In the developed world, electricity is taken for granted. It powers our homes, lights our streets at night and keeps our businesses running. Life without electricity is inconceivable to us, but that's not the case for more than a fifth of the world's population who – more than 150 years after the invention of electric light – still live in a state of energy poverty.
This is an under-reported crisis situation that continues to cause great difficulties for huge numbers of people. It moved French photojournalist Pascal Maitre, who has photographed across Africa for over 30 years, to bring it to the public's attention in a photographic project, Africa Without Electricity.
Over a two-year period, the Canon Ambassador documented the day-to-day lives of African people and the challenges of living without electrical power, with the project winning first prize in the 2018 London Business School Photography Awards.
In sub-Saharan Africa, only 25% of the population has access to electricity – a figure that drops to just 8% in rural areas. Even urban Africans who do have electrical power are plagued by frequent outages. This has hampered the continent's economic and social development and threatens lives when power cuts halt vital medical procedures, or paraffin lamps release toxic fumes into people's homes.
Shooting in near-darkness or under the dim light produced by paraffin lamps presented technical challenges for Pascal. Here, he talks about how the full-frame low light capabilities of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV allowed him to tell a story that he couldn't have captured in analogue. This is what life without electricity is really like – and this is what made the project so important to him...
You first went to Africa in 1979, but when did energy poverty become a story for you?
"I've made maybe 10 or 15 trips to Africa per year, and I've done that for 30 years. From the first time I went there, I heard stories about the lack of electricity, which is a deadly problem for the population. I always felt sorry for people, seeing how it affected their lives. So I decided to do a story about this issue. It was important for me because I felt it was a really big injustice.
"I saw many stories about the possible solutions, such as solar panels, wind farms or dams. But even if there are many new solutions, the population is growing so fast that in 2030 there will still be 50 million more people who will not have access to electricity. So I was more interested in what it is like to live without electricity, rather than in the solutions."
How does the lack of electricity affect people's daily lives?
"Some people have no lighting, so they cannot work after dark and children cannot study. People might go to hospital and find nothing is working. There's a lack of security and people in villages stay at home after dark because they are afraid of wild animals. It also causes problems with people's jobs. For example, people who work in small factories have to stop work for one or two days because there is no electricity due to power outages.
"There are different dangers caused by the lack of electricity. One is pollution, because people use paraffin lamps that produce toxic fumes. There are also lots of domestic fires from people knocking lamps over."
Was it difficult to get backing to shoot the project?
"I tried asking different magazines about doing the story, but they thought shooting a photography story without light could be quite challenging, or it would be boring. Only one magazine, Le Figaro, said, 'Let's try it'. I started working in Benin and I tried to convince them about the importance of the story, but I couldn't. Finally I got a grant from the French Development Agency, so I was able to continue with the story."
Tell us about the location you chose for your shoot...
"I collected together some pictures that I had already taken, but mostly the story was shot in villages not far from Porto-Novo, the capital of Benin in West Africa. Everything was shot within a 100km radius of the city. I chose Benin because it is a country that is quite economically stable and has not had wars or major disasters for a long time. But the electricity problem is at the same level as all sub-Saharan countries. I took care to stay working in a region that was 45 minutes from the capital, to show it's something that affects everyone [not just those in far-flung areas]."
Were people receptive to allowing you in their homes?
"Yes, people were very friendly, very open and let me work. Without these people I wouldn't have had a story. I did the project with a fixer who I've known for a long time, who would translate and explain what I wanted to do. And if you explain clearly to people why you're there and what you need, it's easy to work. They have a major problem and they really want the world to know about it."
Which cameras did you use and why?
"Mostly I used a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM zoom, which was perfect. I shot with this camera because it's full-frame and offered the possibility of working in low light. When people's homes are only lit with small paraffin lamps, you need to work in very high ISOs. I was very surprised because I shot at ISO20000 or even ISO32000 and the results were amazing. I later held an exhibition in Paris and we did a big print, around 1.8 metres, from an image shot at ISO32000 – the quality was incredible. The guy who did the large print at the lab called all of his colleagues to show them the print, and nobody could believe it. These pictures would never have been possible using analogue cameras."
