Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries with an economy based on agriculture, mining and textile manufacturing. The National Institute of Statistics (INSTAT) estimates that over 70% of the population live below the poverty line and in rural areas this figure could rise to above 80%. Wages in the formal employment sector are shockingly low, while those in the informal sector are even lower. The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a U.N. agency that brings together governments, employers and workers of 187 member states, to set labor standards, develop policies and devise programs promoting decent work for all women and men. The ILO recently sent photographer Maxime Fossat to Madagascar to document one of their department’s projects and the promotion of labour inspection, with the aim of improving the safety and health of workers in global supply chains. Maxime shot the following series with his Leica M-P, providing a rare insight into the working lives of the people of Madagascar and we spoke with him about his experiences.
How did you first get into photography?
During my childhood, I had two main interests; woodwork, and photography. When I left school at the age of 15, I decided to study woodwork through an apprenticeship. After my graduation however, I realized I didn’t want to spend my life in the field of construction. That was the moment when the idea of studying photography naturally came back to me. Back then I had no idea about the world of photography, nor what photography itself actually was. I only knew I wanted to get to know how to use a camera properly and produce quality photographs.
When did you decide to enter the field of documentary photography? And who or what would you describe as your biggest influences?
To be honest, I did not 100% decide to do so. When I graduated ETPA photographic school (Toulouse, France) at the age of 20, I had no means to invest in photographic material, nor did I have a network to work with in the field, so unfortunately, I gave up on the idea of practicing it professionally. I only kept my old but faithful Leica M6 and its Summicron 35mm Canada for my personal pleasure to shoot a roll once in a while.
During the following years, I left France to settle down and work in Switzerland and went through a lot of different jobs in order to afford what was my priority back then, traveling. Traveling raised my interest in sociological issues and my interest in sociological issues raised my appetite for traveling. At the same time I was working for a fundraising company, organizing and managing campaigns for multiple international NGOs in Switzerland, which led me to develop a network in the field of international cooperation, but also a social life built around individuals working in the same field and sharing the same interests. Two and a half years ago all those points converged when someone from the ILO, who knew I had studied photography, asked me to work with them as a consultant photographer, to document their programs in a few countries. I couldn’t believe it, but in fact, somehow, documentary photography came to me, naturally.
Having been a fervent user of large format cameras during my studies, I would say that back then my work had been deeply influenced by New Objectivity and photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth. This pushed me into a really static and precise way to use the medium of photography. I would also say that in the same kind of way, but with more of a focus on documentary photography, the work of Edward Burtinsky has always resonated with me and still influences my method of how to stick to a topic and document it in a really consistent way. It’s only more recently that I started to get interested in work that is more related to humanitarian or social issues, through the work of some great reportage and documentary photographers, who are inspiring to me. Some, who come to mind, include James Nachtwey, William Daniels, Jacob Aue Sobol, Santi Palacios, Natela Grigalashvili and Maxim Dondyuk, among many others.
You have worked together with a number of inter-governmental and non-profit organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and the International Labour Organization. How did this work come about?
The ILO (International Labour Organization) approached me in 2015. One of their departments needed to document a new program that would be implemented in 11 countries, which aims to improve working conditions, in particular safety and health conditions, for young people, hand-in-hand with local authorities and social partners. This is how it started. They sent me to the Philippines and Vietnam, at first, to cover and document, as objectively as possible, the current situation in terms of occupational safety and health conditions for young people in these two countries. They later sent me to Myanmar, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina and Uruguay. The ILO is the organization that has put me on track and allowed me to start my path in the field of documentary photography. Gathering the best images I shot for them, I built up a portfolio that allowed me to solicit work from other international organizations. Doctors Without Borders liked what I showed them and contracted me to document the current situation in Kyrgyzstan and their programs related to tuberculosis. I also worked in partnership with USAID there. Based on my limited experience, I suppose this is how it works; you go, you show, you work, you improve, you get more to show, you work more, you get more visibility, you reach more organizations, you work even more and so on.
