• October 10, 2014

Snapshots: Recovering From a Photographic Fumble

“Isn’t that dangerous?” people usually ask when I mention my recent trip to eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Yes, though D.C. is pretty dangerous too,” I reply, usually playfully—although driving in the DRC can be rowdy even by Washington standards.

Picture of: DRC
Residents of Uvira bathe in Lake Tanganyika on a hazy Sunday morning. Uvira is near the northernmost reach of the lake, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I’m a photographic coordinator for National Geographic magazine. And contrary to popular thought, and what my mother tells her friends, my role does not require much travel. Typically, you’ll find me at the headquarters in Washington supporting our photographers working in the field and our photo editors working on feature stories. Nevertheless, like many of our staffers, I have my own creative outlets. As a photographer, I occasionally pick up assignments with NGOs.

My most recent assignment in eastern DRC was to document the Congo for Christ Center—an orphanage partnered with a western NGO. Located in the small city of Uvira on the northern shores of Lake Tanganyika, the orphanage is home to fifty-seven orphans, cared for by an assortment of community members.

Mattresses dry in the sun outside the Congo for Christ Center. Children sleep on the mattresses at night, then stack them, or put them outside during the day. The younger orphans share mattresses and there is a huge need for proper bedding.
Mattresses dry in the sun outside the Congo for Christ Center. Children sleep on the mattresses at night, then stack them, or put them outside during the day. The younger orphans share mattresses and there is a huge need for proper bedding.

Before the trip I read any report I could to understand the state and people of the DRC. The last time I was in sub-Saharan Africa on assignment I had been embarrassingly under-prepared, ignorant of even the basics—I didn’t even look at a map. This time, I wanted to know my facts before setting my boots over a little wood-and-metal bridge that connects Burundi to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I knew that the child labor rate (ages 5-14) was estimated at 42% in 2010; that 43.1% of the population is under the age of 14; and that DRC ranked 12th in the world for deaths by HIV/AIDS. If facts were physical, I would’ve needed a pack mule to haul them into the foothills of the Mitumba mountain range.

But looking back, it seems I over-corrected. Because of my research, I shouldered the burden of existing stories of DRC, and I carried a litany of notions about approaching the community. The result: a disastrous photographic fumble to see the reality on the ground, to adapt, to adjust, and then re-invest the limited time I had to getting a real story—not the story in my head. When I did cross that hectic border checkpoint, I arrived in a much different community than I had anticipated. There are some things that Google cannot experience for you. To be clear, I’m not communicating that research is bad. Instead, I quickly found out that assumptions, not research, are poison to successful journalism.

Picture of: An orphanage in the DRC
Echilo Machozi supervises Felix Batende, 12, as he waters the orphanage’s crops in the early morning on the CCC grounds. The orphanage is attempting to provide for itself in more sustainable ways, particularly by growing its own food.

The orphanage and the greater community of Uvira does indeed live with those very real and tragic circumstances that I mentioned. However, what was truly striking to me was how they lived in spite of these circumstances. Meals were prepared laboriously, giggling children rolled in the grass, people bathed in Lake Tanganyika on Sunday mornings, markets sold goods, schools taught French and mathematics…the customs of village life went on.

Nevertheless, the community is not free of burdens. For example, I learned that secondary-school girls often flee from men on the road attempting to take advantage of them. And I spent four days with a 13-year-old boy with polio who struggles to thrive—his condition is commonly believed to be a curse of witchcraft.

Picture of: An orphan in the DRC
Noe Mazamani, 14, was told at a young age that he was cursed by witchcraft. He later was found to suffer from polio. He is unable to participate in many activities with the rest of the orphans, although he makes his way down the mountain to school five days a week, forty-five minutes each way.

In recent years the influential images I’ve seen coming out of DRC have been of war, disease, conflict minerals, cyclical poverty, and ramifications from nearby genocides. I was looking to make pictures of rural children with AK-47s, rebels with machetes…anything I could land my lens on. But that wasn’t the ecosystem that I had stepped into. The orphanage was run better than most I’ve seen. The kids were well-dressed, considerably educated, and in relatively good health. These orphans only carried knives when cutting pineapples for dinner.

Picture of: An orphanage in the DRC
Ramazani Djumba, 17, rests between kitchen chores after carving pineapple for the evening meal. He and an assortment of older orphans have several responsibilities, such as washing clothes, tending the ‘shamba’ (garden) and aiding in the kitchen.

