Congo On the Wire exhibition, Bayeux, France

October 16, 2009

When I first started reporting from Africa eight years ago, it was almost impossible to generate any interest in the Western media for a story about Congo. This was immediately following the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the world was still reeling in the aftermath.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have since dominated our news coverage and resources during the first decade of the millennium.

Even as Democratic Republic of Congo’s war-related death toll rose above a staggering five million, making it the most lethal conflict since World War Two, the war in Central Africa remained largely unnoticed and under-reported.

But lately there has been a slight shift. In October 2008, a fresh upsurge of violence drove some 250,000 people from villages in the country’s eastern Kivu provinces, bringing to more than one million the number of internally displaced Congolese.

Congo’s war victims usually perish far from sight, deep in the bush, the latest ghosts in that country’s turbulent history. But last October, the war was accessible. Foreign journalists descended en masse into Goma, a town bordering Rwanda, and booked into hotels with picturesque views of smouldering volcanoes overlooking Lake Kivu.

The media could enjoy coffee and croissants for breakfast, drive up to the front line fighting or the squalid camps home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Congolese, then return to file stories and pictures in time for dinner and a night at the bar.

For the few there among us who had struggled for years trying to generate interest in Congo, the foreign press hoard was a bizarre, yet welcome scene.

I worked as a Reuters text correspondent in Congo and neighbouring Rwanda from late 2001 until late 2004, and have returned frequently since as a photographer, witnessing poverty, cruelty and bloodshed. During that time, I was also humbled by the resilience and generosity of many Congolese and often wished there was more I could do to make the outside world care about them.

The recent widespread media coverage has helped. There were so many photographers in Congo last year that there’s a running joke at photojournalism festivals and competitions this year about viewers and judges having to sit through “yet another picture story from Congo.”

But at least Congo, that beautiful, terrible place, became a highly visible story. It’s easy to be cynical about the idea of a devastating conflict suddenly becoming a trendy cause, but the important thing is that people are finally paying attention to one of the world’s worst catastrophes.

U.S. President Barack Obama referred to Congo’s troubles in speeches, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Goma in August and said she was moved by the plight of Congo’s women, many of whom are victims of extreme sexual violence and mass rape.

The conflict is driven by ethnic divisions and fierce competition for control over the country’s vast natural resources, including gold, diamonds, timber and other valuable minerals used in everyday Western gadgets such as mobile phones, remote controls and laptop computers.

Reuters recently organized an exhibition of work I produced while on assignments in Congo late last year and in February 2009. The exhibition, which includes sound, text and graphics outlining the conflict’s root causes and main players, opened October 9 at the War Correspondent’s Festival in Bayeux, France.

The festival is held in Normandy, not far from the site of the D-Day invasions and the historic scenes recorded by Robert Capa’s grainy images of the beach landings.

The venue for the Reuters Congo exhibition, which runs until November 1, is the Bayeux chapel in the same grand compound as the Bayeux Tapestry, a thousand year-old, 70 meter-long embroidered cloth depicting in images the Norman conquest of England. In such a context, the festival’s exhibitions take on greater significance.

While any war brings pain, loss and misery, the photographs we selected for the Congo exhibition aimed to explore not only these aspects, but also the strength of the Congolese people I’ve grown to admire. Shooting frequently with a very low depth of field, I wanted to extract my subjects from their surroundings and portray them as individuals with names and stories that matter.

Often in Congo death seems all around. But so too does life. I hope visitors to the show will not pity the people portrayed, but respect and feel connected to them, as I do.

Among those who attended the opening was Deo Namujimbo, a Congolese journalist whose brother, Didace Namujimbo, was shot and killed last year in the eastern town of Bukavu while working as a reporter for a United Nations radio station.

Deo fought for his brother’s murderers to be brought to justice, but after countless death threats himself, he fled with his family to neighbouring Burundi. Deo’s wife and children remain there as refugees while he now lives in exile in France, writing articles and reporting on the litany human rights abuses in Congo.

Deo thanked Reuters for putting on the exhibition. He didn’t need to. The show is about people exactly like him – Congolese who have suffered and lost. People who have fled their homes and been separated from their families, yet who persevere and hope that one day things will eventually get better.

For further work from Finbarr in Congo click on the following links.

- Full selection of images being exhibited

- Death all Around multimedia

- Congo Hairstyles

2 comments

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Thanks so much for your long and hard work. You have contributed to world consciousness. You are making a difference. It must have felt so lonely and futile at times, but you’ve done a great job and enriched us all.

I’ll try to get to Bayeux. All the best to you.

Thanks for the article. Photographers are often the first “eyes of the world” that are watching. It’s tragic when the photos remain silent and just can’t compete with the rest of the noise in the world. It’s hard to fathom 5 Million deaths in the bloodiest conflict since WWII, just passing under the radar.

I wish I could see the exhibit. I hope it goes on tour. I like what you’ve written about using the shallow depth of field to pull the subjects out of the environment/context, to focus on the fact that they are human with a narrative that we can probably relate to somehow. THey are not just more black faces in a news story about strife in Africa.

I had the good fortune to travel to West Africa, to The Gambia, this past March, to shoot a short educational documentary that aimed to show the resilience and savvy of the people there. Had the same experience where meeting the people one on one made us feel so surely that this is not a lost continent.