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‘Congo in Conversation’: A visual journey by Congolese photojournalists

By Nicolas Michel
Posted on Wednesday, 20 January 2021 11:17

Vendors and shoppers at Kituku market on the shores of Lake Kivu. © Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac

Currently available online and in print, a “Congo in Conversation”-themed exhibition will be on display in Paris through 27 January. Touching on issues such as the environment, epidemics and youth activism, a dozen DRC-born photojournalists show their version of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Congo in Conversation is the captivating title of a collaborative reportage documented over the course of six months by Congolese journalists and photographers as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded.

An initiative of Fondation Carmignac and the laureate of the 11th Carmignac Photojournalism Award, Irish-Canadian photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly, Congo in Conversation was initially published in 2020 as an online chronicle. A print edition published by Reliefs Editions (€35, 128 pages) is now available and an outdoor exhibition is being held in front of Paris’s Tour Saint-Jacques through 27 January 2021.

Exhibit in Paris, 2021 (Jasmine Olivia Murphy)

The project’s stated goal is to provide “an outlet for Congolese voices to contribute to the global discourse, as their ideas, points of view and angles have too often been excluded”.

As O’Reilly highlights in his introduction, the country’s history has long been documented by foreign photographers, such as British missionary photographer Alice Seeley Harris, German photojournalist Robert Lebeck and Angolan photographer Jean Depara, to name a few.

The stamp of violence

“Through our photos that too readily draw on themes from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, we have marked the country with the stamp of violence and brutality,” O’Reilly writes in a frank mea culpa. “[…] To rewrite our stories about the Congo, Congolese artists must take centre stage, as outsiders have monopolised the field for too long. […] The dozen photojournalists – half of whom are women – featured in these pages are adding their own contributions to the conversation as the country comes out of the throes of the Ebola epidemic and works to tackle the coronavirus pandemic amid political tensions and ongoing violence in eastern DRC.”

Bukavu, DRC, August 2020. Sapeur Chrispin Floribert Sumaili, 25, shows off his style on a street in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu this month. Raissa Karama Rwizibuka for Fondation Carmignac

Congo in Conversation features photos from Arlette Bashizi, Dieudonné Dirole, Justin Makangara, Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro, Danny Matsongani, Guerchom Ndebo, Raissa Karama Rwizibuka, Moses Sawasawa, Pamela Tulizo, Bernadette Vivuya and Finbarr O’Reilly.

The work is divided into seven chapters: “Life”, “Health”, “Access to clean water”, “Electricity and hydroelectric plants”, “Environment”, “Politics and insecurity” and “Decolonisation”. This diverse range of topics encompasses several realities of modern Congolese life, including the lack of access to water and electricity, youth activism, and the burden of epidemics and conflicts.

READ MORE DRC today: 60 years of independence and uncertainty

“The challenge I faced in my work as editor and curator was to guide every photographer without imposing my ‘outside’ perspective or falling into the trap of the stereotypical representations we endeavour to avoid,” writes O’Reilly.

Exhibit in Paris, 2021 (Jasmine Olivia Murphy)

But the hole that history has dug is so deep that at times it is difficult to climb our way out of it. “We can’t disentangle the Congo’s wars and struggles from Belgium’s violent colonial legacy, nor from the fact that multinationals have been exploiting the country’s vast natural resources for decades,” he adds.

‘Break the chains’

Indeed, violence is heavily present in the chapters devoted to political insecurity and the lack of access to clean water. For curator Mark Sealy, director of London-based Autograph ABP, the country is still hampered by the colonial past and violent and devastating “external forces”: “The extraction of Congo’s natural resources by imperial corporate companies has, from the outset, overshadowed the idea of democracy or human rights,” he writes.

Virunga National Park, DRC, November 2020. A man stands by a smouldering kiln burning wood being turned into charcoal on a swathe of deforested land on the edge of Virunga National Park just north of the eastern Congolese city of Goma. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac

“Congo should or could be a wonderful dream for social development – and yet Congo’s progress as a state is problematic. That can’t just be because there are local, or regional, political fault-lines. The violence is fuelled by the dark markets of neoliberalism that continue the policies of extraction, which clearly lead back to the reign of Leopold II.”

READ MORE DRC: A history of pillage, destination unknown

The weight of the past thus makes it hard for Congolese photographers to “break the chains of those visual burdens, which represent African countries in a way that has been historically and culturally debasing”. In Congo in Conversation, some of the contributors succeed in this endeavour, though the deliberate choice to use dark prints on matt paper makes the exercise difficult.

Frank conversation

The series of photos in “Life”, done by Bashizi, Rwizibuka, Sawasawa and Vivuya, finally succeeds where others fail in moving beyond Western photographers’ favourite clichés, like the famous sapeur [dandy] subculture. The “Decolonisation” series by Rwizibuka and Tulizo portrays a certain optimism, capturing peoples’ determined gazes and a smile like that of “Linda Maroy, 20”, a young woman photographed enjoying a quiet moment on Lake Kivu on the 60th anniversary of DRC’s independence.

Women do each other’s hair in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu during Coronavirus confinement in May. Raissa Rwizibuka Karama for Fondation Carmignac

At bottom, Congo in Conversation is merely the beginning of a frank conversation. “Evening out the balance of power in photojournalism demands that the field mobilise for justice and equality so that photographers from Africa and other under-represented communities can access the financial gains that come with success. Not out of charity, but because it’s rightfully theirs,” says O’Reilly.

READ MORE DRC: Lumumba’s speech of independence was the nail in his coffin

But there is still a long road ahead in Africa and beyond, where photojournalists continue to come under repeated attack by political leaders and communications officials who swear by sanitised imagery and, if possible, falling in line.

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