Why did you travel to Madagascar?
I was contracted by the same ILO department to document another of their projects that has interventions in Madagascar and the promotion of labour inspection. The objective of this project is to improve the safety and health of workers in global supply chains. In Madagascar, the interventions focus on the lychee and textile supply chains. So I traveled there to document working conditions in these sectors in various parts of the country. I also took pictures of workers on construction sites and documented the work of labor inspectors at the request of the ILO.
What considerations did you have to make when choosing how to cover the story? And how much freedom did you have in terms of your approach?
There is no story-telling line drawn before departure. I have to document a maximum number of situations throughout the given time in the field (which in Madagascar was 10 days), so that in the end I can present an overall picture of the working conditions in the chosen fields. The first consideration is always defined by the specifics of the different places I am going to visit. When organizing the field mission with the ILO, I am always trying to push for a maximum of different places to visit. It’s quite an easy equation, the more sites you can visit, the more different atmospheres, situations and stories you will get to document. While organizing the visit, we were also trying to find, with the help of local partners, sites where I would be able to find a maximum number of workers. Then, considering that there are several fields to cover and that you cannot really link, in the first degree, the story of a carpenter with the story of a textile worker, the main consideration becomes all about finding consistency in the distance and the composition of the photographs throughout the realization of the work. ILO (thanks to them) gives me considerable freedom on how to proceed and shoot the stories.
Madagascar is known for its high rate of child labour, especially in the vanilla industry and the agricultural sector as a whole. Was this something you witnessed first hand?
I did not directly witness it on the sites I visited, which were formal companies on the whole, but of course, while commuting throughout the country, you can easily spot kids working in a lot of different informal sectors. I photographed a few of them roasting coffee by the side of the road in the outskirts of Antananarivo. But I could only do that because there were no adults around. Earlier that same week, I stopped by a kind of informal mine, where a lot of children (aged somewhere between 6 to 12) were extracting rocks from the side of a hill. When the adults managing the place saw the camera, they started to act aggressively towards my colleague and I, and we had to quickly jump back in the car and leave. It is a real problem there. Although employers and parents may know that child labour is prohibited, they may not be fully aware of the negative incidence of labour on the health of children. Considering the difficult economic conditions and often the lack of education opportunities, parents still send their children to work.
How would you describe the conditions for workers in Madagascar?
From what I saw, it is completely disparate. If you take working conditions within the formal employment market for instance, it was way better than what I expected, even close to European standards for some companies I visited (except for salaries that are outrageously low). But the fact is that formal employment only represents a small percentage of the workforce. Most Malagasy people work in the informal sector, and there, conditions are among the worst I have seen during my different trips, and incomes are even lower than in the formal sector.
What struck you most about the people you met?
First of all, extreme poverty but then, once I dug a little deeper, I noticed the melting pot that is the local population, which over time has come from many different roots, and their pride for their country and their national culture. They know that they are living in one of the world’s richest countries, in terms of biodiversity and natural beauty.
The ILO conventions do not exclude workers in the informal economy and the ILO is working towards including the informal economy in all its work. How would you describe these people? And what kind of hardships must they endure?
They are proud and resilient. It is perhaps strange, but since Madagascar is an island, I felt that there is less of a desire to fly abroad, to start a new life in Europe, or the US, or wherever, probably because it is far harder to do so. The people there know that they have poor living conditions, but they do their best to cope with it. This mentality also applies to work. They have to endure low salaries, precarious working conditions, a lack of physical safety, no social security for those working in the informal sector, lack of education for children, but still, the pride and smile remains. At the end of the day, I couldn’t say if it is resilience or fatalism.
Part of the ILO project is to support the work of the labour inspectors in the informal economy and you have included a shot of a labour inspector in your series. Did you get the chance to observe their work? And how would you describe their role in regulating the labour conditions in Madagascar?
