Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville is an independent photojournalist covering humanitarian and cultural stories around the world for NGOs and the media. She has told the stories of people displaced by conflict in Iraq, subject to famine and drought in Somalia, and fearing for their lives during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. She’s also documented feats of female resilience including for Oxfam in Rwanda and female entrepreneurs at work in Uganda. The images she captures are intimate yet humane. She is currently living with a community of Bajau Sea Gypsies in Indonesia, working on a long-term photo project with her photojournalist fiancé, Tommy Trenchard.
Please tell us about your work as a photojournalist, where did you start out and what motivated you to pursue this path?
After spending three years working for a bank in Johannesburg I decided I needed a change of direction, so in early 2014 I upped sticks and relocated to Sierra Leone to pursue a career in the humanitarian sector. I’d always loved photography as a creative tool but had never considered it as a career path. But when the world’s largest outbreak of Ebola began a few months after my arrival, I realised there that the camera could be a powerful tool in communicating realities on the ground to the wider world. At first I juggled photography with broader Communications work for NGOs like Christian Aid, who were fighting to stem the spread of the virus, but I soon decided to focus all of my energies on the photography side of things.
As time went on, I began to really appreciate how powerful photography can be, as a way of telling stories that would otherwise go untold, whether they’re stories of horror and suffering or love and resilience. Pictures can convey a kind of truth that you can’t put down in words in a report or a newspaper article.
At first it was tough to make ends meet, but over time I’ve been lucky enough to pick up more frequent assignments from non-profits, which have taken me all over southern and eastern Africa.
Have you had guidance from mentors along the way?
I must give a huge amount of credit and thanks to my wonderful fiancé and fellow photojournalist, Tommy Trenchard, who has provided endless inspiration and insight. He has been a guide and mentor from the start of my journey and I’ve learnt so much from him. We often work on projects together and he’s always providing me with ideas and constructive feedback.
Beyond individual mentors, do you have any advice on how best to build and use a wider network?
I don’t think there’s any one specific way to build a network in this field. It just takes time, persistence, and a lot of patience. That said, social media is an increasingly powerful tool to get your work out there and to catch the eye of potential commissioning editors. I try to regularly post my work updates and pics on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
As my NGO and media clients have grown, I’ve also found as a freelancer it helps to be proactive, and when jobs aren’t coming in, to pitch ideas to editors or to keep NGOs updated on your travels in case they need your services.
What is the biggest leap of faith you’ve taken?
The biggest leap of faith I’ve taken was definitely leaving a steady job in finance in order to pursue a path of humanitarian work in West Africa. I had no concrete plans at the time, and just hoped I would be able to find work. Taking that plunge was nerve-wracking, but I had decided I needed to be doing something more meaningful than filling in Excel spreadsheets in the office, so I was confident it was the right decision to make at the time.
What governs what you say yes to?
To be honest, it’s hard to say no to work when you’re a freelancer as work comes in waves and you have to make the most of the busy times. But if I feel a particular job is really not well suited to me then I won’t take it. I also try to build relationships with clients whose work or values I believe in. When jobs are in higher-risk places I try to assess the dangers in order to decide whether I have the knowledge and experience to take on the assignment.
Have you had any memorable times of failure or disappointment that have had a big impact on where you’ve ended up (for better or worse!)?
There are a lot of pros and cons to the freelance model, but it can be frustrating at times. There’s very little consistency with assignments, and often they’re cancelled or postponed by the client at very short notice, which can make it hard to plan ahead. There was one very quiet period in the first quarter of last year where I’d had a few jobs postponed indefinitely and was beginning to doubt myself and question my career choices. But then just when things were looking bleak, a couple of big assignments came in at the same time, to cover the ongoing drought in Somaliland and then in Mozambique.
How do you measure the success of your work and your own personal success?
After an assignment, I always go through my work in detail and look at what went well and what I could have done better. The aim is to provide a nuanced and accurate picture of the people or events that I’m shooting and to represent my subjects in a dignified way. If I’ve managed to do that and to capture the true essence of the subject, then I see it as a success.
But if my clients are happy, and the people I’m working with in the field are happy, then generally I feel the shoot has been successful. And if a client recommends me or commissions me again in the future then that’s always encouraging.
What are your future ambitions, for 2017 and beyond?
My plans for the future are excitingly open at the moment. After Two years in Sierra Leone and one in Uganda, I’m about to embark on an expedition across South East Asia with my partner in crime, Tommy Trenchard, where we have a string of photo projects lined up. Most of my experience to date has been in Africa so I look forward to seeking out new horizons over there.
Who would you like to send a thank you bunch to any why?
I’d love to send a thank you bunch to my grandmother, Bonne Mamman. She is an amazing and selfless woman, mother of 8! and grandmother to many (I’ve lost count!). She’s always willing to do whatever it takes to help others and I love her for that dearly!!
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