstacles such as lack of infrastructure, which results in the lack of health care and sparks tribalism around the country but also the way forward, like a youth which wants peace and education.
How are your pictures getting out? Where are they being published?
I started freelancing with AFP when I arrived so through them they are often published in The Guardian, Time Magazine’s Lightbbox, BBC, sometimes on the NYT Lens Blog etc. For my personal projects, I’m pitching them to pictures editors here and there, the South Kordofan story was published in Le Monde, but I’m hoping to have it published in other places soon. The other one isn’t ready at all, so I’ll wait until I feel I have some good material to pitch that too.
In general, what is life like for a photographer like you in South Sudan?
Life isn’t easy, really. Everything is very expensive here, I used to rent a tent at a hotel for 600$ a month. Now I live in a local house far from the town and without electricity, but it’s only 200$ a month. I obviously don’t have AC or a fan, so the temperature can go up to 38 degrees at night. I got used to it though, and now whenever I go to the field, which should normally be more rough, I have more comfort. I always think it’s quite amusing.
At the moment, we are only two photographers in the country so we can quite easily get assignments with NGOs and UN agencies, but I only do so to pay my bills and finance other reportages.
At first, people here are seriously reluctant to be photographed. They get very very aggressive, I even had my life threatened a few times when I wanted to photograph people. I’ve learnt how to approach them, so it’s becoming easier and easier every time. But it takes time!
Are there many other photographers there? Are they staying as long as you?
We were four only a few months ago, now we’re two only. I think just like most foreign correspondants, stringer photographers stay between one and two years. There are also some people who come over for a one week or two on assignment.
What is the benefit to staying longer?
You get a much better understanding of the place. Especially in a country like South Sudan where everything is logistically complicated, you need to know the rules, to understand the ‘un-said’, discover how to approach people, to make them trust you too. After six decades of war, the South Sudanese are very suspicious of spies, and they remain in this ‘war spirit’ when you know at any time things can go wrong if you say something they didn’t want to hear. On top of that, it’s really a fascinating place, they are so many stories to tell, and it takes time to get proper insights of it.
What is one story that you wish you could be covering in South Sudan that you so far have not been able to, due to access or due to resources?
Apart from the Blue Nile story that I previously mentioned, I’ve been meaning to go and spend some time with the Murle tribe in their cattle camp in Jonglei state. Cattle camps are huge areas where armed kids are keeping hundreds of cows (cows show the wealth of a family and often are used for securing a bride). Traditionally the Murle go and raid other camps to steal their cattle either as an initiation into adulthood or to simply increase ther ‘wealth’. They often end up in very violent fights between the tribes unfortunately. The Murle are also said to be sterile, so at the same time they steal children from other tribes; but there is very little documentation on the Murle, so I’d like to see it with my own eyes. I haven’t managed to cover it yet as the UN are forbidding journalists to go to Jonglei state because of security issues, and no NGOs are able to facilitate journalists to go there because the area is too sensitive.
What is your background in photography, where is your home?
I don’t really have any photography background. I studied print journalism, but was more than often interested in the visual part in each story. It clicked about one year ago, what I was really into was photojournalism and I decided to go for it. When I arrived in South Sudan, I introduced myself as a photojournalist, despite my very meagre portfolio at the time. I think people didn’t take me very seriously at first, but I worked hard and still do, so I think they see me a little differently now. and I’m from France!