Frenchman Alain Ernoult is a world famous photographer and reporter. On a recent trip to Rwanda, I met and interviewed him extensively on his work and life in the field.
I started by asking him how he ended up being a professional photographer and what inspired him. Below is the interview in his own words:
‘‘I left formal schooling at the age of 14 and started working in a factory. At 17, in the mid 1980s, I read about a tribe in Mali that needed help and I decided to take medicines to them. I hitchhiked from Normandy in northern France, through Spain, Algeria and across the desert to Mali. I almost died on the journey.
“When I returned to France, no one believed me. So I decided to buy a camera, make a return trip and capture my travels so that people could see for themselves. I’m a self-taught photographer.
‘‘Soon after, I left the factory job and to support myself, I started taking photographs of Parisians, weddings, dogs, people — clothed and naked. That’s how I honed my skills.
‘‘Two years later, I hitchhiked back to Mali, with a clunky Zenith SLR camera. Half of my luggage contained medicines. I lost 15kg on that trip; I was sleeping on the ground, keeping away hyenas at night.
‘‘A Paris museum heard about my travels and organised an exhibition for my work. I was 20 years old. I decided I could become a successful photographer by taking pictures that no one had taken before. At that time, photographers kept their distance when taking pictures. I wanted to be part of the action.
‘‘In the first year of my newfound career, I went to take pictures of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gangs in the US. It was dangerous but groundbreaking work, and I still have a scar from that time.
‘‘The Hell’s Angels pictures were printed in Stern, a German magazine. I got 12 pages in one issue.
I then approached the French air force, to fly with their top aerobatic team — the Patrouille de France. They refused. After eight months of persistence, they agreed. It was the first time they had allowed a photographer to fly with them.
‘‘The pilots were reluctant and it was difficult to take pictures while wearing goggles and to change the camera film during the flight.
Recognition and awards
‘‘In 2004, the Minister for Defence presented me a medal of merit from the French government, the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merite National for my work.
‘‘But the crowning glory came in 1986 when I won the World Press Photo Award in the sports category. It is the most prestigious award in the profession. I took the winning picture at the Boomerang World Championships in Paris. An apple was placed on a man’s head and then another threw a razor-tipped Boomerang that cut through the apple. I caught the moment when the apple was cut into two and the man was screaming.
“Soon after, Time magazine called. They flew me by Concord to New York where I signed contracts with Time and Life magazines. I have also worked with National Geographic and the French magazines Paris Match and Le Figaro.
“During my career, I have had more than 5,000 pages of photographs published, and I have written 26 books. The last one was titled Fou d’Ailes (Mad about Wings) in 2016.
“I have a connection with animals so they allow me to photograph them. I make eye contact, and speak to them in French. I show no fear. At my house near Paris, birds come to sit on my hand.
“I’ve held several exhibitions all over the world, including at the UN on biodiversity projects. I support children’s NGOs, like Toutes a l’ecole, which helps pay for poor children to go to school.
I also support non-governmental wildlife organisations by using my pictures to create awareness about endangered species. That’s what has brought me to Rwanda: To take pictures of the mountain gorillas. I would love to visit Kenya to photograph animals, especially endangered species.
“I started a photography agency in Paris called Arnault pictures, and I had 400 photographers working for me. One day, Kodak US contacted me, seeking to buy me out but I hesitated. However, I later gave in. This was beyond my wildest dreams. I was amazed by how far I had come with my limited formal education. My life has been my education.
“My intuition has saved me several times, especially when I was reporting on the wars in Afghanistan and Bosnia. I refused to photograph death and misery. Instead I took pictures of the positive side, wherever that was possible.
“I have a daughter, Clara, who is 24 years old and she accompanies me on some of my trips. I’m very proud of her.
“My motto in life is that you have to keep moving and questioning. The more I see, the less I know. Once my job is done, I focus on the next one.
“I’m always looking for ways to improve myself. Now I want to dedicate my time to environmental causes, to protect nature and endangered animals.
“I don’t like to edit or airbrush pictures after shooting, so I try to get the best shot right at the beginning.
“Africa is my favourite place to visit. The people are sincere, and there is an abundance of wildlife. I saw plenty of wildlife in South Africa, and I would love to visit Kenya one day.
“I have travelled widely around the world. I went diving with whales in Polynesia, I have seen the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) at the North Pole. I have met Amazonian tribes and several presidents. I have been to the North Pole to photograph polar bears.
Best experience in Rwanda?
“Seeing the strength and intelligence of gorillas. I came face to face with a silverback and I told him that we’re friends, in French of course. And he allowed me to take his photograph.”