Photographers' Blog

Finbarr from the field

January 8, 2009

On Jan. 14 Reuters hosted a live video Q&A with our renowned photographer Finbarr O’Reilly about his experiences in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Finbarr addressed what drew him to Africa and the most difficult aspects of being a photographer in a war zone.

Finbarr is still available to answer questions, submit them in the comments section below or send a Twitter message with the hash tag “#finbarr” .

LIVE CHAT: Finbarr O Reilly

Check out “Death all around,” his multimedia report from a Congolese refugee camp, dispatches from Chad and Afghanistan, selected photos from his portfolio, and an audio slideshow from his most recent Congo assignment.

*On my latest trip to report on Congo’s seemingly unending cycle of violence, I wanted to go beyond generic images of downtrodden refugees and brutal conflict.

I spent two years in Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda from 2002 to 2004, covering the regional war that engulfed much of central Africa, and I grew to admire the strength and humour of the long-suffering Congolese.

I returned in November to cover the rebel offensive on the eastern town of Goma. When heavy gunfire erupted while I was photographing at Kibati refugee camp, I was quickly offered shelter in a flimsy tent by Boniface Buhoro, a tailor trying to protect his sister and three-year-old son.

Such kindness is typical of Congo ʼs resilient population, subject to miserable circumstances, misrule and war. Refugees frequently offered warm greetings, friendly smiles and handshakes in squalid camps where they may not have eaten for days.

Amid the chaos of fighting, people fleeing their homes and the demand for quick news pictures, I tried to slow things down by taking intimate portraits.

By shooting with a very low depth of field, I hoped to extract my subjects from their surroundings and portray them as individuals with names and stories that matter.

More than five million people have died, most from lack of access to food or basic health, during a decade of fighting in Congo. This makes Congo ‘s enduring conflict the deadliest since World War Two.

Most of the victims perish far from sight, deep in the bush. This time, death seemed all around.

Driving to the front line early one morning, mist hung over the road and smoke from Nyiragongo volcano darkened the sky.

Marking the first rebel position were the bodies of two government soldiers, a bullet through each of their skulls.

Traveling north later, I reached the hilltop village of Kirumba , where local Mai-Mai militiamen had clashed with government troops fleeing the Tutsi rebel advance.

The army quickly buried their dead, but the Mai-Mai corpses were set on fire by beer-drinking troops.

I found them the next morning, fat still bubbling on one charred corpse, its genitals cut off. Another body had an umbrella stabbed into its face. Soldiers joked and laughed.

Back near Kibati camp, I followed a funeral procession into a sun-dappled banana grove. A tiny purple casket containing the body of eight-month old Alexandrine Kabitsebangumi, who had died from cholera, was being lowered into the dark earth.

The grove was filled with graves. As women sang a haunting hymn, the mourners moved aside, allowing me to photograph.

There’s no joy getting a good picture from a baby’s funeral.

Another victim, another memory, another ghost.

Congo is still defined by Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness, which described “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.” The horror Conrad depicts in his haunting novel, written more than a century ago, lingers today, with Belgian colonial greed replaced by rapacious warlords and profiteers still raping the nation’s vast resources at a great human toll.

But signs of hope linger. I covered the tumultuous run-up to 2006 elections and after tense days of photographing riots, mob violence and gun battles in Congo’s capital Kinshasa, I would head not to the nearest bar, but to a dilapidated compound, home to children crippled by polio. There, among dozens of twisted bodies and withered limbs, the day’s tension melted away.

The 100 children at the Stand Proud compound in Kinshasa must rank among the world’s most disadvantaged. Handicapped, impoverished, often rejected or abandoned, and living in Africa’s deadliest war zone, they should have little to celebrate. Instead, the lively “polio kids” offer an oasis of hope, unity and optimism in a vast country marked by despair. Despite their polio-damaged legs, wrapped in casts or makeshift braces fashioned from scrap metal, the children dance enthusiastically to loud Congolese music or challenge visitors to madcap games of soccer.

These moments, along with the brave, resilient people I met in refugee camps define the country’s character more than the misery and violence.

Comments
31 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Thanks for your honest portrayal of the Congolese as a resilient and hospitable people – even in the midst of such suffering and horror. I have worked among refugees since 1980 myself and have found them not so much people to be pitied as they are people who deserve our respect and who need our help.Question: What, if any, hope do you have for the people of the DRC that the fighting will cease and they will be able to build lives in peace?

 

Why hasn’t an international arrest warrant been issued and served against Nkunda?Why hasn’t Ntaganda been arrested and taken to the ICC?What will make the current peace talks any different from Amani?Why would anyone believe that a murderous war bandit such as Nkunda–who has already shown that he cannot be expected to respect any agreement–will respect the terms of any agreement he signs today (assuming of course that he hasn’t already been replaced)?

