A new generation of photojournalists is making its mark in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Aiming to show the country's beauty and imperfections without bias, these Congolese journalists have won awards as they have worked with some of the world's leading media outlets: The New York Times, Agence France-Presse (AFP), The Washington Post, and others.
Thee photojournalists have documented noteworthy events, such as the deadly eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano in 2021, the geopolitical conflict between the DRC and Rwanda, and political turmoil. In doing so, they have helped expand the opportunities available to photographers in the region.
COVID-19 as a gateway
“For a long time, the doors were closed to young photojournalists,” said Arsène Mpiana, a photojournalist who teaches photography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kinshasa, and works as a freelancer for Jeune Afrique, RFI and Der Spiegel. The lack of Congolese photographers led to a lack of diversity in images and themes. Until a few years ago, the images of the DRC were almost entirely on subjects of “famine, misery, political conflicts, sexual violence or insecurity, commissioned by humanitarian organizations,” said Guy Muyembe, manager of Afrik Pic, and co-founder of Habari DRC.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which halted most international travel in and out of the DRC, opened the doors for many young Congolese photojournalists. Finbarr O'Reilly, a British-Canadian freelance photographer who was prevented from continuing his working in the DRC during the pandemic, decided instead to work directly with young local photographers on the ground for his "Congo In Conversation" project.
“Through our images, which all too easily adopt the themes of [the novel] Heart of Darkness, we have marked the country with violence and brutality. In order to reformulate our narratives about the Congo, Congolese artists must occupy the central place so long monopolized by foreigners,” O’Reilly wrote in the preface for the book.
Through Congo in Conversation, 11 Congolese photographers participated in a series of reports on the pandemic, security in the East, health challenges during Ebola outbreaks and environmental conservation issues. “This project has been a boon for several Congolese photojournalists in terms of their international recognition,” said Arlette Bashizi, who works for the AFP and contributed to the book. "For a number of us, it was from this project that we started to make a living from photography.”
Riding the wave of "Congo In Conversation," which won the 11th Carmignac Photojournalism Prize, Congolese photojournalists quickly found ways to further collaborate with international media. Guerchom Ndebo, winner of the 2021 Albert Khan Photo Prize organized by AFP, saw his work on the coverage of the Nyiragongo volcano explosion in May 2021 published by Radio France International, CNN and the New York Times, among others. The coverage opened doors to cover more news in the DRC, including through his current work with Getty Images and AFP.
“It is important for us to tell our stories,” said Moses Sawasawa, who was awarded a long-awaited accreditation by the Associated Press (AP) in 2021. "Beyond the knowledge of the field, it's important [because] our photos are self-portraits. We tell the stories of our mothers and grandmothers who live through wars and show their resilience.”
Congolese media has traditionally given a lion's share of coverage to men, and gender equality has not been reached in the country's current media environment. Yet, women photojournalists are making strides to change this, and benefiting from increased recognition. “I chose this form of journalism because I believe that it is possible to inform [my community] with my camera," said Bashizi. "I made the choice to show [photographs], inspired by the growing trend of the love of images in the country."
Notable women photojournalists include Bashizi’s colleague, Pamela Tulizo, who reports on events in the DRC for the New York Times and whose photographic artwork on the media's portrayal of Congolese women was awarded the Prix Dior in 2020, as well as Ley Uwera, who covers the Congo Basin with photos published in Le Monde, Al Jazeera, the BBC and The Washington Post.
"[They] are helping show some faces without pre-set angles, and show that in the midst of conflicts and challenges, there are people who are doing their best to change their situations,” said Bashizi of these women photojournalists.
Despite the successes, challenges persist. “There are still the challenges of overcoming the barrier of permission refusals for certain situations, such as with the authorities or when I cover war zones where rebels are my subjects of work,” said Sawasawa.
Obtaining permission to film in the country is also a major barrier. “Authorities exaggerate when it comes to giving permission for filming. It costs up to US$1,000 for a foreign filmmaker, which is a hindrance,” said Caroline Thirion, a Belgian filmmaker who has been working in the DRC for 20 years. “It’s one of the countries where it is very complicated to make images, even for Congolese directors. It's annoying that photographers are not allowed to take pictures in certain places in town, despite their authorization."
Physical safety is yet another concern. Ndebo remembers the risks he faced shooting his series, “Les Forêts du Kivu,” in the area around Kahuzi-Biega National Park. "[It was] surrounded by rebel groups, where the utmost caution is required,” he recalled.
A trend for the future?
“If photojournalism has long remained discreet, it is also because it was not taught, and young people were not told about it,” said Didier Makal, founder of Congo Durable, and director of Kyondo Radio and Television. This is changing, explained Ndebo: “Until a few years ago, photojournalism was a sort of sideline for editorial journalists. Our generation is essentially dedicated to photography."
As the internet becomes more accessible for many in the DRC, there are more opportunities from international media for photojournalists in the country. These emerging photojournalists are meeting “a demand from both consumers and information professionals in the country,” said Muyembe.
“Digital platforms and social media are putting the photojournalist back in his place,” said Makal. “I know more and more young photojournalists. If it's not just a fad, we'll see it over five or 10 years.”