French photographer Edouard Elias has won this year’s Rémi Ochlik Award, which comes with a 8,000 Euro cash prize.

Named after a photographer who was killed in a rocket attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, the Rémi Ochlik Award is given each year to a young photojournalist who has produced an extensive photo essay. Elias won for his work in the Central African Republic, where he followed 20 men from the French Foreign Legion.

“The subjects of these photographs are important to me,” Elias tells TIME. “I’ve developed a strong relationship with them and I have to say that my first reaction when I learned I had won was to call them. They were delighted because we’re going to be able to talk about them and the work they’ve done in Central African Republic.”

Elias first went to the Central African Republic in August of 2014, a few months after sectarian violence claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people. He had seen the work of photographers such as William Daniels and Michael Zumstein, who had also covered the conflict, and wanted to cover the tense situation in the country from a new angle. “I thought I would embed with the French army because it hadn’t been done before,” he says. “Randomly, I ended up with the French Foreign Legion. At first, I thought I would look at France’s military engagement in the country but, in the end, my work changed and became about these men. I didn’t expect them to welcome me the way they did. We developed a real relationship to the point that they forgot I was a photographer. I was able to document their lives.”

With his photographs, Elias isn’t claiming to explain what happened in the Central African Republic. “It’s really about the way 20 men live in a section of the French Foreign Legion. It’s intemporal. I wasn’t interested in the fights, the war. I was interested in their private lives — in the times in-between.”

Elias has continued to follow these men, spending Christmas with them. In August, he will visit them again at their base in Nimes, France. “Again, I will be looking for photographs that show their lives; I’ll be looking for the human side.”

Elias will receive his award at this year’s Visa pour l’Image photojournalism festival.

Edouard Elias is a French freelance photographer.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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