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Prize-winning photographer on 'ghosts' of the Sahara

Irish photographer Andrew McConnell was awarded 1st prize in the portrait stories category of this year's World Press Photo contest.

His project The Last Colony is an innovative and highly personal portrayal of the Saharawi people of Western Sahara, a disputed territory in northern Africa. I asked him how and why he took the photographs.

Andrew McConnell / Panos Pictures

Hamdi Jaafar Mohammed, 46, soldier of the Polisario Front. Pictured atop a tank in Tifariti, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara.
'I was born in 1963 in Wagcedhi. During the invasion I was a young boy but I remember what happened. I saw my neighbours being forced to leave, women and children walking and travelling in trucks. The Moroccans intervened in a barbaric way in occupying our cities. I fled with my brothers. My father was fighting to protect people as they were leaving the territory. It took more than one month of walking before we reached the camps. I joined the Polisario and became a fighter at the end of 1981. On my first day as a soldier in the war we came under attack from a Moroccan plane and we were all dispersed. Someone shot at the plane with a normal gun and it came down! The pilot came down in the parachute and we captured him. Everyday something happened. I didn't believe I would die, I know the only one who can kill someone is God, not the Moroccan. I didn't believe that they could kill me or do anything to me, only I have a strong belief in God and God is the only one I am afraid of.'

Q. What inspired you to tell the story of the Saharawi people?

A. Of all the countries in Africa, Western Sahara was always the one that I heard the least about. I read the history and learned how in 1975 the colonists, Spain, were ready to hold a referendum on independence, but Morocco invaded and took control of the country, leading to a war against a Saharawi rebel group, the Polisario Front. I was intrigued that the conflict had never been resolved and shocked to learn that tens of thousands of Saharawis were still languishing in Algerian refugee camps. I thought it was a story that had to be told.

Andrew McConnell / Panos Pictures

Minatu Lanabas Suidat, 25, journalist. Pictured in Tifariti, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara.
'I was born in El Aaiun refugee camp in 1984. I thought when I was a little girl that it was the nicest place in the world because I didn't know anything other than the camps. My childhood was very nice. We played all night, we never had anything to fear, even the darkness. I have worked as a journalist since December 2008 and I have learned a lot of things about my issue. Now I have a lot of chances to fight for my issue through writing and talking about the situation. I think the world has betrayed the Polisario. The Polisario wanted peace and had faith in the process and they gave a lot for the chance to create peace but I think the world didn't appreciate that, especially the UN and Morocco. The people are ready to sacrifice themselves for independence. The ceasefire had advantages in that the Polisario had the chance to organise everything in the camps and now the people are educated and we understand democracy but the negative is we are still here, without land, and relying on international aid. I hope the Saharawi will have the chance for a referendum to decide their future, that's all. I hope the chance comes through peace.'

Q. Can you explain the technique you used for the portraits?

A. I shot everything at night and I used an LED video light to illuminate the subject for a short time while using long exposures, 10 or 20 seconds, to allow the detail of the desert and sky to come through.

Andrew McConnell / Panos Pictures

Brahim Mohamed Fadin, 17. Pictured in sand dunes near Smara refugee camp, Algeria.
'I don't like to be in the refugee camps. I know that the Algerians receive us and help us for many years but I want to be free in my own country. I am in High School in Algeria and Saharawis always get the best grades there. We are learning for our people, we learn to spread our history and in Algeria we can do that. I'm studying maths and my goal is to be an engineer. I wish I could help my country, it needs a lot of specialists. I would rather live in the camps than live under Moroccan control.'

I wanted the images to have a strong message and to relate the injustice I saw to the outside world. I wanted to give a sense that this is one long night for the Saharawis, one lasting 35 years. To show very little of the land emphasizes that they are landless, and very simply by lighting them in the darkness I was saying "Look! These people are here!" I took statements from every subject, hoping to give a voice to the voiceless. Their words are a grim condemnation of international efforts in Western Sahara. Finally I wanted the viewer to see what I had seen: A people utterly forgotten, abandoned, out of the world's consciousness; a people as ghosts.

Andrew McConnell / Panos Pictures

Mohamed Salem Ali, 18, water seller. Pictured in Dakhla refugee camp, Algeria.
'I was born in Dakhla. It is beautiful here, I have many friends. Three times a week I prepare the donkey early in the morning at 6am and walk for one hour to the well. I fill ten containers using rope, it's deep and I get tired. It's takes two hours coming back, when I arrive home I feed the donkey and rest. The water from the well is sweet and people like to use it to make tea and to cook grains and sometimes even to drink it when there is no other water.'

Q. Whose story most affected you?

A. My guide in Polisario-controlled Western Sahara was an old soldier called Malainin Aomar. He knew the desert like the back of his hand and was truly at one with the land. He would look for the smallest signs to get his bearings, maybe a rock or a bush, and with knowledge that had been built up over many years he would guide our jeep through the endless desert. Our lives were basically in his hands; in the height of the midday sun he would direct us to an outcrop of rock that offered shade and at night he would find Bedouins who would feed us and give us a place to sleep.

Andrew McConnell / Panos Pictures

Malainin Aomar, 66, soldier of the Polisario Front. Pictured watching the Moroccan wall near Auserd, in Polisario controlled Western Sahara.
'I was born in Auserd in 1953. Since I was a little boy I studied the Koran and I learnt the difference between good and bad. In August 1974 I joined the Polisario Front. I joined because they were an organisation fighting for the liberation of Western Sahara which had been occupied by the Spanish for almost 100 years. I believed in the Polisario's ideals. In September 1975 Spain began to leave all their bases and release the Saharawi soldiers. Polisario knew something was happening and began to prepare for a new kind of conflict. We never trusted Spain. There was a big meeting between all the countries and Algeria and Libya supported independence for Western Sahara, but something went wrong. Then we knew on 14th November 1975 Spain signed the Triple Agreement with Morocco and Mauritania to divide up our land. For me the only future is the liberation of my country and my people. If we don't have independence there is no future, all is dark. We have to go back to war, we don't like war but we have to finish this situation, we have been waiting for 34 years, it's enough.'

I photographed him watching the Moroccan wall from an old look-out point as the sun set and dark clouds gathered overhead. That night I interviewed him about his life and a deep sadness came over him. He told me that the look-out point where I had photographed him looked towards Auserd, the town where he was born. It was only a few miles away but on the other side of the wall and he had not been able to go there for 30 years. He hadn't seen his brother and many of his relatives in all that time. As he spoke his sadness gave way to anger and he questioned the decision to stop the war with Morocco and told me he was ready to fight again.


You can see more images from The Last Colony at Panos Pictures and read more about the situation in Western Sahara at Human Rights Watch.