All photographs by Finbarr O'Reilly
For several decades, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been engulfed in multiple crises - from war to outbreaks to economic turmoil. Living conditions have rapidly deteriorated, and currently, the DRC is ranked 175th out of the 189 countries in the Human Development Index. Since 2017, over 5 million people have been displaced, and a further 19.6 million are in need of humanitarian aid, accounting for around 23% of the countries population. The DRC has also experienced multiple disease outbreaks, and the current COVID-19 pandemic could lead to widespread famine. But despite the recurrent crises and the global nature of the pandemic, the DRC remains largely undocumented in the western world.
Congolese displaced by fighting stand by the roadside north of Goma in eastern Congo. November 11, 2008.
Finbarr O'Reilly is an Irish-Canadian photojournalist who has spent the last 20 years documenting conflicts and humanitarian crises in countries around the globe. Finbarr has gained recognition for his work on numerous occasions, coming first place in the 2019 World Press Photo Portraits category, being chosen as the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize exhibition photographer, and recently winning an Emmy Award for his documentary Ebola in Congo.
We first asked Finbarr where he drew inspiration to document humanitarian crises with photography.
"I started off as a writer working for newspapers in Canada, but I had always wanted to work overseas, so I took a job with Reuters in the DRC in 2001. This was right after the 9/11 attacks, so most of the global news focused on Afghanistan and Iraq - not on the DRC. This meant that our stories from central Africa, even though significant, did not get much prominence in the western news media network.
Around the same time, I began to experiment and drew inspiration from a couple of my photographer friends who often published their pictures with my stories. I decided to give it a shot and start taking my own pictures and have them published alongside my stories.
Soon, they began to appear in newspapers and magazines, and it made me realise that a great way to attract attention towards stories and subjects was through photography due to its immediate, emotional impact - something which can't be replicated by words."
Conflict in Congo
Over the past 20 years, the DRC has had eight major conflicts. The violence stems from the refugee crisis that followed the 1994 Rwanda genocide, in which nearly 1 million Hutu refugees settled in the neighbouring DRC. These refugees also included genocidaires (those guilty of the 1994 Rwandan genocide) who were plotting against Rwanda's post-genocide government. Soon after, opposing Tutsi and other opportunistic rebel groups arose in the DRC. The Congolese government was unable to contain the sparks of violence, and eventually, war broke out. As a reaction to the foreign and foreign-backed groups, dozens of local militias emerged, sparking further conflicts, which are present to this day.
A Congolese government soldier wearing a wig smokes by the roadside near the front line, north of Goma in eastern Congo. November 11, 2008
One particular conflict that Finbarr has documented is the Kivu conflict – an ongoing conflict that has displaced more than 1.4 million people and led to hundreds of thousands of excess deaths.
A prisoner with bond wrists pleads while being beaten by government soldiers just outside Goma in eastern Congo. November 23, 2008.
At the same time as documenting this crisis, Finbarr was also searching for potential photographic styles and decided to use portraiture when documenting the Kivu conflict.
"I was still finding my voice, but I decided to focus on portraiture. I enjoy photographing people in ways that feel dignified and respectful and also involve a degree of collaboration and consent. I think it is crucial to maintain a respectful interaction with the people."
Serafin Nyanzaba, 17, who has been displaced by war, wears a newly done traditional Congolese hairstyle at the Don Bosco centre in Goma. November 20, 2008.
Since 1999, $8.74 billion has been spent on funding the UN peacekeeping effort in DRC. But despite this, the conflict hasn't seemed to subdue. We asked Finbarr what he thought about the peacekeeping mission.
"What has it actually accomplished? I don't think it has been hugely successful, but what is the alternative to a UN peacekeeping mission as flawed and as damaging as it can be?
Peacekeeping operations do have an important role. However, they can be very bureaucratic and inefficient, and I think that is certainly the case in the Congo where you have one of the largest peacekeeping operations with nearly 18,000 troops operating, yet it has been largely ineffective."
Health in the DRC
Red Cross burial workers and mourners attend the funeral of an 11-month-old girl, who died during the Ebola outbreak. Rutshuru, North Kivu Province. February 2020.
COVID-19 is mainly being covered in the western world despite being a global pandemic. The media has shown indifference to what is happening in developing countries such as the DRC. Finbarr has taken advantage of the powerful nature of photography as a means of shedding light on the impacts of the pandemic. However, instead of making this a personal project, Finbarr has amplified and encouraged the voices of local photographers, helping them to take back control over the world's perception of Congo.
"Through Congo in Conversation, we created a platform that enabled Congolese photographers to document the situation in their own country and ensure that it was included in global discourse. It is important for Congolese photographers to reassert their own perspective on their country; to portray a place that is more than merely defined by violence and war while looking at what the root causes of that war and that violence were."
Neighbours and Red Cross workers in protective clothing prepare to bury an 11-month-old girl who died during Congo’s Ebola outbreak. Rutshuru in Congo’s North Kivu Province, February 2020.
Finbarr touched on the importance of encouraging Congolese photographers to document the situation in their own country.
"Congo's narrative has long been shaped by a colonial lens that absolves the imperial legacy of extraction, dispossession, exploitation and violence from any responsibility. These actions have turned one of the world's wealthiest lands into an impoverished state weakened by conflict, outbreaks, fragile governments, poor infrastructure, and ongoing foreign exploitation. In essence, this project is a reimagining of the DRC and a rewriting of our collective colonial amnesia, which requires Congolese artists to assume the central storytelling role in their own country.
This is also an issue very close to me as the material exploitation of the Congo even applies to the photographic historical record of the country on some level, as foreign journalists have documented the country and earned money from it."
Red Cross burial workers carry the body of the 11-month old girl. Rutshuru in Congo’s North Kivu Province. February 2020.
While some foreign journalists have used photography for primarily lucrative purposes, local photographers do not have the same opportunities to gain recognition on the international stage due to limited financing and support. Finbarr aims to change this with Congo in Conversations:
"We aim to put the storytelling power into the hands of Congolese journalists but with the financial support and exposure that is necessary to create an international platform. This should allow their work to be seen beyond their borders, and that's done in collaboration with myself, the Carmignac program, and the Congolese photographers involved."
The humanitarian crisis in the DRC is by no means close to a resolution. Nevertheless, Finbarr remains optimistic and sees "light at the end of the tunnel." However, as evident by the lack of success from the world's largest UN peacekeeping programme, the solution must be internally driven. Fortunately, Finbarr has observed an increase in social activism stemming from the younger generation's determination to alter the course the DRC is on.
"What I have seen is a younger generation, along with photographers, that is tired of poor leadership and corruption. They are the ones driving the social change at a community level, and these local initiatives will improve the situation incrementally, hopefully bringing stability to the country."
The DRC has a long road ahead. However, support and awareness are vital in ensuring the DRC heads towards a path of stability and peace. Although the solution has to be internally driven, photographers such as Finbarr are aiding the DRC by developing understanding and cognisance within the international community, thereby widening the narrow-minded perspectives on the Congo through the lens of photography.
Co-authored by Matias and Finley, who contributed equally to this work.