How photojournalism contributes to change: Marcus Bleasdale’s work on conflict minerals

January 14, 2014 · by David Campbell · photography, politics

The hope that photojournalism can “change the world” is often expressed but rarely realised. We have examples of individual photographs improving the lives of individual people (as in the recent case where an AFP picture led to a homeless son being reunited with his family), but precious few contemporary instances where we can show pictorial work has helped bring about collective improvement. But last week there was an important development to which photojournalism was linked. Understanding the precise nature of that link is vital if we are to appreciate what photojournalism can and cannot be expected to achieve.

Intel announced that all its new microprocessors were now “conflict free,” made from minerals sourced from clean mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thereby no longer directly financing part of the conflict in that region. Intel achieved this by developing a system of tracing, auditing and certifying suppliers in the commodity chain that stretched from the mines to smelters to its manufacturing plants.

Intel didn’t do this alone. The company has been a major player in industry groups on the issue, including the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) Conflict-Free Smelter (CFS) program. In partnership with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other companies, it helped establish the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA) in 2011.

Intel was alerted to the significance of conflict minerals four years ago when the current CEO of Intel was approached by The Enough Project offering to work with the company on the issue, as part of its on-going campaign that also featured the usual tool of celebrity activism (with actress Robin Wright). Intel partnered with The Enough Project after deciding that simply sourcing minerals from another country was not going to aid the DRC (see embedded video for this information).

Collaboration and partnership were thus the hallmarks of Intel’s journey to conflict free microprocessors. This is how and when photojournalism comes in.

Marcus Bleasdale has a decade’s experience working collaboratively on conflict stories in Africa, and yesterday I spoke with Marcus to confirm these details. Beginning with the Congo and Darfur in 2004 he shared images with NGOs looking for ways to present their issues. This led to an alliance with Human Rights Watch (HRW) that culminated in The Curse of Gold, which examined how trading this resource on the global market helped sustain the war. After an exhibition of his Congo photographs organised by HRW in Geneva, Metalor Technologies, a leading gold mining company, announced they would no longer do business in the DRC.

With each trip to the DRC, even when he wasn’t directly commissioned by them, Marcus worked with both HRW and The Enough Project, benefiting from their research and occasional logistical support, sharing images, and providing talks and testimony for their campaigns. Three VII Photo multimedia stories supported the Consuming the Congo campaign, and the group exhibition Congo/Women spurred government support for combating sexual violence after being shown during a US Senate hearing in 2009. Legislative action – such as the insertion of a conflict minerals provision into the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act – kept the campaign rolling.

The most recent publication of Marcus’s DRC work came last October via a National Geographic commission, with his photographs part of the Price of Precious story that made clear “the minerals in our electronic devices have bankrolled unspeakable violence in the Congo.” He also reflected on the role of photography in these campaigns, and there are profound lessons here for understanding the function of photojournalism:

Let me say that an individual photograph can have a powerful impact. But the real power is what you do with it and whom you partner with.

It is our responsibility as photographers to use the work we create to make it the most effective it can be. We cannot stop wars with pictures, but we can provide the tools for the dialogue, which eventually will stop wars (quote from here)

To get through to people you have to show individuals touched by the conflict. That’s how you engage people, how you shock them to maybe change their behaviour. I want to repeat, though: It’s difficult for photographs to do this work on their own. You need an advocacy group to partner with who can knock on the doors of Congress and corporations. This advocacy work is as satisfying to me as taking a photograph.

Marcus stressed the commitment advocacy and collaboration required. In the last few years, nearly one-third of his time has been taken up with this issue, and in the last eighteen months he has devoted perhaps 80% of his time to the conflict minerals campaign. This includes much more than photography alone, as when he addressed the Mashable Social Good Summit.

Individual photos can help individuals, usually through a charitable response. Marcus’s photograph of Innocence, a young child who died needless from diarrhoea, raised tens of thousands of dollars for the St Kizito orphanage from readers (obviously unaffected by “compassion fatigue”) who saw it featured in National Geographic’s The Moment. But to go beyond commendable acts of charity and contribute to larger and more substantive social change means appreciating how photojournalism gets its power through collaboration. Photojournalism is one actor amongst many on long-term campaigns, and we should not have the unrealistic expectation it can be the sole cause of change.

Conflict minerals pose a significant challenge for photography generally. Intel’s decision to make conflict free microprocessors is a big step worth celebrating. But more companies have to address this issue, and many of the companies whose products are central to photography have poor records. Canon and Nikon, in particular, need to step up to the challenge. The company rankings of the Raise Hope for Congo campaign (an initiative from The Enough Project) show those big names at the bottom of the pile. Those of us who use their equipment need to find ways to encourage them to follow Intel’s lead. We have to work towards a time when the technology that captures and circulates pictures of injustice does not itself fuel injustice.

Video: “At CES 2014, Intel’s CEO and activists, including actor Robin Wright, discuss the quest for conflict-free technology and call upon industry leaders to join.”

3 Responses to “How photojournalism contributes to change: Marcus Bleasdale’s work on conflict minerals”

  1. Great example. Bleasdale’s quote (‘what you do with the photos, who you partner with’ etc.) is spot on. In truth, its not really rocket science, yet many NGOs/activists still don’t see the full value in this type of partnership – something that continues to surprise me. I think the whole debate on ‘can photos change the world?’ needs to move on though. Visuals (whether photos, film, animation, info-graphics) are one set of tools available for social activism. We need to judge their efficacy in the context of the role they play within a comprehensive and complex campaign (along side many other interventions) such as in the excellent example you write about here.

    • Thanks Rob. Agree totally that the whole ‘debate’ about photography and change must move on, giving up its cherished myth that somehow single images can, by themselves, change the world. No single thing can change anything substantively, as all social change occurs over time via multiple actors using many tools. The visual is a powerful tool when allied with others, but we should not perpetuate unrealistic expectations beyond that. As you say, when you look closely at actual campaigns, it’s not rocket science. I really hope photojournalism and activists can learn from the lessons of Marcus’s work.

  1. […] David Campbell: How photojournalism contributes to change: Marcus Bleasdale’s work on conflict mi… (David Campbell’s website) […]

Leave a Reply