A Japanese Legionnaire is waiting for instructions during his training. Nimes, France. Aug. 11, 2015.
A Japanese Legionnaire is waiting for instructions during his training. Nimes, France. Aug. 11, 2015.Edouard Elias
A Japanese Legionnaire is waiting for instructions during his training. Nimes, France. Aug. 11, 2015.
"Camp des Garrigues" one of the French Foreign Legion's military camps. Legionnaires are doing some relaxation exercises after close combat training. Nimes, France. Aug. 4, 2015.
Legionnaires learn basic field tactics. Nimes, France. Aug. 4, 2015.
Training exercises designed to reinforce the group's cohesion. Aug. 4, 2015.
Body extraction training exercise in the French Foreign Legion camp near Nimes, France. Aug. 7, 2015.
Exhausted legionnaires are resting in the back of a truck. Nimes, France. Aug. 7, 2015
On April 29 and 30 - called Camerone Day, France celebrates its Foreign Legion. Legionaries attend a ceremony at the Christian Catholic Church of Sainte Baudile. Nimes, France. April 29, 2015.
The French Foreign Legion homebase in Nimes, France. Aug. 14, 2015.
A young French Legionnaire is waiting for a train to go home near Marseille. Regulations forbid him from leaving Nimes, and the week after this photograph was taken, he was caught by an officer who was also waiting at the station. Nimes, France. Aug. 14, 2015.
A young French Legionnaire show the picture of his girlfriend. Nimes, France. Aug. 14, 2015.
A Legionnaire and his girlfriend spend time together while hiding from the military police. Until they've served five years in the Legion, the they are not allowed to leave the barracks without their uniforms. Aug. 14, 2015.
Two members of the French Foreign Legion watch a movie in Nimes. Regulations usually forbid them from owning cellphones.
Members of the French Foreign Legion play with their families inside of the base, which is only open to civilians during Camerone Day. April 29, 2015.
Christmas party with members of the French Foreign Legion in Nimes, France. Dec. 24, 2014.
A member of the French Foreign Legion watches the "Miss Kepi Blanc" contest. April 30, 2015.
A member of the French Foreign Legion, disciplined by his superiors, cleans the toilets of the Training camp's compound. Aug. 6, 2015.
Members of the French Foreign Legion Legionnaires prepare for the morning " flag" ceremony. Aug. 6, 2015.
Two members of the French Foreign Legion shave. Nimes, France. Aug. 7, 2015
Two members of the French Foreign Legion get ready for the weekend. Nimes, France. Aug. 12, 2015.
Members of the French Foreign Legion get ready for their annual parade on "Camerone Day" at Nimes' Roman Arenas in France. April 29, 2015.
Members of the French Foreign Legion celebrate the end of their training. Nimes, France. Aug. 7, 2015.
Members of the French Foreign Legion take part in a night walk that includes an eight-kilometer run and a 40-kilometer walk. Nimes, France. Aug. 6, 2015.
A Japanese Legionnaire is waiting for instructions during his training. Nimes, France. Aug. 11, 2015.
Edouard Elias
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Up Close With the French Foreign Legion

Jul 13, 2016

Edouard Elias first embedded with the French Foreign Legion in the summer of 2014 during France’s military intervention in Central African Republic. At first, the legionnaires were wary of yet another journalist shadowing them. They believed that most journalists were only interested in their own work, says Elias, and not in the mission of the troops—but the French photographer, who had been kidnapped in Syria in 2013 and spent 10 months in captivity, proved otherwise when the Legion ran into trouble.

“One day, there were some skirmishes,” he remembers. “They saw that they could count on me in the field and that’s when they really accepted me.”

Elias had spent several months in Syria confined to an underground cell with James Foley and other journalists. So, when the news of Foley’s execution at the hands of ISIS reached the regiment, the legionnaires were prepared. “They learned about his death before I did, so they were all around me when I heard the news, beers at the ready,” he says. “It sounds stupid, but that counts. They became friends, in a way.”

See the French Foreign Legion in Central African Republic

CENTRAFRIQUE/CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
French Foreign Legion soldiers are waiting for the next patrol on Aug. 24, 2014.Edouard Elias
CENTRAFRIQUE/CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
CENTRAFRIQUE/CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
CENTRAFRIQUE/CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
CENTRAFRIQUE/CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
CENTRAFRIQUE/CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
CENTRAFRIQUE/CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
CENTRAFRIQUE/CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
CENTRAFRIQUE/CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
French Foreign Legion soldiers are waiting for the next patrol on Aug. 24, 2014.
Edouard Elias
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After that first embed, which lasted just a few weeks, Elias was invited in 2014 to the regiment’s barracks in Nimes, France, to celebrate—and photograph—Christmas. And just a few months later, he embarked on a month-long training exercise with the troops. “It was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made,” he says, laughing. The training included long and grueling nocturnal walks, including a 40-kilometer one that began with an eight-kilometer run. Over a month, he lost 10 pounds. “To gain their respect you have to show that you’re suffering as much as they are, that you’re doing it all,” he says.

During the training, Elias saw how rigorous and, at times, authoritarian the French Foreign Legion can be. “They’ve developed a cult of tradition and of rules,” he says. “It goes beyond anything I’ve seen before. It’s interesting to see how we teach these young men to become one being, to become the French Legion. They do this through an intense training program, but also by limiting what they can do when they’re outside (for example, they’re not allowed to leave the barracks in civilian clothes). It was unbelievable.”

Members of the French Foreign Legion celebrate Christmas. Members of the French Foreign Legion celebrate Christmas.  Edouard Elias 

But Elias cherished the experience, building relationships, he says, that will last his lifetime. “I will continue to follow them. If they’re deployed, once again, overseas, I’ll want to go with them. If one of them leaves the Legion to open a bed and breakfast in Patagonia, I’ll go. These are stories of men who shared something important and I want to see how it evolves. It’s going to be a life-long project.”

is a French photographer represented by Reportage by Getty Images.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of News time LightBox. Follow him on and @olivierclaurent

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