When Finbarr O’Reilly, winner of the Carmignac Award in 2020, embarked earlier last year on his project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he expected to cover the consequences of the second most virulent Ebola epidemic in history. Then the coronavirus reared up, and O’Reilly temporarily took on the role of editor, overseeing a group of local photojournalists as they documented the social, political, economic, and environmental aspects of the country.
Working together toward a more nuanced picture
“From the start, I thought of doing something collaborative. With this idea in mind, I met with journalists and photographers during my first trip in January . So when the coronavirus hit, Emeric Glayse, director of the Carmignac Prize, and I thought that we could do something along the lines of what I had done in Ethiopia,” O’Reilly explained. In 2019, he had received a commission from the Nobel Prize Committee to do a portrait of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, the recipient of the peace prize, and chart Ethiopia’s path to peace and democracy. In return, he had involved local photographers.
As a war photojournalist, O’Reilly has covered conflicts and humanitarian crises around the world, especially in Africa, where he has long resided. And while he knows the Congo very well, having shot many documentaries, he is aware of the limits of the outsider’s gaze. “There is a certain Eurocentrism that is hard to avoid, and which is very different from a Congolese point of view. And this is true no matter how much time one spends in the country.” To avoid this pitfall, he has worked this time with ten local photographers, invited to photograph their reality against the grain of the dominant portrayal by the international press. “The goal was to create a platform to discover Congolese photography, to break down biased perceptions and stereotypes.”
A wide range of topics
Although the situation is complicated by the Covid-19 crisis, the ten photographers have documented the situation in Congo from a variety of angles: starting with the infrastructure, including access to drinking water and electricity, and ending with the impact of the coronavirus on the protection of gorillas in the Virunga Nature Reserve. “They are a young, well-educated generation, at home with the media, and fed up with corruption and the way things have been done in the Congo, politically speaking. They are very involved in the media and popular education.” The catalog featuring a selection of photographs they have taken over the past six months is a case in point.
When it comes to the more surprising subjects, like a rollerblade race or intimate moments of daily life, which are few and far between, we must turn to the project’s digital platforms. “If local photographers simply reproduce what foreigners do, this may not be a game changer. However, this collaboration has only just begun. There is a long journey ahead of us. We have much to learn from one another, and this is a step in the right direction,” concluded O’Reilly.
This first part of the project is the subject of an exhibition in Paris this January, before the entire project, supplemented by Finbarr O’Reilly s fieldwork, goes on to be presented next autumn in book form and in another exhibition.
By Laurence Cornet
Laurence Cornet is the editorial manager at Dysturb, a journalist specializing in photography, and an independent exhibition curator based in Paris.
Exhibition: At the gates of the Square de la Tour Saint-Jacques, in Paris, 1er Arrondissement
January 6 to 27, 2021