Congo in Conversation, co-published by Reliefs Editions and Fondation Carmignac. Book cover : left © Moses Sawasawa, right © Raissa Karama Rwizibuka – Photos © Olivier Moritz pour Reliefs
They have documented militia attacks, political unrest, protests, economic upheaval, the environment, fashion, daily life, the end of an Ebola epidemic, and more. Congo in Conversation will continue to publish monthly on this site, and weekly on Instagram.
Now, a selection of the work featured on this site has been published as monograph, with an introduction by Dr. Mark Sealy, curator and Director of Autograph gallery in London, and author of “Decolonizing the Camera: Photography in a Racial Time.”
Below are edited excerpts from his introductory text, taken from a conversation with Finbarr O’Reilly, Laureate of the 2020 Prix Carmignac, and Emeric Glayse, Director of Carmignac Photojournalism Award.
Congo’s violence begins with Belgium’s King Leopold II. The colonial experience forged back then set the scene for the colonial violence conducted on the African continent from the early 1900s up to African independence, through and beyond the politics of the Cold War. We can’t afford, as we go forward, to forget what happened in the past. What happened in Congo is so catastrophic, in terms of the damage; the politics of extraction are fundamental to the encounter with Europe.
The politics of dividing the space, the kind of internal turbulence that’s brought forth in those encounters, must be recognized. We must look in detail at the industrialization of the colonial process and who profited from it. We must look at the colonial process as a fundamental disregard for human life and the fact that it’s never really been reconciled in any meaningful way. By not bringing Congo’s disasters to the forefront, it means all those who suffered the horrors of those regimes are culturally and historically erased. It was convenient for Europe to look at Congo as a site of political failure internally. But when we see it through the lens of all those external forces imposing themselves, then our understanding of Congo becomes different. These forces today are still violent and just as devastating as they have always been, on every level.
The extraction of Congo’s natural resources by imperial corporate companies has, from the outset, overshadowed the idea of democracy or human rights. 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 fueled by the dark markets of neoliberalism that continue the policies of extraction, which clearly lead back to the reign of Leopold II.
If Belgium wants to reconcile the past by beginning a different conversation or a more honest conversation, I guess that’s what people really want. If we can first of all apologize, and then realign the narrative, we change history and the global educational context. That way, both local and global populations can understand the nature of those colonial realities. If we look at the development of Europe on the back of that colonial chapter, then we possibly arrive at a place of justice, which is more important than reconciliation. What people really feel aggrieved about is this idea of: where does justice live? That needs to be mapped out. What does that look like?
If we say photography is around 180 years old, then we’re going to need another sense of photography (to develop and to encourage new ways of seeing that challenge photography as an inherently racialized medium that maintains a white or Eurocentric perspective). All of this will take decades, if not centuries, to push back. Its present unpicking will help push back some of the debasing historical images of the Black subject. If you look in the archive, it’s full of broken Black bodies, especially around conflict. When there are internal European conflicts, the body often gets treated very differently. It’s evident in the work and in the public’s emotional responses to those images. When you’re looking at subjects, whose lives do we value? If we can get to a place where the value of an African person or a Black person caught up in conflict is treated with care and compassion, then we can begin to make some progress.
If local photographers are being trained just to reproduce what was going on before, then that’s not going to alter anything. If they’re service providers to Western news media, that’s a problem because of the nature of the client: picture editors with preconceived ideas of what the story or subject should look like. What we have to do, on this side of the Equator, is think about how we help generate and tell those more complex stories, to help audiences see differently. We must break the chains of those visual burdens, which represent African countries in a way that has been historically and culturally debasing.
The African soldier is far too often portrayed in the guise of a savage; it’s like all African soldiers are savages. Yet we know that African soldiers played an incredible part in the liberation of Europe during both WWI and WWII. That has been almost erased from history, and that form of erasure has to be halted.
ON SHIFTING NARRATIVES THROUGH CONVERSATION
If you’re going to do a show or a book, how we place the images against each other, how we work in the wider context of trying to unpick what’s going on in those moments. That is the really hard work and that is when we can begin to think about the way images influence culture. It’s a process, it’s not fixed. It’s a learning journey.
Change looks like that place where I see you, first and foremost, as someone who is my equal and someone that I have to take responsibility for. It’s a reciprocal exchange. In that cold colonial way of being, we’ve forgotten to take full responsibility for the humanity of the other. That means that we can turn away from the migrant, the refugee. That means that we can use these people as parts for our own making. That means that we don’t essentially care for them. We can go through the lens and use their bodies to say the things that we want without including them. That’s because we haven’t been generous. We haven’t taken proper responsibility. We’ve taken something. We’ve used that space to further our own sense of greatness in that space. All those conversations are not about somebody else; they’re not about inquiries. They simply reflect the taker. A conversation, if it’s authentic, should be: ‘I’m talking to you. You’re talking to me. And we’re sharing ideas.’ Maybe we should simply listen more to what people have to offer, while there is still time.