Defying the Sahara - A Photographic Adventure With Audray Saulem

Defying the Sahara - A Photographic Adventure With Audray Saulem

Reportage seems to be a genre where feminine qualities are seen as an obstacle rather then as an asset. I sat down with French photographer Audray Saulem who proved them wrong and listened to her experience shooting an epic race of 210 kilometers in the Sahara over 6 grueling days.

The Marathon des Sables (Sand Marathon) started out when in 1984, at 28, Patrick Bauer decided to try to cross on foot and alone a 350 kilometer stretch of uninhabited desert in Morocco. Totally self-sufficient, with a rucksack weighing 35 kilograms and containing water and food, he set off on a journey, which was to last 12 days. Two years later he organized the first Marathon des Sables with 23 pioneers who never imagined that their footprints would mark the start of a legendary event where sports meet adventure. Today the yearly event attracts pro runners and amateurs alike from all around the world. During 6 days runners run or walk 210 kilometers with all their equipment and food on their back. The next one begins in less then two days.

When Audray Saulem was offered the opportunity to become the organizations official photographer two things came to her mind: an excited whoop of joy and a a big question mark: Was she going to be able to handle it physically? Saulem has delicate features, long curly dark hair, 164 centimeters for 50 kilograms. She looks more like a renaissance painting then G.I. Jane. Looks can be deceiving.

I asked her what were the most challenging aspects of the job physically, logistically, and emotionally.

Her day would start at 5 a.m., she and her assistant needed to evacuate the tents by 5:15 a.m. since the Basher boys, as they call them there, would come and fold up the tents regardless of them being occupied or not. “Yallah, Yallah” (let’s go) was to become the motto for the whole trip. She would stash all her belongings in a four-wheel drive and set off to shoot camp life of the runners. Sunrise light was one of her favorite moments to shoot portraits. The race would begin around 8 a.m., and some days she would shoot it from the ground while others from the helicopter. In order to follow the runners and get the best shots she would have to go to specific landmarks. Sometimes they were reachable by car, others not. Sometimes the driver would know where they were, sometimes not. Sometimes they would reach them and sometimes they would get stuck in sand dunes.

By 3 p.m. Saulem would arrive at the following camp to drop off her assistant with a set of full cards to be edited and delivered as soon as possible to the communication staff. She would keep on shooting the arrival of the runners coming in the camp and all the drama happening in the doctor’s tents.

By 8 p.m. she would focus on the behind the scenes of the organization itself and attend the meeting that gave details for the next day. Then it is dinner, catching a glimpse of what she had done and crashing by 11 p.m. Yet Saulem confessed that sleep is hard to find. The Sahara is a magical place, it gives you unexpected energy, and there is something electric in the air that everybody shares. That of being part of something bigger then the individual. By the time you get to unwind from the adrenaline rush it is almost time to get up and have another go at it.

She shot everything with Canon: she would carry with her two 5D Mark II bodies, a 100-400mm f/4, a 24-105mm f/4, a fish eye, a Lensbaby, and a cobra flash. Securing her equipment from the weather was a priority; sand is the number one enemy and she met a few photographers that lost their gear to it. Saulem tried out a few techniques to find the adequate protections and settled for gaffer tape. Cheap, renewable, and efficient.

The weight of her gear though gave her tendinitis as a souvenir at the end of the trip. And then there was the dried out eyes, and dealing with the heat. You can handle 35-40 degrees Celsius but 50 in the shade, that is a whole different story. Water never tastes better.

The biggest logistical issues were with timing and imposing her photography needs as a professional and as a woman in a vastly male-dominated field. Being in the right spot at the right time without putting herself or others at risk and respecting the flow of events, dealing with weather surprises like sandstorms or sudden rain, and delivering a ridiculous amount of images per day without doing a lot of her own editing were part of the incredible experience. Saulem also realized fast that in a structured event where everybody has a job to do and very little time for discussion she had to find a way to communicate and be listened to so that she would not get eaten up by the speed in which everything was happening. There is no space for error. She had to put away politeness and be as straightforward as possible. But from her perspective being a woman was an advantage, a woman photographer in these conditions does impress men. Being a trooper with a smile got her some extra leeway when needed.

The emotional challenge was intrinsically linked with the human. She would shoot portraits of individual runners when they were interviewed and thus learned their intimate stories, like the one of a father who lost his child and was running in memory of him. She listened to the stories of all those running for a cause they strongly believed in. She witnessed the physical exertion of amateur runners who pushed their bodies to their boundaries, never quitting because it was more than being first or last. She saw solidarity in a massive scale. At the end of the race, all of the 1,200 runners waited for the last ones, cheering them from afar, catching them when they fell at the finish line and crying with them because they had all become one in 6 days. The human aspect of a sportive event in the Sahara would brand every participant forever; it is an unforgettable adventure. In the midst of all that madness she had to continue shooting.

One can get high on this kind of adrenaline so getting back to Paris was the hardest. After the quiet millenary energy of the Sahara, urban life seemed crude and aggressive. It took her a week to recuperate and land back in reality of civilization.

You never know what to expect from this sort of experience. It taught her about humility, going for the essential, the value of a well-prepared backpack including a frontal lamp — as shopping is limited in the desert — and most of all about authenticity. Coming from a studio experience, she returned with the need to shoot people bare of the superficial: natural light and an unveiled intimacy. There are jobs that can influence who you are as a photographer.

I asked Saulem if she would return if she had the opportunity. The sparkle in her eyes said it all. Even if she almost died the last time during a helicopter ride. "A great photograph is worth the risk," she said.

All images used with permission.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Anna Dabrowska is a beauty and fashion photographer based in Paris.

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Awesome images!