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Rankin in Congo: 'Their humanity was what I wanted people to notice'

By Coco McCabe
During a return visit to Congo, celebrity photographer Rankin took portraits of individuals and families as they talked about the people and things they love.

In 2008 and 2009, Oxfam worked with celebrity photographer Rankin on a photo project in the war-torn eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The result is a book of images, "We are Congo," that reveals the humanity of people caught in a brutal war and the devastating disease and malnutrition it has spawned.

Here are Rankin's opening thoughts about the project—and about a place in which he has found "the basic, beautiful business of life."

I first visited the DRC with Oxfam in June 2008. I expected to be depressed. I had done my homework; the statistics were horrific. I could only imagine what the human face of those statistics would look like. The people I met confounded my expectations. I met fathers, mothers, children... all getting on with life, making it through, even having a laugh and a joke. These people didn't see themselves as victims, despite the bad hand that fate had dealt them. They were human beings, exactly the same as you and me.

I wanted my portraits to do something different. The West has been anesthetized to traditional pictures of disaster zones. My style of portraiture is always about bringing people out of themselves, getting them to share something. I chose to photograph the people against a stark white background instead of in their physical environment. The expressions in their eyes and on their faces—their humanity—was what I wanted people to notice and relate to.

It didn't seem morally or politically right to just go and take pictures. So I decided to put on a show in the refugee camp, and give the people prints of their portraits. Give them something back. It was incredible. One guy said to me, 'This photograph is amazing. I wanted to let you know that I will use it on my coffin when I die.' No-one has ever said anything so moving to me.

The overriding feeling I had while I was out in the DRC was one of anger and powerlessness. That taking a few snaps was inconsequential in the face of the insurmountable problems that were being faced there. But when I got back, we put on an exhibition. I pushed the images, did press interviews, raised awareness. I believe that it made a difference to the people I met.

I was inspired to return to the DRC in October 2009. I didn't want to do the same thing as I had done the year before and, as on my first trip, I felt that it was important and right to give something back. So this time I held photographic workshops. I gave out cameras so that the people could have authorship over their own images—show us what was important in their lives. The collection of shots from my second trip builds on those from the first one, but focuses on the relationships that bind people to each other—a mother's love for her child, a husband's love for his wife, two friends. The basic, beautiful business of life.

I hope that these photographs can aid understanding. They are neither ugly images of brutality, nor sentimental images of suffering. The world needs a more sustainable form of imagery that, instead of encouraging pity and powerlessness, promotes understanding, connection, and ultimately action. It's about making people accessible to each other."