In 2009, I read an exposé about the gold trade in National Geographic magazine. Then, later that year, I found myself looking at Botticelli's Venus and Mars in London's National Gallery. I was struck by its power. It's a postcoital scene: Mars, god of war, is sleeping on all his spoils, while Venus, goddess of love, is looking unsatisfied. Things haven't changed much, I thought. Greed and war versus love and beauty.
I decided to take elements from the painting and transform them. Satyrs became child soldiers; I made Venus's dress ripped, alluding to rape, and there's a mine visible through a hole in the backdrop. I was thinking a lot about the gold mines in Africa, the deplorable conditions for workers and damage the mines do to the environment. They are so huge you can see them from space.
I wanted Venus to represent Africa, a continent that has been, and continues to be, raped – because that's where all the resources lie. Botticelli used Simonetta Vespucci, an aristocrat famous for her beauty, as his model. Who, I wondered, is today's best known beauty of African descent? Naomi Campbell came to mind.
The photograph, called The Rape of Africa, is a critique of consumerism, of a global society fuelled by greed and power. I made it right after the financial collapse, when we were being advised to invest in gold and gold production spiked tenfold. The irony is that by putting your money into a safer security like gold, you are ensuring more devastation, more climate change, more destruction in Mother Africa, where our species began.
A strange thing happened when the shot was on display in New York.Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord credited with inventing child soldiers, was in the news. His story resonated hugely with themes in the photograph. There was also the trial of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, and the story of Naomi being handed a bag of diamonds after a dinner Taylor and Nelson Mandela were present at. People asked me if I had put the big diamond next to her on purpose, but I hadn't. I didn't know anything about it at the time.
The shoot was like a circus: there were kids crying and goats and chickens running around. I enjoy the theatricality of putting shots together, with set-builders, make-up artists and models all working in unison. It's noisy, but I can focus in chaos. It took about 10 days to build the set but the process started long before that, with research, sketches and casting.
People who see my work often become obsessed with the process. They assume it's all done in post-production, but you can't do this on Photoshop. I now document everything I work on, to show that everything is real and was there on the set. When you see this picture large, you can see every pore on Naomi's skin. The mine was a model and photographed separately, so it could be in focus at the same time as the foreground – but it was all there.
I stopped working for magazines in 2006 because I felt I had said all I had to say in that world. I didn't want to work with celebrities or do fashion any more. It didn't occur to me that I could make photographs like this one for galleries. To be honest, I didn't think the art world would have me.
Born: 1963, Connecticut.
Studied: North Carolina School of the Arts.
Influences: Michelangelo, Michael Jackson, Odilon Redon.
High point: "When Jablonka Galerie filled their entire booth at Frieze with my photographs."
Low point: "After making the films Rize and Red Piano, my assistant told me we'd been working for 11 months without a day off. I remember being gutted. I knew I couldn't go back to magazines, but I couldn't see any other place for my photography."
Top tip: "Turn off your cellphone, iPad and computer and cut all the time you spend on social media to an eighth. If you don't, you will never develop your intuitive voice."
David LaChapelle: Land Scape is at Robilant and Voena, London W1, until 18 June.
By Karin Andreasson