A Red Cross undertaker shows a man how to put on protective gloves before examining the body of an 11-month-old girl who died during the Ebola outbreak in Rutshuru City, North Kivu Province in February 2020.
Finbarr O’ Reilly is a London-based photographer whose work has recently received the prestigious Carmignac Photojournalism Award. O’ Reilly had spent many years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and wanted to cover the region’s potential.
With this award, award winners generally receive 50,000 euros to cover travel expenses in connection with an O’ Reilly was permanently in London and was unable to continue his project in the Congo because of the borders due to the spread of the novel coronavirus were closed. Together with the Carmignac board, he developed an ingenious and unprecedented way to continue working in the Congo by sharing the award with eight local journalists on a project called “Congo in Conversation”. The journalists work closely with O’ Reilly and report on events in their neighborhood. Strict protocols are followed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We spoke to O’ Reilly about his decision and the discussion has been processed here for clarity.
How did you decide to approach the price this way?
The nature of this grant, As with many grants, it is awarded to an individual, and as in previous years, I was asked to create a work that would then be converted into a book and an exhibition. In view of our pandemic situation, this has of course been put on hold for the time being and we had to rethink how we should do it.
From the beginning, I tried to find ways of doing it. Working with Congolese journalists who were somehow hopeful, in a country that has only been developing for generations of exploitation, conflict, and malpractice and until goes back to the Belgian colonial period, which cast a really long shadow over the country.
Finbarr O’ Reilly
Red Cross undertaker the body of an 11-month-old girl who died in the city of Rutshuru during the Ebola outbreak in February 2020.
Part of my considerations regarding such an approach was that the Congo, like many other countries in Africa, is repeatedly portrayed in Western media, which does not represent a very differentiated view of the place. At the end of last year, I accepted the Nobel Peace Prize job as an exhibition photographer for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and I accepted the job before we knew who the winner would be, and it turned out to be Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
I realized that this was one of those dynamics in which a European or Scandinavian award is given to an African leader and a European will create an exhibition about an African leader. I also knew there was a really strong photographic community in Ethiopia, so I got in touch to talk about how we could work together. In the end, we shared the exhibition with several different photographers and me, and our work was presented equally, which was very nice. Three of the seven photographers attended the opening in Oslo.
This meant that the opening exhibition at the Peace Center in Oslo was much richer and more interesting, and the job I was tasked with was much better. And the Ethiopian photographers, who do not always have a global platform, suddenly had the opportunity to take part in this project too, so that everyone could benefit from it.
I was hoping to develop such an approach for the Carmignac Prize and in a strange twist of fate, I couldn’t travel because the borders were closed. As travel was limited for the foreseeable future, we began to discuss how we could take a similar approach and create a remote platform from which to share and collaborate with Congolese journalists, curate their work, and could have shown their ideas and voices, like in this pandemic that connects us all in one way or another around the world.
A member of the COVID-19 response wears protective equipment at the entrance to a building in the municipality of Gombe in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa in mid-March 2020. The emergency services were located at the main entrance to the building to raise awareness among residents of apartments through social distance and to measure the temperature of people entering or leaving the building, which houses around 75 families and offices.
To deal with these upheavals is strange for most people who are not used to disturbing their lives as many Congolese could do. It is a country that has had the deadliest conflict since World War II, malpractice, exploitation, Ebola epidemics, measles outbreaks, cholera outbreaks, and a host of really disturbing and in many ways traumatic events that have led to the people there Finding ways to enforce these things, which we have to do now.
You can learn a lot from this experience. In the sense that the Congolese were dealing with the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, they implemented the measures proposed by the WHO such as hand washing and social distancing very quickly. These measures were already in place in some areas where the Ebola outbreak was most severe. With regard to the closure of borders and measures that seem massively disastrous to us and are in many ways in the Congo, such things are not so unusual, although this is a very extreme situation for everyone involved.
How did you choose the journalist and story format?
We are at the very beginning of this project and are considering how it will work. I already knew some of the journalists, I met them while traveling or worked with them on site. For the others, I relied on the database for photojournalists in Africa compiled by World Press Photos. They have experience and we trust in the professionalism of their work, the integrity of their work and their ability to take reasonable precautions to ensure their safety and the safety of others, and to be careful to follow social detachment and hygiene measures when washing hands – such things. We don’t want to endanger anyone by reporting on this story.
Many of these journalists report on blogs, radio stations, or their own projects. This is a way to reinforce their voices on what they have already done, to take them beyond the communities that would already share this information, and to give them the platform that the Carmignac Prize can offer.
An empty classroom in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa in mid-March 2020. The Congolese authorities shut down schools and stopped important commercial activities to enforce social detachment in a country where many people took no precautions and did not believe the virus was one Threat to them in the early days of the pandemic.
This is future-oriented. What do you particularly hope for in the Congo?
