Finbarr from the field
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.