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Work grant edition 2008

Andrew McConnell

The Last Colony


The territory of Western Sahara is Africa’s last open file at the United Nations Decolonisation Committee. 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the Moroccan invasion, which forced former colonial power Spain to withdraw without holding a UN-sanctioned referendum on the future of the state. With Franco on his deathbed, Spain had little desire for confrontation and so divided the land between Morocco and Mauritania, ignoring the pleas of the indigenous Saharawi people and a ruling by the International Court of Justice which found neither country had any sovereignty over the territory.

A Saharawi rebel group, the Polisario Front, which had formed a few years earlier to fight the Spanish occupation, declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) on 27 February 1976 and began an all-out guerrilla war against the new occupiers. With heavy backing from Algeria, the Polisario had many early successes and forced the withdrawal of Mauritania in 1979. Morocco then took control of the entire country, and the war continued into the 1980s. Thousands of Saharawis fled the invasion and set up refugee camps across the border in neighboring Algeria, where they remain to this day, their numbers have grown to some 170,000.

Polisario’s gains were hampered in the mid-eighties with the building of a heavily mined 1600-kilometer sand wall by Morocco, dividing Western Sahara in two and keeping the Polisario mostly confined to the inland desert. A ceasefire was signed in 1991 with the agreement that a referendum on self-determination would be held the following year. But, nineteen years later that referendum has yet to take place and for the Saharawi people, a sense of injustice, hopelessness, and anger grows ever stronger. This is a landless people, who cannot be photographed in their own territory and must not be forgotten.


Andrew McConnell was born in Ireland and began his career as a press photographer working for a daily newspaper in Belfast during the closing stages of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the transition to peace.

Today his works focus on themes of displacement, post-conflict issues, and the environment. He has worked in-depth on issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis, e-waste in Ghana, the surfers of the Gaza Strip, and the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for which he won the Luis Valutena Humanitarian Photography Award.

In 2009, he completed a series on the forgotten Sahrawi people of Western Sahara, for which he was awarded 1st place in the portrait story category of the World Press Photo awards. A follow-up project on the issue of urban refugees was carried out in 8 cities worldwide and resulted in exhibitions in London and New York.

Among numerous honors, McConnell has won two 1st place prizes at the World Press Photo Awards, 4 National Press Photographers Association awards, including the prestigious Best of Show, 2 Sony World Photography Awards, 1st place at the Pictures of the Year International, and 1st place in the Istanbul Photo Awards.

He is represented by one of the world's leading photographic agencies: Panos Pictures.