Zebus are highly prized in Madagascar, considered both valuable property and a representative symbol of social standing. This has led to numerous cases of zebu theft. The criminal organisations responsible for the cattle rustling have caused significant social and economic conflicts in the country in recent years – conflicts in which politics and the military also play an important role. Photographer Rijasolo set about to investigate the phenomenon, which affects millions of people in the island state off the south-east coast of Africa.

How did you come up with the topic of zebu rustlers?
Towards the end of 2012, the Malagasy State had designated a certain Remenabila as “public enemy number 1”, because he had assassinated a dozen policemen in a small village in the south of Madagascar. Remenabila was considered the most important dahalo (zebu rustlers) chief in the region. The State responded immediately by launching a vast military operation called Opération Tandroka. At the beginning of 2013, however, Amnesty International accused the Malagasy army of having arbitrarily burnt down entire villages, and of executing and torturing villagers in the region, accusing them – without proof – of being zebu rustlers and accomplices of Remenabila. It was at that point that a journalist friend – Bilal Tarabey who worked for French radio RFI at the time – and I decided to go immediately and investigate on location. Since then, the subject hasn’t left me in peace, and I wanted to know more about the phenomenon of zebu rustling, and its consequences and impact on Malagasy rural society.

How did you aim to capture all the aspects of the zebu rustling issue? Did you have any photographic approach?
The subject of zebu rustling is a vast one, because it concerns and impacts the lives of millions of Malagasy living in rural areas. Of the roughly 26 million people, around 60% of the population are in the country and living from agriculture and livestock farming. It was necessary for me to take time to research and bear witness to all the aspects related to the subject of why the theft of zebus? Who gains from these thefts? What are the economic consequences for the rural population? How do the authorities react? And so on. I needed time to approach this reportage in a global manner, over a number of months, because I’m not a photographer who likes to force things. I’m patient, and I always know that an opportunity to photograph such or such a situation will emerge at a given time. Also, I converse a lot before photographing. It can happen that I find myself in a place for a reportage, but I don’t start taking pictures till three or four days later. Of course, that’s not always the case if I’m on assignment for the press, as time then is very precious.

Could you describe the technical and artistic choices you made to convey the gravity of the situation, when composing your photographs?
In general, I don’t have a particular aesthetic approach. However, I don’t consider myself a virtuoso of composition or of what we call the “decisive moment”. What is sure is that I’m very attached to the human, and its placement when I frame my pictures. I’m drawn to an attitude, a look, a posture in the people I portray. I try to find a natural elegance in those I photograph; I try to ensure that their dignity and their beauty is respected. Even when a scene speaks of a tense or dramatic situation, I always choose a picture when the protagonists emanate something dignified and strong. I tend to put aside photos that are just spectacular.

Can you share a particularly impactful or moving experience you had while documenting the zebu rustling issue?
The hardest and most interesting phase of this reportage, was the time we followed a convoy of zebu on foot for ten days, starting in the west of Madagascar and heading east to get to one of the largest zebu markets in Madagascar. This was a tough trip physically, and also absolutely fascinating to me. We crossed incredible landscapes, improbable no-man’s lands, far from any civilisation. We met dahalo chiefs who impose their authority on territories that extend for thousands of square kilometres, without any State representative being able to oppose them. This ten day march, covering around 300 kilometres, was like a voyage of initiation for me, where I was able to “connect” even more with my country, and also where I was able to take the time to reflect on my photographic practise.

What led you to choose the Leica M system as your tool for documenting this issue?
I’m a bit of an old-school photographer. I started with black and white photography, in a black and white film lab. I started falling in love with photography thanks to my Leica M6 and a 35mm lens at the time. The ergonomics of the camera, its discreetness, align exactly with my temperament, and a certain way of taking pictures. The Leica M allowed me to get close to people, to photograph them without my feeling aggressive or invasive. The Leica M system and a 35mm lens have never left me since. This camera is a part of me when I’m doing a reportage. I consider it a partner, and not just a work tool. Yes, it’s true that you can get sentimentally attached, like a guitarist might get attached to a Gibson from the sixties, or a biker might get attached to a Royal Enfield.

Looking ahead, what are your future plans and aspirations as a photographer, both within and beyond the scope of this project?
I don’t pretend to think that my documentary photography work will be able to change things. Even so, I’m very attached to the idea that it is us, Malagasy photographers, who should speak about our country, about its social, cultural and economic problems. We live here in Madagascar; we are in a position to feel the upheavals in our country; we speak with people; we understand their problems. This is how, in July 2023, I was co-commissioner with Marie Lelièvre, a former photo editor for Le Monde, for the From A To A exhibition in Arles, where we were able to present documentary work by six Malagasy photographers, who spoke about their intimate view of Madagascar. On the personal level, I’m currently working on a new monograph titled MALAGASY. This book will bring together 15 years of photographs capturing my social and intimate view of Madagascar and the Malagasy. So far, however, I haven’t found an editor for this project.

Born in France, Rijasolo has been taking photographs since 2000. In 2004, he released his series Miverina in which he sought to highlight the difficulty of rediscovering an intimate relationship with Madagascar. This series became the subject of various exhibitions around the world. In November of 2007, he co-founded the Riva Press Agency. In 2010, he was the recipient of the Leica 35mm Wide Angle Award for his Ilakaka, City of Dreams series. In 2019, he was granted the Paritana Prize for Contemporary Art Award. In 2022, he received a World Press Photo Award, in the Africa, Long Term Project category, for his documentary La Guerre des Zébus (The Zebu War). Rijasolo lives and works in Antananarivo. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.

Leica M

The Leica. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.