Behind the lens: An aid worker's story

Yann Libessart with his Nikon D700 in Kenya. The humanitarian works as photojournalist for MSF.

Many journalists have crossed over to international development — U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power was a war correspondent before becoming a diplomat, and Nigel Chapman, current CEO of Plan International, is a former director of the BBC.

However, what Yann Libessart did was a little bit different. He left the humanitarian field to come back as a journalist, and insisted on staying on as one … in the new guise of humanitarian photographer.

After four years with Médecins Sans Frontières, he decided to go on sabbatical in the remote Kerguelen Islands, a French overseas territory located in the southern Indian Ocean, where he became district chief and lived among the penguins, seals, ducks in this sub-Antarctic island chain, considered one of the most isolated places in the world.

This is where the biologist and humanitarian worker further developed his love for photography and his passion for writing. He chronicled his experiences in the far-flung location on a weekly blog for French newspaper Libération, and later on his unlikely companions found fame in “Les manchots de la République,” a published book about his experience in Kerguelen.

After a year away from it all, he pursued a journalism degree in Paris and tried his luck with freelancing. He was good with words, both in French and English, but soon he realized it wasn’t an easy life. Times were tough for traditional journalism — assignments didn’t satisfy him, and the pay was low.

“I started to be a freelancer when I was about 40 years old; I [realized] I was already too old for this,” he quipped in an interview with Devex.

So after a short-lived journalism career, Libessart bargained his way back to MSF, where he once led the organization’s missions in some of the most difficult places to deliver aid. But this time, he wanted to remain a journalist.

“I came back … and said, ‘I don't want to be head of mission anymore. I'm a journalist. Can I come back to MSF as a journalist?’ And they said, ‘yes, sure.’ And then they sent me to Niger, as a communications officer.”

Since then, Libessart has been deployed on over 20 short assignments documenting MSF activities as well as handling media relations. Some of his photos have appeared in mainstream media, too, like The New York Times and El País, a Spanish daily. He may have changed his skills set, but remains a humanitarian by heart, as what drives him, he explains, is "mostly anger."

"I think communication and journalism is my way to scream. You’re always looking for a way to scream because you’re shocked and revolted by what you see, and taking pictures, for me, that’s my own way of screaming," he said.

Lifestyle change

Libessart’s trips are short, lasting normally between a week to 1 month.

This is a huge leap from his previous assignments with the French medical group, where his tours of duty overseas would be for a year or more.

Libessart however welcomes the change: he found the other job intense, and wanted some normalcy and time to settle down with his wife.

“When I was in my 30s, I had no place to live. I was just moving from one mission to another. And between missions, I didn’t really know where to live or to go,” he shared.

The best part of his current setup is he gets to enjoy the best of both worlds: he’s a humanitarian, but still gets to write and take pictures, although this time on a different perspective.

“I think communication and journalism is my way to scream. You’re always looking for a way to scream because you’re shocked and revolted by what you see, and taking pictures, for me, that’s my own way of screaming.”

— Yann Libessart on humanitarian photojournalism

A different light

Humanitarian crises evoke scenes of desperation, and the images are often photos of dead children, women crying or heavily armed soldiers.

Sometimes aid agencies take advantage of these heart-wrenching snapshots to encourage donors to shell out money for their programs, a strategy dubbed as poverty porn which still works to some degree today.

Libessart tries to do it differently, though. He says he’s looking “for more beauty than horror,” anyway since pictures are already too graphic he can’t do anything about it anymore.

Take for instance his pictures recently taken in the Central African Republic, where Christian forces had isolated Muslims in just one camp. His images are mostly of women and children playing around, because what he wanted to tell is very basic — that women and children are always the most vulnerable in a conflict. MSF in fact deals largely not with bullet wounds or amputations, but with C-section surgeries in acute crises.

And since the CAR crisis isn’t too attractive for the media — for some reason it seems to be the same with donors — MSF sends in its own team of “journalists” to do the reporting.

“Journalists are not reporting on CAR anymore now. Everybody’s reporting on Iraq, Syria, Gaza, on Ebola [in West Africa]. Every call I get is for Gaza or the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, but nobody is calling me about CAR, especially in Australia. Most of them don’t even know where it is,” Libessart said.

Ten years ago, his role would have been impossible, as aid groups were still heavily reliant on journalists to tell their stories. But today, with modern technology, Libessart says they can do their own reporting. In fact, MSF is boosting its own team of in-house journalists and currently looking for professional journalists to apply.

But this photojournalist points out he’s not just shooting pictures whenever or wherever. Like a head of mission, he studies the country context first and speaks to people on the ground, be it MSF staff or civilians seeking help in their health facilities. This is particularly useful when taking photos of pregnant women in delivery rooms — he would spend time with the woman before delivery and explain his job and what he attempts to do, down to the detail on his exact location when he takes the shot.

"I want to assure her I will not take a picture of any of her naked part. I won't be able to use that, [and] MSF will delete the picture anyway. And it's not valid. It's not the point of these pictures," he explained.

Letting his subjects know of his intentions, though, can at times defeat the purpose of the whole idea of authenticity. With teenagers or adults, for example, there's always the chance that they would pose, or smile, leaving the photo unnatural for use. That's why he enjoys shooting children instead, a lot like the fowls and fish he is fond of taking pictures in his free time.

A slideshow of Yann Libessart’s photos from the field.

Photo decisions

Despite focusing on MSF activities, Libessart‘s job isn't very different from that of “regular” journalists employed by media outlets, and like them, he will refuse to make changes requested by the marketing department if he doesn’t agree with them — even if marketing claims his work shows the organization in a bad light.

"The only criticism I take is if it’s not the truth and if maybe we got something wrong and didn’t get the facts right. Then I’ll accept the change. But if only to make it look nicer, I won’t accept the change," he said.

This is different, though, when a blog or photo he posted could put their staff in danger, or could potentially jeopardize MSF's programs.

"Sometimes we denounce the situation and we get expelled. It happened with Sudan, Ethiopia. But sometimes we feel we need to just shut up," Libessart said.

He also won't take pictures if the subjects are uncomfortable or unwilling to be photographed. In Haiti, for instance, he claims there is growing animosity against aid workers and taking snapshots can be dangerous for them. Another exception is when a celebrity endorser wants to remain incognito, like South African actress Charlize Theron when she visited MSF's work in CAR.

"Sometimes they don’t have to say no. They’ll just look at you and you’ll know from their eyes that they don’t want you to take their picture," he explained.

Humanitarian advantage

Journalism has significantly changed in recent years, and today journalists have to compete with social media and people on the ground who can just post a breaking story or photo on Facebook or Twitter.

Like aid workers, more journalists are taking higher risks to get an exclusive, or on the ground photo that newspapers would pay for. A young French photojournalist named Camille Lepage was killed in CAR near the Cameroon border just this May. Libessart was supposed to meet her two weeks before the grim incident.

"It’s pretty sad actually because they work without money, without security, without anything, just trying to make a name and do their job," he said. "I have met many journalists in the past two years that have died doing their job."

It's no surprise then that a lot of journalists Libessart meets in the field often asks him how can they get a job like his — a full-time position without having to worry about the next paycheck and with full access to sources and subjects.

In fact, in the next few months he is to travel to Afghanistan when MSF opens a maternity program in Kabul, where he expects to deal with numerous C-sections again. Men are barred from entering the hospital, so he will have to find a way around it. Will that trip give birth to a whole new perspective on women and health care in Afghanistan? Libessart's photos may give a new insight.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.