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photography politics

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

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.”

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.14: Looking for agents not victims in Congo

 

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?

Categories
photography politics

The new visual stories of ‘Africa’

What is the visual story that needs to be told about Africa? Is there a pictorial strategy that can account for one billion people, living in 53 countries that occupy 12 million square miles, speaking two thousand languages, embodying multiple cultures and numerous ethnicities, with manifold intersections with our globalised world?

Would we even ask that question of the Americas, Asia or Europe? It is unlikely. Others are represented in ways designed to shore up the self and  ‘Africa’ is central to the formation of European and North American identity. This process embodies colonial relations of power that distill a complex, hybrid place into visual stereotypes that cast people and their place as superior/inferior, civilized/barbaric, modern/traditional, developed/underdeveloped and so on.

These stereotypes construct both conventional wisdom and its possible alternatives. Others can be reviled for their barbarity or exalted for the closeness to nature, but these options are no more than two sides of the same coin, and each distances ‘us’ from ‘them’. Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical account of how (not) to represent Africa captures this dual operation, and news coverage often sees ‘Africa’ as a place of either human misery or natural exoticism. ‘Africa’ is therefore a mythic space, the quotation marks signifying its production.

The visual story that needs to be told about ‘Africa’ is not a single story. It is a series of stories assembled to end the idea of a singular ‘Africa’. We need accounts of complexity, contrasts, and diversity that are drawn from the everyday as much as the exceptional. We need reports that are aware of their own construction and understand how they either affirm or challenge stereotypes.

There is plenty of photographic work that does that. It is too much to ask of each individual project that it ticks all the boxes, but what projects like African Lens can do is aggregate and curate the rich material being produced so that we can see how, in combination, these images enable stories that complicate the simplistic and deepen the superficial.

How this project is framed will go a long way to determining its success. If we do not go beyond the limits of either/or options we will be stuck replicating colonial dualisms. This means that:

  • we need to interpret photographs in terms of the work that they do in relation to stereotypes rather than via an outmoded commitment to ‘objectivity’ and its spouse, ‘subjectivity’. When it comes to reportage we should demand accuracy, but photographs are inescapably representations and never simply mirrors or windows;
  • we need to exceed the idea that optimism versus pessimism, and especially “Afro-romanticism” versus “Afro-pessimism,” defines the options for stories;
  • we need to support new developments in the multimedia practice of photography that can literally give subjects a voice for their own stories.

Government speaker at a political get together, Abidjan. Photo: Joan Bardeletti.

There are many recent photographic projects contributing to this re-visualization of ‘Africa’. Consider Joan Bardeletti’s work on the middle class in Africa alongside Finbarr O’Reilly’s story on white poverty in South Africa. Think of Andrew Esiebo’s portfolio of Lagos nightlife and Ed Kashi’s Niger Delta project, Michael Tsegaye’s pictures of working girls in Addis Ababa, Andrew Tshabangu’s documentation of Johannesburg and Marcus Bleasdale’s presentation of the Kimbangist Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa to name just a few.

The problem with stereotypes, as Chimamanda Adichie says, is “not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.” Because of this, the new visual stories of ‘Africa’ cannot ignore the issues of famine, injustice, poverty and war. While we can sympathies with Paul Melcher’s cry for no more “dying Africans,” we must have visual accounts of atrocities when they occur. However, they have to go beyond the stereotypes, as with the Condition Critical project on the Congo war or the coverage of human rights issues in Burundi and Malawi.

These are exciting times for visual storytellers, with the power of the web facilitating the global production and circulation of new photographic projects. There are many challenges involved in getting better stories to the right people, but the gatekeepers of the mainstream media no longer have total control over what we can or cannot see. If we appreciate how stereotypes have been produced and can be contested, we can, over time,  achieve the re-visualization of ‘Africa’.

The need to re-visualize ‘Africa’ is a major concern of mine, and with my colleagues DJ Clark and Kate Manzo, we established the Imaging Famine blog last month as a way of continuing our Imaging Famine project by aggregating and curating work that both confirms and challenges stereotypes.

Many people are contributing to the production and circulation of new photographic portrayals of ‘Africa’ , and to support the recent launch of African Lens I wrote an editorial that summarises what I see as the issues involved in this important effort. This post reproduces that editorial.

Featured photo: Media circus photographing an American Marine with a malnourished boy during Operation Restore Hope, Somalia, 1991. Paul Lowe/Panos.