Finbarr O & # 39; Reilly is a London-based photographer whose work was recently recognized by the prestigious Carjignac Photojournalism Award. & # 39; Reilly spent many years in the Democratic Republic of Congo and intended to cover the potential of the region.
Typically, this award grants 50,000 euros to laureates to cover travel costs related to a project in the field, but with borders closed due to the spread of the new coronavirus, & # 39; Reilly found himself stuck in London, unable to proceed with his Congo project. . Together with Carmignac's council, he created an ingenious and unprecedented method for continuing to work in Congo, sharing the award with eight local journalists on a project known as "Congo in conversation"Journalists work closely with O & # 39; Reilly and cover events in their neighborhoods, adhering to strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We talked to O & # 39; Reilly about his decision, and the conversation was edited for greater clarity here.
How did you choose to approach the award this way?
The nature of this grant, like many grants, is that it is awarded to an individual and, as in previous years, I was tasked with creating a body of work that would be turned into a book and exhibition. Of course, with our pandemic situation, this has been suspended for now and we had to rethink how we are going to do this.
From the beginning, I was trying to think of ways to collaborate with Congolese journalists who were somehow hopeful, in a country that is beginning to emerge from generations of exploitation, conflict and misconduct, dating back to the Belgian colonial era, which cast a very long shadow over the country.
Part of my thinking behind an approach like this was because Congo, like many other countries in Africa, is portrayed on a recurring basis in Western media that does not represent a very subtle approach. At the end of last year, I accepted the Nobel Peace Prize commission as an exhibition photographer around the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and accepted the commission before we knew who would be the winner, and ended up being Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
I realized that this was one of those dynamics where you receive a European or Scandinavian award from an African leader and a European who creates an exhibition about an African leader. I also knew that there was a really strong photo community in Ethiopia, so I got in touch to talk about ways to collaborate. We ended up sharing the exhibition with several photographers and myself, and our work was presented equally, which was cool. Three of the seven photographers attended the opening in Oslo.
What this meant was that the opening exhibition at the peace center in Oslo was much richer and more interesting, and the work I was tasked with doing was much better. And Ethiopian photographers, who do not always have a global platform, suddenly also had the opportunity to participate in this project, so that everyone could win.
I hoped to bring an approach like that to the Carmignac award and, in a curious kind of twist, I was unable to travel due to the closure of the borders. As travel is limited in the near future, we started discussing how we could take a similar approach and remotely create a platform from which we could share the work of Congolese journalists and work with them collaboratively, heal their work and get their ideas and ideas. voices presented and show how in this pandemic that connects us all in one way or another around the world.
Having to deal with this kind of agitation is strange for most people who are not used to disturbing their lives, in the way that many Congolese people can be. It is a country that has had the deadliest conflict since World War II, deregulation, exploitation, Ebola epidemics, measles outbreaks, cholera outbreaks and a whole series of really disturbing and in many traumatic ways that have made people from there they could find ways to work. these things, which is what we are now having to do.
Much can be learned from this experience. In the sense that the Congolese are dealing with the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, they were very quick to adopt the measures suggested by the WHO, such as hand washing, social distance. In some of the areas where the Ebola outbreak was most severe, these measures were already in place. In terms of closing borders and measures that, to us, seem massively catastrophic and, in many ways, in Congo, that kind of thing is not so uncommon, although this is a very extreme situation for everyone involved.
How did you select the journalists and the format of the story?
We are at the beginning of this project and we have figured out how it will work. I already knew some journalists, I met them during the trips or worked with them in the field. For the others, I relied on the database of photojournalists from Africa, assembled by World Press Photos. They have experience and we believe in the professionalism of their work, the integrity of their work and their ability to take appropriate precautions to ensure their safety and the safety of others, to be careful when observing sanitary and social distance measures when washing their hands – that kind of thing. We don't want to put anyone at risk by reporting this story.
Many of these journalists are already reporting this on blogs, radio channels or on their own projects. This is a way to broaden their voices about the work they are already doing, going beyond the communities that would already be sharing this information and providing the platform that the Carmignac award can offer.
This is focused on the future. What are your hopes for Congo in particular?
My original proposal that I sent and was accepted by the jury was called “Congo After the Flood”.
