When French photojournalist Olivier Jobard set out with his Cameroonian subject Kingsley and other African migrants on their extraordinary voyage toward Europe, most of them were mystified. And when he explained that he was a journalist, "people were afraid,” he said.
“But then … after two weeks in the same deep s*** eating the same sardines and the same dry bread, you get close to the people and then the people don’t really look [at you] like you’re a stranger,” he said.
Jobard spent years covering immigrants in his native France, but finally felt compelled to trace their stories back to the source in Africa.
In Cameroon, an acquaintance of an acquaintance put the award-winning photographer in touch with Kingsley.
Jobard told MSNBC.com that in choosing to accompany Kingsley, he wanted to find somebody who was “strong enough” to go as far as possible. Jobard also sought to ensure that “he wasn’t doing it because a white journalist was following and doing all the journey with him.”
Money saved up from his work as a lifeguard helped fund the passage of Kingsley, who had tried but failed to travel the route two years earlier.
France was a natural choice of destination because a friend of Kingsley’s had married a Frenchwoman and now lived there. French is also one of two official languages in Cameroon, which was once ruled by France.
After several months of feeling each other out, Kingsley and Jobard began their journey.
Gaining the trust of migrants and smugglers
But after gaining Kingsley’s trust, the photographer found himself continually assuaging the fears of the other migrants and, especially, the suspicions of the human smugglers.
They demanded that Jobard pay more money than the other travelers for safe passage — and he acceded to the demand.
“Then I was treated as the others. ... I was with the migrants, which was the interest to me,” he said.
But the smugglers did not always understand, Jobard said. They frequently tried to offer him a privileged position within the group — or even a separate trip altogether.
Jobard declined the offers, telling the smugglers his role was as a witness to the journey, whatever it may bring. “It was the only way I would be integrated into the group,” he said.
Jobard sought the most authentic experience possible. Now and again, he would splurge on a meal for himself and Kingsley, but otherwise mostly experienced the journey with the migrants.
He also bought lifejackets for both himself and Kingsley because “I had one life jacket with me and I didn’t want to be the only one who had one.” For practical reasons, Jobard decided neither to buy nor try to carry dozens of life jackets for all the potential migrants on the journey, he said.
Total expenses for the project came to around $13,500. For Jobard, it meant a commitment of six months of his life. For some of the migrants, of course, the price was far higher: Several died when their boat capsized.
‘The hardest part’
The boat crossing from Morocco to the Canary Islands was “only 12 hours of a six-month journey. It’s a small part, but it’s the hardest part,” said Jobard, who was accompanied by a French TV journalist for that leg of the trip.
The first boat Jobard and Kingsley took capsized; the second one was sinking when they were picked up by the coast guard.
“I start with Kingsley at the beginning. Also, because I was with Kingsley, I didn’t want to leave him. … I had no choice, I wanted to be in the boat with him — I mean there was no discussion about that. ... I had no problem with that. I had no other solution, in fact,” he said.
As a Westerner, Jobard often felt that some of the migrants looked to him to do more than was realistically possible.
“They asked me, ‘Are you sure if this boat will manage to cross?’ And I say, ‘Look, I’m not better than you on this kind of business. I don’t know nothing about boats, about motors. I have absolutely no idea,’” he said.
Still, Jobard said he felt that some of the migrants thought that because “they were with white guys things will be easier and better.”
As he did have some more resources than most, Jobard did help where possible. “After the capsize, people even asked me to take a picture of them to be able to send them to the family for their brother and sister not to take the same road,” he said.
“I had a kind of particular and important role of being there as a witness. They really asked me to try to be helpful and to send the picture to the family to explain” the dangers inherent in the journey, he said.
‘It was a lesson of life for myself’
After spending so much time together, Jobard agreed to help Kingsley upon arrival in France. Partly through reporting Kingsley’s story, Jobard helped him gain a residency card to live and work in France.
They have co-authored a book and Kingsley has also done some writing on his own about his experiences.
“It’s just like this, everybody would have done it, after six months of experience with somebody, sharing the same trip and the same trouble and the same s***. It’s purely normal,” Jobard said.
Reflecting on the experience a few years later, Jobard said the assignment left a permanent mark on him.
“It was a kind of unforgettable experience, of course, to be able to travel as close as [to] what those migrants are living,” he said. “It was really a kind of lesson of life for myself because they were always kind of happy, never complaining, always suffering, but from inside.”
MSNBC.com's Meredith Birkett and Jim Seida contributed to this article.