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14 May 2014
The death at 26 of French photojournalist Camille Lepage in the Central African Republic this week ends a courageous career. Courageous not only because she worked in dangerous places but because she hoped to tell stories with her images that no one wanted to publish. But which she believed should be heard.
In an interview with PetaPixel's Gregory Eddi Jones in October, she said, "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."
She paid that price, "no matter what." Her body was discovered by French troops on patrol in the Bouar region of the Central African Republic, the first Western journalist to die covering the conflict. She had been traveling with militia from the Christian anti-balaka group, on patrol to escort people back safely to their homes after two Muslim Seleka rebel attacks in the area.
'I want the viewers to feel what the people are going through, I'd like them to empathize with them as human beings...'
But before she paid the ultimate price, she managed to shed light on significant stories that were not being told.
In Vanishing Youth she wonders what she is seeing at a Bor hospital. "It wasn't just a hospital with sick people. It was young men who were rescued after attacking another tribe and killing other men." Ravaged by violence, her black and white images "show how they don't have a choice." But she is amazed that, "despite the atrocities that they must have been through and make others endure, inside their eyes, I could see kindness and innocence."
You will forget me shows how the traditional Nuba way of life in South Sudan has changed with "the enforcement of Sharia law and Arabization over all of Sudan." She tells the story of the Sudanese People Liberation Movement's resistance to this attack on their culture. "The peace, stability and happiness that were essential to the Nuba have disappeared and now their daily life is an endless fight for survival -- whether it is searching for food or taking up arms to survive."
Her last effort, 'On est ensemble' -- Central African Republic, which led to her death, prompted French President François Hollande to issue a statement promising, "All necessary means will be deployed to shine light on the circumstances of this assassination and find the killers of our compatriot."
Her style was intimate. "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," she told PetaPixel.
She gained the trust of her subjects by living among them. "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 they would shout at her and threaten violence when she raised her camera. "Now I don't struggle anymore," she continued, "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."
The N.Y. Times Lens Blog has posted Bearing Witness, Losing Her Life, a tribute by Nicholas Kulish with several of her images.
Kulish had been assigned to cover a story in South Sudan and Lepage had hoped to work with him. "When we met at the outside patio at the Logali House, a popular haunt for journalists," he writes, "I had to tell her I had already been assigned to work with another photographer. She was characteristically blunt in letting me know that she was disappointed, but then immediately began sharing beers, contacts and safety tips with me."
She had studied journalism as a writer but found her true love was photojournalism. "What fascinates me about photography is its universal language. Unlike other media, anyone can understand a picture, feel it, it speaks to the viewers."
Her images of Africa do indeed speak to us. We will not forget you, Camille.