January 19, 2009, Ezbet Abdrabbo neighborhood, Jabalia, Gaza Strip. A Palestinian woman comforting her child on the rubble that was once her house © Olivier Laban-Mattei / Agence France-Presse.
Photojournalists can find themselves in some of the most dangerous places on Earth, but sometimes the hardest part of their job can be just to maintain a personal life. Olivier Laban-Mattei talks of his experience, weeks after leaving Agence France Presse to pursue a career as an independent photographer
Last year, the Wall Street Journal named photojournalist as one of the worst jobs – ranking it 189 out of 200. For the newspaper, only Butcher, Mail Carrier, Meter Reader, Construction Worker, Taxi Driver, Garbage Collector, Welder, Dairy Farmer, Ironworker, Lumberjack and Roustabout were worse positions than that of a photojournalist.
The job sure has its issues, especially if you’ve been working for a newswire such as Agence France Presse. This has been the case for Olivier Laban-Mattei. The young photojournalist had worked with AFP for 10 years before he left it in July to start a career as an independent photographer. For the past decade, Laban-Mattei has been criss-crossing the world reporting on the Iraq war, the Haitian earthquake or the Gaza Strip humanitarian disaster.
His work has taken a toll on his personal life, he admits to BJP in an interview at the Visa Pour l’Image photojournalism festival. Five years ago, he separated from his son’s mother, and now, spends as much time as he can in Corsica to visit his son. “He’s my family now,” he says. While Laban-Mattei is now with the “most understanding and patient woman” he has ever met, he admits that it can be difficult balancing work and family life. “You can leave for a dangerous place anytime without being able to keep in touch for three weeks. It can be hard for your partner. Some of them see you as heroes, at first. But then, they quickly realise that a relationship with a photojournalist can be a nightmare. I’m very lucky to have found someone that understands it and who is able to cope with it. I hope it lasts.”
Laban-Mattei left Agence France Presse last July. “When you work for an agency like AFP, you cover breaking news, which means that you have to get to the news as quickly as possible and leave almost right away for the next breaking news,” he tells BJP. “You can’t really go in-depth. I spent 10 years with AFP. I learned a lot, but I recognised that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do anymore.”
Instead, Laban-Mattei wants to spend more time with the people he meets and documents. “When I would leave an area, I would feel some kind of frustration at the fact that I couldn’t stay longer. I would always think ‘I need to go back, I need to go back’ but of course, new assignments would arrive and you end up never going back.” That’s why he decided to leave AFP. “I wanted to develop more personal projects that require more time to reflect. To achieve that goal, I couldn’t stay with AFP.”
But for a photographer with a 10-year career for a newswire, it’s not necessarily easy to continue as an independent. One big issue that arises is the ownership of his images. “Because of how AFP works, I don’t have commercial rights over my images,” says Laban-Mattei. “When I left AFP, they kept my archives. I have the right to show them, to comment on them, to publish them in a book, but I can’t sell them.”
As a result, it makes it difficult for Laban-Mattei to approach independent agencies such as VII Photo or Noor, “because they wouldn’t be able to sell any of images I shot over the past 10 years,” he says. “I’m starting from scratch all over again.”
The solution? To develop a new body of work on his own. “I think I will stay with the overall theme I have developed over my years at AFP because I feel I have something to say about it.” Laban-Mattei’s exhibition at Visa Pour l’Image deals with victims of catastrophes – either man-made or natural disasters. But, he’s also looking to develop a major body of work on youth and unemployment. “This subject interests me. It’s not the same kind of humanitarian catastrophes that I’m used to cover, but it’s still a disaster,” he says.
And when he has images to show, then he might approach prestigious agencies such as Noor or VII Photo. “In these agencies, photographers remain independent, but they pull their resources and values together, that’s attractive to me,” he tells BJP. “These agencies are prestigious, so, of course, I dream of joining them. I’m not going to lie: if tomorrow Magnum welcomes me, I would be the happiest man on Earth.”
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