The Sahel story not only covers a large geographic area, but deals with numerous issues. How did you approach such a big story?
I couldn’t just travel across the Sahel. I didn’t go on a journey from east to west across the region, because the issues were very specific, and I had to get special permission, special permits, to go to certain places. I made six or seven trips [to the region] to cover different topics.
What were some of the places where you needed special permission?
For example, to cover the topic of Darfur and the Chad border, I joined a group of rebels. Sahel is a forgotten part of the world and in some parts, like in the north, there aren't a lot of people, so people—like Islamic groups—come [to the area]. This is the reason the U.S. Army is there to train local soldiers. When I went to photograph the U.S. military training, I always made specific trips. To cover modern slavery, I had to go far outside of Timbuktu to a salt mine, which is in the gray zone. In the Sahara there are many gray zones—areas where there is no state, no police, no army.
When you were in the gray zone, what was going through your mind?
I didn’t feel there was a problem at all, but you need to be sensitive and aware when you are there. I prepared very well. You need to bring everything with you. You need to know exactly how far you can go, to which point, and how many days you will stay. I also trusted the people who brought me there. From time to time we would meet someone in the area who would come to talk to my guide. The first time I went we had to leave after the first day because there was fighting in the region. Sometimes I stayed three or four days, but I would notice the people I was with weren’t comfortable, so I knew I needed to leave.
Did you run into any trouble in the gray zone?
Going there is difficult to organize, and you need to find the right people. But even then, if you stay too long you can get into trouble. You have to feel where you can go. One time when I was going to photograph the salt mine, I was with this driver who was very close with the Islamic group in the area—I was also with a desert guide and a fixer—and after two or three days people from the Islamic group came to talk to my guide. Suddenly I felt my colleagues were not comfortable. The men from the Islamic group questioned my guide, who told them not to worry, that a plane would come to get me at the small airstrip near the salt mine. That wasn’t true. I wasn’t worried, but I knew there was something wrong even though my guides didn’t tell me. They told me when we got back. You have to trust them, because they know the people in the area.
Did you go anyplace you hadn’t planned to go?
Sometimes you are lucky to find something that you don’t expect. Like this desertification place in Niger with the green and the sand and the trees. I was looking for a long time for a place where you can really see desertification. If you look, there aren't many pictures where you really see this. To show the sand moving is difficult. I investigated and thought I could see this in Niger, but it was more than I expected.
Do you have a favorite photo from the assignment?
I really like the one of the three kids near the wall. They are waiting for the Islamic school to open, and they are very cold. I like it because all the colors are the same, and you feel how they are small and not strong. I like the atmosphere. I also like the image of the two ladies coming back from the well in a huge, huge storm. After months and months of it being dry, finally the rain comes, but it is too much. You feel how these two ladies fight to walk, to move, and you feel like it will never stop. What I have tried to pass along through this story is an atmosphere and a feeling of the area—how the people live there. And with some pictures—like even the first picture with the horse in the storm—you get a little bit of the feeling about the climate and the people living there. Sahel is a huge place, where the people are very friendly and nice, but where they have to fight to survive.