Paula Allen’s photograph of the women who helped build a centre for rape survivors in Bukavu, eastern Congo, is a bold depiction that combines celebration and power. As the double-page lead to Katherine Viner’s story on the City of Joy project in Saturday’s Guardian Weekend magazine, Allen’s photograph departs from much of the conventional reportage of the endemic violence against women in this conflict.
From the outset Viner’s story gives the women concerned a voice through the powerful speech of ‘Jeanne’, and Allen’s photos do the same, manifesting the importance of looking for agents not victims. As a Congolese project meeting the needs of Congolese women, the City of Joy project demonstrates that there are strong indigenous responses to the use of rape as a weapon of war. This theme and Allen’s images reminded me of the cliche-challenging work of Aubrey Graham (go to Images/Beyond the Victim (DRC) on her website).
Numerous photographers have documented the war in the Congo, and many of these projects have incorporated the stories of rape victims. (For multimedia examples, see the Sydney Morning Herald project “Sexual Warfare in the DRC“, Jean Chung’s “Tears in the Congo” or Robin Hammond’s “Rape of a Nation“). In many ways its remarkable that women who have suffered so much are so willing to speak.
Last summer Aric Mayer wrote an incisive analysis of the problems associated with the photography of sexual violence. He summarised his concerns:
The issues brought up in photographing rape survivors are complex and potentially harmful to the subjects. The ways that photography, video and film function as representative media, and the economies and markets within which they are funded, produced, distributed, achieve recognition and ultimately widespread public exposure can mirror in some ways the trauma of sexual violence.
The possibilities for increasing the trauma are significant. There is the imposition of another person’s vision upon one’s personage, the loss of control over one’s likeness, the potential for permanent and public association with one’s trauma, the problem of consent when one is asked for it by someone in a position of power, and the commodification of one’s own suffering.
The dilemma here is that the normal photographic strategies for “giving an issue a face” can lead to a perpetuation of the original trauma. As Aric concludes:
Publishing names, faces and stories increases the overall reader/viewer engagement with the story. Therefore media pressure will frequently be in the direction of increased disclosure. It also permanently associates a survivor with their trauma in a world where the internet is increasingly available.
Despite the many stories of rape victims already produced, new work is planned. One example is the “Besieged” project that is pitching for crowd-funded support on Emphas.is. A collaboration between Sarah Elliott, Benedicte Kurzen, Ying Ang, and Agnes Dherbeys, they “have come together for this project to remind the world about the horrors of systematic rape in Eastern Congo.” I am not arguing for or against support for their project, though I have reservations about the assumptions linking visibility to political action that are behind the pitch. In a comment on the Emphas.is blog back in January, I suggested they take heed of Aric Mayer’s analysis, and Benedicte replied positively to this suggestion. However, that doesn’t seem to have had an impact on their public call, which details how they intend to construct “a large-scale PORTRAIT INSTALLATION of as many of the women, men and children raped over a 4-day period in Walikale of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as possible.”
While I can’t fault either the commitment or the desire of the “Besieged” partners to do something productive, are more portraits of rape victims – including children – the best way to go? They do outline other dimensions to the project, but pictures of victims are at its core. What if the “representation of the humanity of these people” paradoxically mirrors the trauma of sexual violence? Might not an emphasis on the agency of victims, as in the photographs of Paula Allen and Aubrey Graham, be a more accurate and engaging visual strategy?