Congo in Conversation shows the value of local perspectives

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A new digital platform by Finbarr O’Reilly and Fondation Carmignac seeks to amplify local voices reporting during the pandemic

In late-January, Finbarr O’Reilly travelled to eastern Congo to document the end of the second-worst Ebola epidemic in history. As the 11th laureate of the Carmignac Photojournalism Award, the trip was to be the beginning of his six-month assignment examining how the social and ecological fabric of the country is progressing through the energy of the younger generation. The end of the deadly Ebola crisis, which killed over 2,200 people, was to be celebrated, but instead, another menace loomed: the beginning of a global pandemic which has killed over 300,000 people to date.

Red Cross burial workers the body of an 11-month old girl who died in the town of Rutshuru during the Ebola outbreak, February 2020.

O’Reilly returned to London just as the UK’s lockdown was being enforced in early-March — the likelihood of him returning to Congo was becoming very small. It was decided that his Carmignac project would be postponed, but the photographer was keen to reconfigure his plans.

“I had been thinking about how I could collaborate with Congolese journalists to include local voices and perspectives to shape the narrative around my project,” says the British-Canadian photographer. “This situation created the opportunity for me to do just that”.

Congo in Conversation is a collaborative digital platform that aims to document how Congo is coping with the pandemic through the voices of local photographers and journalists on the ground. Europe and the US are currently on the frontline of the crisis, but experts warn that the pandemic could shift to poorer nations already plagued by fraying health-care systems and fragile governments.

An empty classroom in DR Congo's capital Kinshasa in mid-March, 2020. Congolese authorities closed schools and shut down major commercial activities to enforce social distancing in a country where many people weren't taking precautions and didn't believe the virus was a threat to them during the early days of the pandemic. Justin Makangara/Fondation Carmignac

“This is a way putting the storytelling power into the hands of local journalists, to shape the narrative around their own country”

A member of the COVID-19 response wears protective equipment at the entrance to a building in the Gombe commune of Congo's Capital, Kinshasa, in mid-March, 2020. The responders were at the main entrance of the building to raise awareness among apartment residents about social distancing and to take the temperature of anyone entering or leaving the building, where there are around 75 families and offices. Justin Makangara/Fondation Carmignac

Having dealt with the recent Ebola outbreak, the Congolese government was quick to respond, and acted early in alignment with advice from the World Health Organisation. Still, millions of Congolese rely on the informal economy to survive, and despite the government promising free water and electricity during the pandemic, many still live without either.

These are some of the issues that are discussed in the platform’s most recent articles Electricity versus Coronavirus  by Justin Makangara, and Congo’s Informal Economy by Moses Sawasawa. Other content includes a video about how a group of dancers are adapting to the social distancing restrictions, and a personal report of a deadly attack that killed 12 rangers in Virunga National Park.

Vendors and shoppers at Kituku market on the shores of Lake Kivu in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, April 2, 2020. Many Congolese survive on their daily earnings and cannot afford to follow health advisories on maintaining social distance.
With schools closed during Congo's period of confinement, my 13-year-old sister Marie studies at home by the light of a mobile phone during one of the regular power cuts in Goma earlier this week. Arlette Bashizi for Fondation Carmignac.

Ultimately, the platform addresses the huge issue of representation within the photojournalism industry. “There is a very vibrant media in Congo,” says O’Reilly. “What this project does is amplify the work that they’re doing by bringing it to a wider global audience.” O’Reilly has been working on-and-off in Congo for the past 20 years, and “I’ve realised the importance and the value of local journalists telling their own story,” he says. “If you look at how Africa as a continent, and Congo specifically, tend to be reported on by western mainstream media, it is usually defined by foreigners and outsiders, which brings a certain perspective.” The angles that matter to Congolese journalists would be completely different to what O’Reilly might draw from a story. “This is a way of putting the storytelling power into the hands of local journalists to shape the global narrative around their own country.”

This is not the first time that O’Reilly has worked alongside local photographers. As last year’s Nobel Peace Prize exhibition photographer, he shared his space with seven leading Ethiopian photographers, curated by Aida Muluneh. “By doing that, we ended up with a much richer and nuanced exhibition than I could have had on my own,” he reflects.

These kind of collaborations raises the question of whether organisations should always be reporting collaboratively, with both foreign and local journalists. O’Reilly does not think it is always necessary to do so, but “what you do get is different perspectives,” he says. “The more views you have on a subject, the more complete picture you’re going to end up with.”

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.