Posted by Lorraine | Report as abusive
 

Thanks for the right portrayal of the Congolese people. I’m a journalist and I too covered part of the 2002 war. But my biggest surprise was finding a group of Congolese families deep in the vast savanah grasslands arounf Manono township dancing with some playing their traditional music instruments at around 05h00 in the morning . And this was an area that was situated in a war-ravaged region! I totally failed to make sense out of this way of thinking and reacting to problems as human beings! And my question is: when will Congolese come out to make their own-home made decisions to get their country of that mess, other than always being merry-making people even amidist war and death?

Posted by John | Report as abusive
 

Every night my family prays for the people of the Congo that they find peace and good governance and receive the dignity they deserve as humans here on earth.I pray some day to be in a postion to help these people.God bless the people of the Congo Republic and those who give of themselve to help these people.

Posted by wildcat | Report as abusive
 

God bless the people of DR Congo find everlasting peace. Your discription is gripping. The Congo has been failed for a very long time. But, its up to people to cause change.

Posted by Karubandika.com | Report as abusive
 

What do you consider should be the worthy role of a photojournalist in a war-torn country? I think it would take a very deep insight into the basic cause or causes of the war, don’t you think?

 

Hi FinbarrThanks for your brilliant blog. I wondered what you think should be done by the International community to improve the lives of normal people in the DRC? I also wondered what you think lies at the root of this conflict (I read it has its origins from Hutus fleeing Rwanda after the genocide)Best regardsHaydn West

 

Your focus on that which is not ‘sensational’ is warmly received and much needed to improve the West’s view of Africa and its people. As an African myself though I struggle to reconcile the beauty and humanity of our people to the brutality of ‘the soldiers’ – are these not our sons and brothers. What are we doing that we can create such monsters.Child soldiers, colonial relics, scramble for resources….We need to closely examine the root causes that allow such barbaric people to flourish in our communities.I have no answers, only questions…..

Posted by Chris Inggs | Report as abusive
 

Thank you for your words about the Congolese and your experiences. Honest words seem rare in this world. It is tragic that the Congo has been invaded for so long and now, because of intruders, its own people are committing dreadful crimes against each other; that children can play and adults welcome you is very encouraging and heart-warming to hear; kindness comes in all forms, in all eras, even in war.What can the U.S. do to stop the horrors…?Peace,Renee USA

Posted by renee | Report as abusive
 

What was your “epiphany moment”, that is, the moment you knew that you were a photographer and you had captured that defining image? What was it? Where were you? What were you feeling?

 

Hello Finbar,where did you get this beautiful scarf? Was it admired a lot down there in Congo?

Posted by m.s. | Report as abusive
 

#finbarrat 31 is it very late to start a career in photography. and if it is not then where to get the best possible training

 

Hi Finbarr, some weeks ago I read your full blog on the reuters.com web, it’s haunting me still. You’ve been in the middle of this for so long, as you have in other conflicts; I sometimes read about how looking through the camera can help a photo journalist to stay focussed but that will not always work, will it? How do you keep your sanity? Does Reuters provide psychological support to help cope with the things you encounter?

Posted by Yvonne | Report as abusive
 

Question: How influential do you think stills photography is today in bringing news events from conflict zones to the attention of the world community.Question: What drives you (personally) to seek out images that have the power to grab people’s attention.Question: Has the role of war photographer changed very much in the last 50 years?

Posted by Michael O'Reilly | Report as abusive
 

Have you ever cried when taking photos?

Posted by Doris | Report as abusive
 

Thank you very much for telling the human story of your experience in DRC. It is a tragedy and I admire your courage and patience in accomplishing your mission so that the world knows the reality. We pray for peace and love in DRC and the whole world, may God bless you and all others that pay a price to better the lives of others.mk

Posted by Messy | Report as abusive
 

Do you know any more about the status of Operation Lightning Thunder and whether these are the last days for the remaining LRA fighters in Congo, Sudan, Uganda? Doesn’t the world need to know about the end of Joseph Kony, if they are successful?

Posted by Scott | Report as abusive
 

Finbarr -When meeting and photographing people, and truly managing to capture their personality in the photographs, have any of them ever asked about your photographs? Have any of them had access to cameras, or even used yours to take a photo of you or the events as they see it? I wonder whether a native, “civilian” perspective would be different at all to the beautiful photos you show. Whether their experiences would have influenced the way they see their surroundings and people?I remember being told about your switch from journalist to photographer, when I did an overview of Reuters journalism course (I was in the finance section at the time). And it struck a note – I’ve kept an eye out for your photographs ever since, and it’s now easy to spot one of them in the daily slideshow now, because of the trademark style and the way you do manage to capture people’s personalities and the lighting, which is almost luminous at times – a remarkable achievement in a conflict zone.

