Marco Gualazzini began documenting the conflict between the M23 rebels and the Congolese army in 2012. After winning the $10,000 Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography, he is now returning to the region to continue his work, reports Rachel Segal Hamilton
BJP: Before starting this project, you’ve worked in Kivu in 2009. What made you return to document the situation there in 2012?
Marco Gualazzini: I decided to go back because I have strong ties there, missionaries to whom I feel especially close. The Congo has also always fascinated me. It’s a vast land with an extremely tragic history of unresolved conflict, which has burst out over and over again with almost predictable timing for half a century, since the first massacres between Hutu and Tutsi in the sixties in Rwanda.
When I started out in photojournalism, those were the years of the genocide and the photographers who most inspired me, like [James] Nachtwey or Gilles Peress, were working in Goma. Nachtwey says in an interview that after documenting the genocide they went on to Goma because an epidemic of cholera had just broken out. Victims and aggressors were all mixed together there, suffering and dying. For him it was like taking an elevator to hell. The photographs of that time are shocking, and since those were the photographs that drew me to this profession, I feel a moral obligation toward the Congo.
BJP: What has changed since you were last there?
Marco Gualazzini: Fundamentally, since 2009 almost nothing has changed. Before there was General Nkunda, now Kagame. Before the rebels were called CNDP, now M23. Before they had amphibious boots, now their boots are rubber. What has changed? The look and the names. But the faces are the same.
BJP: Did you go on assignment or was this a self-initiated project?
Marco Gualazzini: It was self-financed. I work with the Italian magazine L’Espresso and have a direct relationship with the photo editor and editor-in-chief. Another journalist came with me. He and I had offered them the story and knew they were definitely interested. So we went.
We were there for a month in October. Then I came back to Italy and a couple of weeks later the M23 conquered Goma. I decided to go back, even though L’Espresso had already published our report. I thought that after spending a month in the besieged city, I really couldn’t fail to be there when it was conquered. Whether [my work] got published or not history was being made. I felt that ethically I couldn’t abandon the people who’d helped me, risking their own lives to enable me to file that report, people like Gustave, my driver, who has 10 children.
BJP: How do you begin to try to understand this conflict?
Marco Gualazzini: By talking to people. But it’s impossible to understand. At least, I can’t understand it. It seems simple on the surface: an ethnic conflict between Nilotics and Bantu. Then if you dig below the surface you see that the conflict revolves around who the land belongs to; it’s a sort of African Palestine. Then there’s the UN, accused of encouraging the war. Plus the interests of the super powers like China, France and the US, who are using ethnic hatred to maneuver these clueless puppets so as to grab the minerals that are the richness of Kivu.
Who knows what else? I come from another world, I speak a different language, I was raised in a different culture: how can I possibly expect to understand it, after a month, and then return to my comfortable world? What I know is what I see: my brothers and sisters living like animals – worse than animals – in a hostile land.
BJP: What logistical complications do you face working in an area under siege?
Marco Gualazzini: It’s not easy. It’s not easy to get around under these circumstances; it’s not easy to get around in Africa. I was lucky; I met people who helped me a lot because they hoped that through our reports their situation would come to the attention of international public opinion.
BJP: What does it mean for you to have won the Getty Editorial Grant?
Marco Gualazzini: The Getty Grant is one of the most prestigious awards and at the same time one of the most useful for someone in my profession. I still have trouble coming to terms with the fact that I, Mr. Nobody, have won it. Then, if I take a step back, I realise the grant isn’t to feed my ego as a photographer, but to allow me to be a bridge between you and them. I’m just a messenger. What matters is the testimony, the story, the message. The money will enable me to go back with a somewhat easier mind. But Africa, in these conditions, for someone in my profession, is extremely expensive. The money gives me a little room to breathe, but it won’t last long.
BJP: Have you thought about an end point? How long will you continue the project and how will you present your work?
Marco Gualazzini: I don’t know. As long as I can. Maybe even after the grant runs out. I don’t even know how I’ll present the pictures, all I know is that I’ve got Getty behind me, one of the best partners a photographer could desire, and this will enable me, for the first time, to concentrate more on taking pictures in the field, rather than on who I’m going to sell them to or how to present them. I take each day very much as it comes. All I know now is that I’m going back to the Congo. That’s all that matters.