My original proposal, which I submitted and was accepted by the jury, was “Congo after the Flood”.
The idea was really to be examined Be cautiously optimistic about where the country is now and where its short-term future could be. There are many reasons to be skeptical or to look at the Congo grimly about all these big problems in the past, but when you look at the way the youth movement questions these norms, it’s really fascinating. There is a youth organization called Lucha, a collection of artists and activists who are committed and trying to find out about the social change.
Despite all the problems related to uncertainty, some important things are happening that indicate certain improvements. Some of them concern hydroelectric power plants, mainly built near Virunga, to provide electricity and reduce deforestation related to charcoal, which is the main fuel source for a large part of the population. The idea is that by providing electricity, especially from renewable resources, the pressure on wildlife and forests will be reduced and jobs will be created for entrepreneurs and small businesses that can then employ people like unemployed young men who could otherwise be inclined to join a militia group and things like that.
From the project entitled Black Consciousness, an examination of our ideas about African women and beauty and how this leads to a deeper exploration of our self-esteem and self-confidence in our post-colonial context.
They also introduced new mineral supply chain laws to track the minerals used by companies such as IBM, Apple, Tesla for batteries for laptops and cell phones, etc. The government has created these new rules. To link this supply chain, my plan is to examine how this happens and whether it is really being implemented and enforced as it should be.
The other big problem in Congo is gender-based violence and rape. You have Nobel Peace Prize laureate Denis Mukwege in his hospital who has treated thousands of women over the years, but in addition to well-known organizations, there are also smaller groups, such as Congolese female human rights organizations, that are trying to change the status quo. What is acceptable in society? They have conducted these awareness campaigns to empower women and provide access to medical, legal, and psychological services, and are working to bring the perpetrators to trial not only for sexual violence but also for domestic violence.
So there are many challenges and there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the Congo, but the focus of this project was to find out where things are being pushed by individuals and small groups of people who are really tough positive changes are pushing, especially at the local level. The idea behind the project as it now remains the same.
What local journalists say is that poverty in Kinshasa is really increasing amidst the existing closures. People can’t sell their goods, they can’t make money to eat, and as much as this contributor wants to cover the level of poverty, the focus is really on how people handle it and what inventive and ingenious ways people find A way forward despite all the challenges they face every day.
This is one of the paradoxes of the Congo: it has so much potential, so much resource, and what you see in this story of abuse and abuse and misregistration, but you have a younger generation of activists and people, who have enough and really push for change, and my focus was on those people pushing for change in the face of these massive obstacles to progress.
Since the schools were closed during the Congo detention, my 13-year-old sister Marie is studying at home during one of the regular blackouts in Goma earlier this week in the light of a cell phone.
Is your hope just visibility for the potential or other goals?
I think there are a few things that really happen together. In the beginning, it is this idea that stories on the continent have been defined by Western media for so long, dominated by people who look like me: white, male, photojournalist. This dynamic has changed as African photojournalists find a way to find their perspectives with an outside audience, and this is one way that helps. It shares this power of storytelling with Congolese journalists so that they can really shape the narrative about their country and act in a way they think is right, and then yes so that this narrative reaches a wider audience and only includes what is in our Country is happening to the world at this very bizarre time.
I am in contact with the photographers and photojournalists almost every day at this point and only ask what is going on in their area and in their neighborhood because there are obviously no people around. I do not travel long to report.
I really rely on them to tell me what’s happening, what is important, and they will send text and images, and we will work together to ensure that the photographic part of that Photographs are of a high aesthetic level that we can possibly offer. Some of the photographers we work with are more experienced than others, and it will be a learning process for everyone to maintain a standard that matches the Carmignac vision.
In early April, three days after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the eastern city of Goma in the Congo, a woman in the Katoyi district is given a disinfectant where residents do not have easy access to water.
I think this is the first time in its 11-year history that the fund is doing something like this – not only funded a commission from a diverse team of local photojournalists but also something not entirely in real-time – it’s not a news agency – but we are will share pictures that are a few days, a few weeks, maybe a few hours old instead of waiting six months for the exhibition and the book.
So this is a new way of looking at things for the project, and I am very pleased that this is the first time that we are doing it, even though the dictating circumstances are very worrying for everyone.
In an industry, It is so male-dominated that about half of the people involved in this project are women, and this is important, especially in a society that can still be paternalistic, and I hope that we can add more women later. The nice thing about starting in the past few days is that it is me. When I hear from all types of people interested in participating, I would expect this list of contributors to grow. I see this as an ongoing project that we expect to take at least the next few months. We will see how things go in the next few months and will adjust as the situation develops. My project is still planned. I still plan to return to the Congo to do my six-month coverage at some point.
Sellers and buyers at the Kituku market on the shores of Lake Kivu in Goma, the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, April 2, 2020. Many Congolese live on their daily income and cannot afford health advice to maintain social distance follow.