How is the quality of the files produced compared to early digital photography?
"The quality of digital has changed a lot – especially the dynamic range. This is wonderful because you get a lot more possibilities between the highlights and the shadows. When you work in high ISO, now you still have grain... and it is beautiful! Before it was a little bit artificial, and now it's the same grain you used to have in analogue. And of course the files are bigger and you can do whatever you want with them."
Why did you use ambient lighting and no flash?
"I couldn't use flash because it would have destroyed the reality of the situation and killed the atmosphere, but I always carried a small light with me, which I shone on the subject when I needed to get it in focus. The reality is the darkness, and my work is to pass on what I saw and what I felt. I needed to keep the atmosphere, the magic and the difficulty of life without electricity. I've never used very high ISOs before and I never expected I would use it, or that I could do so much with it."
One of your images shows a baby's birth. How did you come to photograph it?
"I knew I needed strong pictures and a situation like this would be the key to my story. Anyone can understand the difficulty of delivering a baby at night without electricity, but I had to find a solution for getting this picture. The most difficult part when you are a storyteller is to get access to the point where you can take good pictures. Capturing the picture is very easy.
"To do it, I looked for all the small clinics or midwives who have no access to cities and electricity. I explained what I wanted to do, why it is important, and so on. Finally, the midwife called me. I went to the woman's house, stayed all night and eventually the baby came. At the point when I took the picture you can see how difficult and fragile the situation is. If there had been problems during the delivery, there was no hospital nearby to help. When I was there the birth was OK, but it isn't always. And you see how this lack of electricity really affects life and death.
"This picture was shot with a high ISO and it's perfect. It's at this point that digital has opened some doors to somewhere I couldn't go with analogue."
How did it make you feel to witness the severity of the situation?
"I felt very upset. Each time I came into a village, I asked, 'What is your major problem?' Always it was the same answer – lack of electricity. When I asked people what it is like to live without light, they said: 'At seven o'clock, when the night arrives, we have the feeling of living in a tomb.' When people tell you this, it's terrible.
"People are really angry because nothing is really done. There's progress, of course, but it's very slow. It's not fair that some people are deprived of something that's needed for a normal life."
To tell a story like this, what's your editing process?
"I don't edit when I shoot at all. I keep all my files and when I come back I edit. For a story like this, I might shoot something like 20,000 pictures. At the end I look at all my files and I select what I think I will need. From 20,000 I will reduce them to 3,000, which is a lot of work. Then from 3,000 I will cut until it's 500, and after this I will cut again to 200. At this point I move my RAW files to TIFFs, edit them, make my last selection and decide the order of the story."
What's your advice for finding, telling and developing a story?
"I think you need to travel, and if you don't travel you need to read. You need to be very curious, listen to the people who live around you and find out what could be a story. Afterwards, you need to convince people about the story and clarify the main points.
"You don't need a thousand pictures to tell a story. You need five or 10 strong pictures, because magazines don't publish many pictures. You need to have a key picture – one that will explain your story and be very visually impressive. You need to put all your energy into delivering this picture.
"With digital, when you really know your camera, you can use it to do whatever you want – your camera feels like the end of your finger, of your eyes, and you can really go where you want. It's an extension of yourself."
Looking back at this project now, how do you feel?
"I am very happy and very proud – I feel it was important for me to do it. I was surprised by people's reactions when the project was exhibited. They stayed a long time to read all the information, and I realised that few people had really understood the importance of the problem before.
"When I finished the project with the French Development Agency, we also did a book. The Agency's president gave copies to government ministers in Benin, to say 'This is the reality of life in your country'. So I hope the work I've done may be able to help to create a new understanding of the problem. Our work [as photojournalists] has never changed the world, but perhaps in a small way it can help to improve it."