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The DRC Through the Eyes of Congolese Photographers

The DRC Through the Eyes of Congolese Photographers

Prompted partly by the health crisis, the Carmignac Photojournalism Award has transformed this year into a collaborative project that explores the notion of representation in the Democratic Republic of Congo and spotlights local journalism.
Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, April 2, 2020. Vendors and shoppers at Kituku market on the shores of Lake Kivu. Congo has one of the highest rates of informal workers in the world with about 80 per cent of urban workers involved in the informal economy, according to the World Bank. The Trade Union Confederation of Congo estimates that nationally the informal economy represents an astronomical 97.5 per cent of all workers. © Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac

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 [2020]. 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.

Neighbours and Red Cross workers in protective clothing prepare to bury an 11-month-old girl who died during Congo’s Ebola outbreak in the town of Rutshuru in Congo’s North Kivu Province, February 2020. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac

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.”

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, April 27-28, 2020. With schools closed during Congo’s period of confinement, and the city implementing regular power cuts, my 13-year-old sister Marie studies at home by the light of a mobile phone. © Arlette Bashizi for Fondation Carmignac

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. 

Northeastern Ituri Province, DRC, February 2020. The likeness of a Congolese soldier stands in a field near the village of Tche in Congo’s northeastern Ituri Province in mid-February. With few government forces in the area villagers from the Hema community erected the likeness in the hopes of warding off armed members of the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO), an armed political-religious sect drawn from the Lendu ethnic group that has been blamed for a wave of killings in the province over the past two years. © Dieudonné Dirole for Fondation Carmignac

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.

Goma, DRC, May 2020. Vulnerable children gather for a shared meal at a muslim community centre in Goma during Ramadan last week. © Ley Uwera for Fondation Carmignac

By Laurence Cornet

Laurence Cornet is the editorial manager at Dysturb, a journalist specializing in photography, and an independent exhibition curator based in Paris.

Bukavu, DRC, May 2020. Anglebert Maurice Kakuja, 29, a Sapeur, or Congolese dandy, shows off his fashion sense while wearing a homemade mask in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu this week. Sapeurs take their name from the acronym for their group: SAPE, meaning Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or “elegant persons who create ambience”. © Raissa Karama Rwizibuka for Fondation Carmignac

Exhibition: At the gates of the Square de la Tour Saint-Jacques, in Paris, 1er Arrondissement
January 6 to 27, 2021

Book publication: Congo in Conversation
Jointly edited by Reliefs and Fondation Carmignac
Bilingual French/English
128 Pp, €35 / $45
Available here.

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