Posted by Helen S | Report as abusive
 

Hello Finbarr,Upon viewing your work on the situation in Congo, I recall the effects of decades of conflict in E.Africa, and especially Eritrea. As a graduate student of Anthropology in the mid-90s, I was guided to the, then, post-war nation of Eritrea by faculty mentor, Thomas Keneally – author of Toward Asmara (and later Schindler’s List). While I later went on to focus on the history of human rights law in post-dirty war, Argentina, in response to Eritrea’s return to war with Ethiopia, the impact of the short time I spent there continues to inform my inquiries into the role of humanitarian aid and human rights interventions. In your opinion, are communicative distinctions between media in terms of political efficacy? Particularly as vehicles for advocacy on behalf human rights issues? Or is this too great of an assumption to make?Regards,Tamara

 

Hi Finbar.How easy/difficult is it to set yourself up as a stringer in DRC?Joe Simpson

Posted by Joe Simpson | Report as abusive
 

Hi Finbarr,You tell a story of how drunk soldiers have conflicts between them and start shooting in a refugee camp, can you talk about this experience? How you felt laying in the tent?

Posted by Jorge | Report as abusive
 

How do you deal with the sometimes terrible human tragedies you see?

Posted by alex | Report as abusive
 

Hi FinSitting in Aberdeen airport waiting for a delayed plane and found much interest in what you had to say. Would have liked to have heard more but sadly the connection has died….

Posted by Trisha | Report as abusive
 

Good job! Just saw the last couple of minutes!

Posted by Nneka Black | Report as abusive
 

Hi everyone, thanks for your participation in the live video chat. To answer a few questions we could not get to live I’ll address them here.For Scott’s question about Joseph Kony and the LRA, see our recent story on this link: http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk  /LD614458.htmFor Joe Simpson, I started in Congo as a stringer, but had arranged it with Reuters to work with them before going. Otherwise it is prohibitively expensive to work from there without the financial support of a news organisation.Sorry Tamara, I dont understand your question.For Yvonne’s questions — these are all important things you askYes, there can be a heavy personal burden from doing this kind of work, but so long as you can keep a healthy balance in life and talk things through with good friends and colleagues, then usually you can work it out. Also, for those who need it, Reuters (and most major news organizations) does have confidential psychological help available and the stigma attached to seeking help is slowly fading in the media world.Personally, I make sure to get enough rest and time away from work and I maintain an active life surfing and kayaking when at home in Senegal. Being out on the water really keeps you sane.Regarding Michael’s questions, I think people remember still images more than video, even to this day. Vietnam is defined by a handful of iconic photos and so is Iraq today — the Abu Graib image of the hooded torture victim, George Bush and his “Mission Accomplised” banner, and the photos of the Saddam statues being pulled down. Although there is a lot of powerful video from Iraq, I’m not sure there is one single scene that distills the conflict in the collective conscience the way these photos do.Personally I am drive to tell untold stories. I’m less interested in covering the major news events in Israel or Gaza than I am in chasing down overlooked issues in Africa — and there are many. In order to do this well, you have to seek out images that will tell the story while being visually arresting — at least interesting enough to capture people’s imagination as they go about their daily lives. Of course, there’s also the drive to want to see and understand the world.In terms of changes over the past 50 years in war photography, I guess there are many. Digital is obviously a major technological revolution that allows the almost immediate relay of images to the world. And there are many more people who want to do this kind of work, perhaps inspired by the great war photographers of the past.There may be more images to choose from out there, but the defining images are still rare and as powerful as ever.I hope this helps. Please continue to send your comments and I will reply as needed.-Finbarr

 

With regards to Jorge’s question about the drunk soldiers shooting in the refugee camp, you can read the full story here:http://blogs.reuters.com/photo/2008  /12/03/death-all-around/Bests, -Finbarr

 

You’re doing great work. Which is the several military groups is most opposed to your filming? How do you handle that.

Posted by Patricia | Report as abusive
 

Test

Posted by Corinne Perkins | Report as abusive
 

Hi Finbarr:Hou do you hendle some terrible situation at did you seewithout a interference?Thanks.

 

How do you feel after a long day of photogaphing in thr front line?

Posted by Miguel Morales | Report as abusive
 

Finbarr,I’m a photographer with the U.S. Army, and have built up a fairly good portfolio over the course of my work in Iraq and stateside. I would like to continue working as a photojournalist using my experience in conflict zones, but outside the military, but am not sure where to start. What would your recommendation be for a starting point in a photojournalistic career of this kind?

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive
 

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