So I adapted. I had to. While the generators were running in the evenings, I reviewed my photos and found none of them to be very honest. To be quite candid, the majority of my catalog from the trip is rubbish. But once I began homing in on the reality of this community, I stepped into a vast, uncrowded plain of gray area. Sure, it wasn’t eventful photography, but it was an aspect of their world that I felt was missing from the media: a world free with possibilities, flush with serendipity. It facilitated a connection that creates compassion when I see the things I still cannot understand, like rape, poverty, and war.

Picture of: The DRC
Hariza Kidoge (center) stands hidden among bouquets of local plants on shore of Lake Tanganyika. He and five other orphans were baptized in the early morning by their faith leaders.

Unfortunately, on this trip, I didn’t realize it in time. Once I found an honest way to photograph this tiny corner of DRC, it was time to leave. To really succeed at this kind of work, I would have to go back again and again.

We need conflict photographers, we need humanitarian photographers—and I think we need photographers in the gray areas of normality. For me, the complexity of the middle ground is where I can relate with the community, where we can transcend the gaps between cultures and circumstances.

Jake Rutherford is a photographic coordinator at National Geographic. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 15 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Tira Wade
    October 20, 2014

    Bringing compassion to the forefront in these strife-torn places on earth, is an important role the media should be playing. So thank you for your photography and your insights into a glimpse of the DRC.

  2. Nina Rasmussen
    October 15, 2014

    Your story is very important for me, as a writer and photographer going to kurdistan, iraq. I hope i can be as honest as you.

  3. beverly litfield
    October 13, 2014

    I am so touched by your statements, and photographs! Thankyou for going beyond what I often think about when I think of such places as the Congo. Your piece has given voice to not only what is, but also what is becoming and what can be.

  4. Meena
    October 11, 2014

    Thank you so much. For your honesty and the pictures you clicked and your insights about journalism. Thank you. I hope you will keep on going again and again… All the best. M.

  5. Thelma Ablay
    October 11, 2014

    I am presently working in the government as Social Welfare Officer , and a part time college professor. Your article touched my heart and my inner conscience. I know that these are few of the many photographs you have taken, the reality of life in DOC, simple yet complicated. Complicated in the sense that their struggles to live is so hard. I am not a photographer but, I want to help in the modest way I can, so that the world may know where and how to help, most especially the children who are so dear to me. Count on me for any possible help, not financially but, the knowledge I know, if only I can reach them!

  6. wendy
    October 10, 2014


  7. Cameron D.
    October 10, 2014

    I am only in high school right now, but I hope to one day be telling stories such as this one. My dream is to work for National Geographic and to document life through my camera. This is a beautiful story. Your last sentences of this piece will forever stay with me as I learn and grow as a photographer.

  8. erbPIX™
    October 10, 2014

    Mr. Rutherford, your photographs are compassionate.

    Your insightful article makes an excellent point about being misled by preconceived ideas, and it speaks highly of you among photographers in general to have revealed that about yourself.

  9. Peter lindberg
    October 10, 2014

    Great article and story, very much liked the honesty and telling story, great job

  10. Kevin Wasner
    October 10, 2014

    Powerful story, and the accompanying narrative was a bonus.

  11. Kia
    October 10, 2014

    these people seem to live in a lovely looking area with open space to walk and be with nature….certainly much nicer than my subdivision … most of us cant just pack up and move because we don’t like our areas, most of us will perish where we stay …. people have more samenesses than differences

  12. Mark Balderson
    October 10, 2014

    Thanks for sharing

  13. Renee Reed
    October 10, 2014

    I love your pictures and your story. When I look at the children I see children that I know and love personally. I see how they have grown over the past 4 years since I first met them. These children and the adults who care for them are incredible examples of hope and joy. My first trip to Uvira and Congo for Christ was nothing like I anticipated either. My life has been changed by getting to know these beautiful people. I pray for them every day and know that they are growing and maturing into future leaders of Congo. It is a privilege to know them, love them, and invest in their lives. Thank you, Jake, for making this journey and beginning to tell their story. These children know that we love them, and cherish the relationships we have formed. They love us as well and all of our lives are richer through the bond we share. I hope you can go again.

  14. Rich Persoff
    October 10, 2014

    I appreciate your insights. Having once been a photographer, I see in many of your images of a person looking at you, a “Who are you? What right do you have to use my life for your own purposes?” scowl. If true, it was an honest response on their part, but not an accurate characteristic of the spirit of the place.

    From this experience you will next time do better at having people understand that you truly respect their lives, before you photograph them. And if you don’t have time to establish this bond and make photographs, let the photography go, whatever your editor says!

  15. Jenny Trucano
    October 10, 2014

    Lovely insights, Jake.

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