“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.