Yes, I had the chance to follow them for two days during their inspections in the field. Their role is crucial in regulating local labour conditions. That is the reason why the ILO is currently developing a training program to improve local labour inspection capacities. Yet as far as I understood, unfortunately due to economic reasons, there are currently not enough of them to have a significant impact on labour conditions.
I shot the series with a Leica M-P Typ 240 and a Summilux 35mm ASPH FLE. I also own a Summicron 28mm ASPH and a Summicron 50mm, which I sometimes use if needed, but my weapon of choice remains the 35mm.
In my opinion, there are a lot of advantages compared to DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Firstly it’s discreet. I doubt you can find a more inconspicuous full-frame camera nowadays. I really like the fact that most of the time, due to its timeless appearance, people think it is an old analog camera, and do not realize its value (plus I put a lot of dirty Gaffer tape on it to make it look less desirable). This comes in especially handy in moments where I find myself in tense situations, in terms of potential theft. In these specific cases, the compact nature of the body and the lenses is also a valuable advantage. It allows me to keep the camera under my shirt as soon as I am working outside, ready to pull it out when I need to shoot. I could be working like this for a whole day if necessary, so the light weight is also something I really appreciated. Documentary photography sometimes requires you to be as invisible as you can be, so that people within the scene you’re photographing forget about you being there. The discreet nature of the Leica M cameras is an excellent asset for these moments; quiet, sober, and fast when needed. But the main advantage, in my opinion, remains the incredible optical quality of the fast lenses. I love night atmospheres, or difficult lighting conditions. Having a lens that opens to 1.4 while keeping its whole sharpness is a true plus for this kind of photography, and even though some do not shoot at night or in low light conditions, when you do documentary, you have to cope with a given light, which sometimes requires a fast aperture. Retaining the quality and sharpness is great. Not being limited by a diaphragm and an autofocus while framing and focusing my photographs is also really valuable in difficult light conditions, for that, the telemetric system simplifies everything.
Your excellent use of focus allows you to draw attention to the people in this series. How much are you aware of the formal elements of photography, when shooting a documentary series like this? And how can you work with such things as composition and color to help you tell the story?
Well, I think that comes from the way I started out, shooting large format. Somehow it has conditioned me to always take into account all the formal elements of photography. I hate it when I do not control everything beforehand, before releasing the shutter, and to be honest, I struggle a bit because of that. Sometimes I miss shots I could have got if I had been a bit less obsessive, regarding my set-up and framing or composition. Sometimes I lack spontaneity and my way of handling composition, color, and settings is something I am carrying through into my documentary work. But perhaps this also makes my work a little more unique.
Regarding story-telling, I come from the school of photographers who will privilege the aesthetics of a photograph rather than its informative content, to create series that will be eye-catching above being purely informative. To some extent, I believe that catching the viewer’s attention through aesthetics, using, as you said, colors and composition, can help them focus on the story. But of course, I am aware that a series has no value without a strong narrative behind it, which is why I am working hard to improve my work in that regard.
Having already traveled to Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and Madagascar, where are you planning to travel next? And which stories are you going to be covering?
Last summer, I started a story about drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis in Kyrgyzstan with Doctors Without Borders, which I’d really like to continue working on. The idea would be to cover the countries of the former Soviet Union, since almost all of this specific area is threatened by a spread of drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis. More concretely, even though it is still a hypothetical, I might have an assignment soon in Mozambique and Swaziland.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to get into or improve their documentary photography?
The same advice, which has lately been given to me by some great documentary photographers, and, on which I am working hard: Focus and stick to a story you really want to tell and then the good photographs will come by themselves.
In addition to the work which Maxime carried out for ILO in Madagascar, he is the principal contributor to an ILO photo exhibition on improving safety and health for young workers, to be launched later this month at the ILO office in Geneva. An online gallery will be available through the 2018 World Day for Safety and Health at Work webpage.