Volume 18 • Issue 19 | Sep. 30 - Oct 06, 2005

“Democratic Republic of the Congo: Forgotten War”
Engine 27
173 Franklin St.
www.engine27.org, www.viiphoto.com

Photo by Ron Haviv/VII

A predator bird soars above a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo, part of a photo exhibit at Engine 27 meant to shed light on a little-known warzone.

Reminding the world about its deadliest, and least known, war

By Steven Snyder

Despite today’s 24-hour cable news stations, wire services and the Internet, an entire war has slipped through the cracks of this information age, one that the current exhibit at Engine 27 in Tribeca demands to be told.

Through bleak photographs and even bleaker statistics, “Democratic Republic of Congo: Forgotten War,” organized by Doctors Without Borders and five photographers of the acclaimed VII PhotoAgency, aims to shine a light on the atrocities ravaging a little-known corner of the world. It follows in the footsteps of other famous collections of activist photography, including Jacob A. Riis’ landmark book “How the Other Half Lives,” which exposed the shocking New York slums of the late 19th century, and Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-Prize winning photos that captured the hopelessness and despair of Sudan during the 1990s, an experience that haunted Carter until his suicide just months after winning the award.

“At the very least, I hope this [exhibit] inspires a dialogue,” said Ron Haviv, one of the five featured VII photographers who traveled to the DRC for three months last summer. “Nothing has happened until this point. We have to start from scratch.”

The layout of the exhibition, curated by Alison Morley, calls attention to this global ignorance. For a newcomer to the issue, the very first photo, depicting a band of children running behind a United Nations patrol, might seem hopeful, implying that international groups are active and on the ground, assisting those in need.

But after nearly fifty photos, ten panels of text and a video installation, the photo takes on a different quality. In a gallery filled with shocking images of pain and agony, it looks more like the children are running after the United Nations patrol, left behind in the dust.

The exhibit’s video, directed by Haviv, shares the most arresting fact of all: With between 3 and 4.7 million deaths in the DRC over the past seven years, it is the highest death toll to arise from a conflict ever recorded in Africa, and the largest figure worldwide since World War II.

Haviv said some 1,000 people are dying in the region every day.

“How many people in America would even be able to spot Congo on a map?” asked Don Rezniewski, a somber photojournalism student attending the exhibit. “These photos give you a reference point for what’s going on. I sure didn’t know how severe this is,” he said, pointing to the statistics on the video screen.

The comments of Gary Knight, another photographer featured in the exhibit, captures his perception of a dire situation: “There is a total breakdown of law and order, a grotesque primary health care system and a scale described by senior U.N. personnel as the worst humanitarian crises of the day.”

The crisis follows the pattern of so many African countries in turmoil. The DRC was granted political freedom in 1960, but the people were offered to rights to its rich natural resources, like diamonds and copper. The fight to control its economic destiny has spanned years now, and a volatile cocktail of violence, AIDS, and poverty has left the country in shambles.

“Forgotten War” highlights four specific aspects of this pervasive conflict. Some photos focus on the dying, such as those wounded in regular attacks or those suffering from AIDS without the aid of medication. Others capture scenes of raw death and the dismal street life endured by children, families and sex workers.

These are offset, however, by scenes of endurance and perseverance. Mothers try to care for their sick and wounded children. Women try to learn how to use condoms. Displaced residents mine through a river for gold.

Haviv said his experiences in the DRC were filled with these contradictions between what the DRC was, and what it could be.

“The landscape is so lush and so beautiful and the sprits of the people are so warm and so high,” Haviv said. “It’s hard to believe that at times they’re so brutal to each other.

“It’s this paradox that exists everyday right in front of you. The country possesses such wealth in terms of minerals and gold, materials used in things like cell phones and computers. It could be a very wealthy place, but it’s only used by a small group of militia leaders and corrupt officials,” he said.

Walking through the exhibit is its own contradictory experience. Particularly disorienting is the soundtrack to Haviv’s video, which offers an unexpected counterpoint to the photos on the walls. It alternates between enthusiastic, heartfelt songs of joy, and chilling accounts of rape and violence.

Recounting his experience in the country’s chaotic displacement camps only hours before traveling to Texas to document Hurricane Rita, Haviv said he hopes his work will incite real interest in a situation that desperately needs more attention. “We need to support the peacekeeping mission more, that’s the only way this country will get back on its feet.”

But can one photography exhibit realistically hope to change the popular perception of this oft-ignored situation?

“It’s incredibly important to push the public, and it’s very difficult to do this in the mainstream media,” Haviv said. “The only other options are to get our work out there through exhibits and through books and through web sites like we’re doing here.

“It’s hard, but when you look at the people who are paying attention now, it’s encouraging.”


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