Nothing in a country such as Mauritania can be taken for granted – and certainly not women’s football. The French Leica photographer’s colourful and impactful series speaks about these courageous fighters, who stand up to society and follow their own path to emancipation. Their commitment grants them unique personalities and strength.
Where did the idea for your project come from?
I’ve been working on long term projects about Islamic Republics for the last four years. I first went to Mauritania in April 2019 and was instantly fascinated by this unknown and misunderstood country. Mainstream media rarely talks about it, or if they do it’s usually in the same way – about slavery, djihadism… I wanted to show a different side of the country. After some time I got to make friends and got to know the country better; I started to see what was underneath. I travelled along the coast, documenting Imraguen fishermen; I rode the iron ore train through the Sahara desert, and photographed a divorce party at the frontier with Senegal. Finally, after settling in Nouakchott, I learnt about this newly created woman soccer team.
What makes the Mauritanian women soccer players special, compared to other female soccer players around the world?
When it gained independence in 1960, the country officially became the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, where the constitution says: «The religion of the people of Mauritania is Islam», turning it into the state religion. Mauritian society still remains deeply conservative, so, for many, the idea of women taking part in such a sport is disagreeable. So, they had to establish themselves slowly, step by step, to move the lines, to take the risk to do something that hadn’t been done before.
Has the situation of women now changed due to soccer?
Women’s football is a way of emancipation. For some players, football is a way to dream about a better future. A lot of them hope to become international players and travel the world. In a society that is still heavily divided between ethnics groups, being part of the team enables women of all backgrounds to play together. On the soccer field, the fact that they are Moores, Wolof or Haratin doesn’t matter any more. There they are all equal, playing as a team, and working hard to become better every day. The 16-year-old Coumba, one of the best players, used to wear gloves and a veil to hide her body. The coach convinced her that she can play in shorts and a t-shirt, head uncovered. This remains a personal choice for each of them.
What did you want to show with your pictures?
I’m a journalist, so my idea was simple: to tell their stories. I wanted to show their training on the soccer field, but also what their everyday life looks like, as young Mauritanian women. With my colleague Thea, with whom I worked on this story, we followed them at school, in their home with their families, during their prayer time… This was essential, to understand the whole picture, and not only the “sports” aspect of the story.
How did you get close to the women?
Time was a key element. At the beginning, I was only attending the training. Then we got to talk to them, develop some friendships and share some moments. They gradually got used to my camera, and forgot about me; they started to act natural again. As photographers, we usually take a lot and don’t give much in return. So we paid attention to responding to all their questions about France, about us, about our view of Mauritania: it became a real exchange, where everyone learned about each other. That’s what makes this job so unique: a camera is the best passport to anyone; to anywhere.
Your camera was the Leica Q…
The Q’s small size makes it perfect for a country where it’s essential to be discreet, especially on the street, where you don’t want to attract the attention of the crowd. The other thing that is really important for me is that it is a silent camera, which is really helpful inside of a mosque when people are praying. The 28mm lens on it is beautiful; and, as a wide angle, it forces you to get closer to your subject and then interact with them. I like the idea of shooting a whole series with the same lens.
What do you pay special attention to in the composition of your images?
As a photojournalist, I consider that every picture has to tell a story. 10 percent of my job is about taking photographs. The rest of the time, I’m reading, learning about the place where I am or where I would work, thinking about what stories I want to tell. Usually, taking the photograph is the easiest part of the job; what is usually complicated is getting access to the place, getting people to allow you to photograph them in their intimacy.
Do you use any post-production?
I follow the principles of photojournalism: I never remove or change anything in the image. I only allow myself to modify contrasts, white balance and brightness. I usually look at my images right after taking them, making a first selection, and then come back to them one or two weeks later, allowing me to take a step back and make an additional selection.
What have you learned from the women – about the game and for your personal view of the world?
I’m not a soccer fan myself; but I’m impressed by the power of soccer to federate people around the world. Like every reportage, it’s about learning about people, about the best and worst of human nature, in every part of the world. This changes you, not only as a photographer, but also as a human being.
Born in Angers, France in 1996, Lucas Barioulet is a French freelance photojournalist, who graduated from from Ecole de Journaliste de Tours and San Diego State University, and focuses on Islamic Republics. He has worked with teenagers in Mauritania, documented Pakistani identity, and focused on desertification within the Russian Arctic. In addition, he collaborated with the Agence France Presse, photographing yellow vest movements and the Covid-19 crisis in France. Recently, from March to May, 2022, he covered the war in Ukraine for Le Monde. This series, The Long and Difficult Path of the Mauritanian National Women’s Football Team won 2nd place at the Sony World Photography Award 2020, in the category “Sport”. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.
The photographer is featured in LFI issue 6/2022.