Advocacy, the other way: "Why Congo Matters"

The discussion around MSF UK's controversial video sparked quite a lot of comments around the topic 'How do you portray aid and poverty' or 'How do you make people think about these subjects'.

So I thought it is a good idea to show another way. A way that touched me. Meet Emily Troutman.

Emily TroutmanEmily Troutman is a writer and photographer living in Washington. She just came back after a month travelling around Kivu, in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She made a video collage of her pictures, mounted it with some gripping music and appropriate text. Its simplicity took me in, and contrasted sharply with the MSF video we talked about a few days ago. Have a look for yourself:

I contacted Emily, and we had an interesting exchange:

Why did you make this video?
Emily: It was a rare opportunity to give voice to an issue that at this moment only exists at the fringes of the mainstream media.

Was this your first trip to rural Africa?
Emily: I also traveled with UNOCHA in the Gulu area of Uganda in 2006. I took some wisdom and knowledge from that trip into Congo. For example, I already knew what real poverty and starvation looked like, so I was able to pay attention to what could maybe be called higher-level needs, but are still urgent: space, pots to cook in, blankets. Of course in Congo, the biggest issue is safety.

What was different in the experience between the two trips, Congo and Uganda?
Emily: In Congo, I generally saw less hungry people, but still some malnutrition, and a whole new complexity of issues facing internally displaced people (IDPs). In Congo, IDPs are still running in a way that they were not in Uganda in 2006. I was also profoundly impacted by the enormity of the jungle in Congo. My four day trip to Pinga, through an area where civilians and aid workers have been shot, really brought home the sense of danger that the Congolese face in simple day-to-day tasks like gathering wood, or walking to market.

These are areas where the authorities or even the people, are not always happy to see a photographer
Emily: The DRC was a very frustrating place to take photos because the work I was doing was technically illegal.
It is exceptionally difficult to get permission to take photos there, so most of the time when I shot, it was in IDP camps or traveling with UN MONUC escorts. I have a profound respect for those photographers who risk their lives to take photos of the military or shine light on issues like child soldiers.

But DRC.. So many have published stuff about the DRC?
Emily: I recognized that Congo, like so many intractable problems, has a way of receding into the noise of daily life. Even for me, it became one of these world crises that are too far away and too foreign to matter on a daily basis. It becomes hard to summon the energy to pay attention. Like, why even look at the issue if I can’t do anything to help?

And did you? Did you help?
Emily: I wanted to go, just so I could see. And ultimately, to decide if that experience of seeing and sharing what I saw could transform how all of us think about Congo, and more generally, the problems of “other people.” Although I have written and photographed similar issues in the past, Congo seemed uniquely overlooked, especially in light of the scale of its tragedy.

People talk a lot about “awareness” and “action” and “making a difference.” But honestly, this was not an aspiration of mine. I only wanted to be open to the moment and encourage those I photograph to also be open to me. The next part is like a witnessing, seeing what happens when two people enter a silent pact to tell the truth. I wanted to make the video because it is an easy way to draw people in; a photo doesn't ask anything of us except our attention.

You can find the stories behind the pictures, on Emily's blog. More of her work, you can find on on her website.


Mrugesh 05 September, 2009 04:26  

There is a lot to do in Africa but I personally think no matter how much WE help them, it is not going to change unless they start helping themselves.

I've seen them fighting for no good reasons. Most won't help distributing the food, they rather kill someone and get it.

We need to Educate Africa.

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