Born in Parma, Italy, in 1976, Marco Gualazzini began his career as a photographer in 2004, at the age of 28, working for the town’s local paper La Gazzetta di Parma. Since then he has covered topics such as microfinance in India, freedom of expression in Myanmar, and the discriminations of Christians in Pakistan, which have been published in The New York Times, Al-jazeera, and The Sunday Times, among many other global publications.
Over the last few years Gualazzini has been working extensively in Africa, documenting the desertification of what was once one of largest lakes on the continent, caused by a complex combination of political conflict and environmental factors, such as drought and deforestation. A lifeline to 40 million people, the diminishing lake is having detrimental effects on traditional livelihoods such as fishing, as well as water supply and farming.
BJP catches up with Gualazzini as his work gets a double nomination, for World Press Photo of the Year and World Press Story of the Year.
British Journal of Photography: How long have you been covering issues in Africa?
Marco Gualazzini: I have been covering the Sub-Saharan Africa for almost 10 years. Especially Somalia and the republic democratic of the Congo, but also Mali, Nigeria, Central African Republic.
BJP: How did this project on the vanishing Lake Chad start?
MG: The Lake Chad crisis forms part of a strip of Africa that my journalist colleague, Daniele Bellocchio, and I are keeping a watchful eye on. Islamist infiltration into Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the issues that we are covering, from Somalia with Al-Shabaab across Nigeria with Boko Haram.
Lake Chad’s humanitarian crisis is developing on several levels, such as from the base, where a totalitarian government makes it difficult to get aid to the basin, the surface area of which has, over the years, been drastically reduced as a result of climate change, creating internal refugees who become vulnerable and easy prey for the terrorist group.
We spent about three weeks in the field, but our preparation was long and complicated. My colleague, Bellocchio, had already been in Chad some months before, and had managed to lay the groundwork so that we had somewhere to work.
BJP: Could you talk about the photograph that was nominated for World Press Photo of the Year, Almajiri Boy. Who is he and how did you get the photograph?
MG: I sat down and waited. The youngsters were playing with an improvised ball in the streets of Bol’s market. I let them get used to me being there – they were playing and joking around. Then there were this graffiti that I began photographing. When they noticed what I was doing, they came and stood in front of my camera. Some passed by, others posed as rappers, and others wanted me to take a photo of the group.
Then along came this shot, which was not posed. I don’t know the name of the boy, but I’m certain he’s an orphan. Acting as an interpreter was Youssuf Abakar Kori, a teacher of the Koran at the school with the same name. He spoke with this boy and the others who were drawing and playing with him.
What the boys told us, and what Youssuf repeated in French to me and my colleague, is that they are orphans who live as a group. By night they sleep in a Koranic school and by day, they spend their times on the city streets, begging. This is a widespread phenomenon in Chad and in all of the Sahel, where one often sees these groups of vulnerable boys moving around together in an effort to defend each other. Almajiri comes from the Arabic word “Al-Muhajirun”, and means “a person who leaves his home in search of Islamic knowledge”.
BJP: How does it feel to have a double nomination, especially for the new award category, World Press Story of the Year?
GM: During my career as a photojournalist, The World Press Photo is undoubtedly the prize that consolidates the job. A job that is filled with doubts and moments of darkness. For me the World Press Photo awards are a profound gratification that leads me to believe that everything I have done, or that we as photojournalists do, is not something that is futile.
BJP: How did you make your selection of photographs to submit? Is it representative of your wider edit?
GM: The choice of photographs, as part of the photographer’s work, is almost more important than the photographs themselves, because it is here that one decides on one’s language, and the type of photographer one is. If I had chosen blurred photos, rather than off-centred ones, my language would have taken on a form in defiance of another. In my view, these photos sum up what I saw, and totally reflect my way of seeing.
BJP: Your photographs capture the human consequences of an environmental problem. Why did you choose to document human stories?
GM: For me it has always been about the human side. Lake Chad remains the seventh largest in the world in terms of surface area. So let’s not think that it’s a puddle, but rather a lake which, to the eye, appears immense.
Desertification means the expansion of the Sahara. The desert advances, devouring shore lines. What we are able to see at first hand is an oasis of green represented by the waters of the lake and the islands scattered around it, surrounded by an ocean of sand that is growing day by day. So, what you have to imagine, outside of the photo, is that within a few hundred meters, luxuriant plants are surrendering their places to sand. Suddenly and dramatically, one is surrounded by the Sahel [the region of the Sahara desert affected by drought]. I maintain that the only way of reporting that drama is through the stories of people.