The idea was really to take a cautiously optimistic approach to where the country is now and where the future is in the short term. There are many reasons to be skeptical or to have a gloomy view of the Congo because of all these major problems of the past, but if you look at how the youth movement is challenging these norms, it is really fascinating. There is an organization for young people called Lucha, which is a collection of artists and activists who are involved and involved and trying to discover social changes.
Despite all the problems related to insecurity, there are some important things that point to certain improvements. Some of them involve hydroelectric plants, which were built, mainly around Virunga, which would allow electricity supply and reduce part of the deforestation related to coal, which is the main fuel source for much of the community. there is. The idea is that by providing electricity, especially from a renewable resource, it would alleviate some of the pressure on wildlife and forests in the region and create jobs for entrepreneurs and small businesses that can employ people, such as unemployed young people who, otherwise, they would be inclined to join a militia group, and that sort of thing.
You also have new laws around supply chains around minerals implemented to track minerals used by companies like IBM, Apple, Tesla, for laptop and cell phone batteries, etc. The government created these new rules to button this supply chain, so my plan is to analyze how this is happening and whether it is really being implemented and applied in the way it needs to.
The other big issue in Congo is gender violence and rape. You have Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege in your hospital, treating thousands of women over the years, but in addition to well-known organizations, you also have smaller groups, like Congolese women's human rights organizations that want to change the status quo. what is acceptable within society. They are conducting these educational campaigns to empower women and provide access to medical, legal and psychological services, and are working to lead the perpetrators not only to sexual violence, but also to domestic violence on trial.
So there are many challenges and many reasons to be pessimistic about the Congo, but the focus of this project was to look at where things are going on by individuals and small groups of people who are really pushing for positive change, especially at the level place. The idea behind the project, as it stands now, remains the same.
What local journalists are saying is that in Kinshasa, poverty is really increasing amid the blockade. People cannot sell their products, they cannot earn money to eat and, as much as this employee wants to cover the degree of poverty, the focus is really on how people are dealing and in what inventive and ingenious ways people can find. a way forward, despite all the challenges they face daily.
This is one of the paradoxes of Congo: it has a lot of potential, so much wealth of resources, and what you see is this story of abuse, misuse and abuse, but you have a younger generation of activists and people who have had enough and they are really pushing for change, and my focus was on these people pushing for change in the face of these huge obstacles to progress.
Is your hope just visibility of potential or other goals?
I think there are really some things that are happening together. In the beginning, this is the idea that stories on the continent have long been defined by Western media that are dominated by people who look like me: white, male, photojournalist. This dynamic is changing as African photojournalists find a way to get their perspectives from an outside audience, and this is a way to add to that. He is sharing this power of storytelling with Congolese journalists, so that they can really shape the narrative about their country and negotiate as they see fit, and then yes, so that the portrait reaches a wider audience and includes only the that is happening in our country. world at the moment at this very bizarre moment.
I am in contact with the photographers and photojournalists almost daily right now and just ask what's going on, in the area and in the neighborhood, because obviously people are not traveling long distances to report.
I am really trusting them to tell me what is going on, what is important, and they will send text and image, and we will work together to ensure, for the photographic part, that the photographs are at a high aesthetic level that we can provide. Some of the photographers we work with are more experienced than others, and it will be a learning process for everyone, as they maintain a standard that is true to Carmignac's vision.
I think it's the first time in 11 years of history that the fund is doing something like this – not only funding a commission from a diverse team of local photojournalists, but also doing something that is not quite in real time – it is not an agency news – but we’ll share images with a few days, a few weeks, maybe a few hours, instead of waiting six months for the exhibition and the book.
So this is a new point of view about the project, and I am very excited to be doing it for the first time, even though the circumstances that dictate it are very worrying for everyone.
In a sector dominated by men, about half of the people involved in this project are women, which is significant, particularly in a society that can still be patronizing, and I hope to add more women as we progress. The good thing about launching this in the last few days is that I am listening to all kinds of people interested in participating, so I hope that this list of collaborators will grow. I see this as an ongoing project that we hope to last for the next two months at least. In the coming months, we'll see how it's going and adapt as the situation evolves. My project is still planned. I still intend to return to Congo to do my six months of reporting at some point.