Marcus Bleasdale back from Congo

November 29, 2007

Frontline Club member Marcus Bleasdale has spent the best part of the last decade in and out of Congo taking photographs of the ongoing conflict. As well as contributing to newspapers and magazines, Marcus documented his work in the book One hundred years of darkness. The book was recognised in the best photojournalism books of the year 2002 by Photo District News in the USA. In 2005, he was named Magazine Photographer of the Year by POYi. Most recently, he was elected to join the exclusive photographic agency, VII. He’s just back from another trip to the DRC and I asked him a few questions about his work and why Congo.
You’re just back from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Can you tell us a bit about the assignment; what you’ve been working on, the location and who it was for?

Thirteen years after the Rwandan genocide, Hutus and Tutsi ethnic tension overflows in neighbouring Congo. 370,000 people have been displaced over the past months and Hutu militia and Tutsi warlords battle against each other in the hills of Kivu province. The international community watches silently.
A shaky ceasefire between the Congolese army and Nkunda‘s troops fell apart in late August and skirmishes between them have continued, despite the government‘s announcement to extend a deadline for the dissident troops to join the national army.
Nkunda, who leads the dissident soldiers, says he is defending the interests of Congolese Tutsi, a minority group of which he is a member. He claims that the Tutsi of North Kivu, where he is based, will lack adequate protection if he permits his troops to be fully integrated into the national army and deployed to posts elsewhere in Congo.
His forces have also fought FDLR combatants, many of whom are Rwandan Hutu or members of Congolese groups related to the Hutu. At times the FLDR have fought against Congolese army troops but on other occasions; they have cooperated with soldiers of the government army. In recent operations, FDLR were said to be fighting with government troops against Nkunda.
In addition to killing and abducting scores of civilians, soldiers have engaged in widespread rape and in the looting and destruction of property. All forces used child soldiers and some commanders tried to prevent international child protection agencies from locating and removing children from their ranks. This answer forms part of this slideshow.

You’ve been working in the DRC on and off for nearly a decade. What first drew you to the country and what keeps you going back?

I was first drawn there by Joseph Conrad. The book Heart of Darkness created such a powerful impression that I had to see for myself this place he described. What keeps me going back is the world indifference to this problem. With the largest death toll in the world since the second world war the media and the politicians still dont seem to understand the significance of the horrors going on in Congo.

The situation on the DRC is tense, particularly in North Kivu, what difficulties do you have (if any) gaining access to places and people and what ways have you found in dealing with these problems and getting the job done?

Access is dangerous right now. In DRC you are not targeted as journalists are in other parts of the world, but the security situation is so volatile that a place which is considered safe one minute is the most dangerous the next. We were recently targeted by Government forces in Kivus who shot 500+ rounds at our car and launched 2 RPGs. It was a miracle no one was killed.

What equipment do you carry with you? What are your mainstays? And do you file remotely or wait until you return home or to an office? Beyond bulk, what practical problems do you have carrying photographic equipment around?

If I am working on long term projects and dont have to file then I will shoot TriX and use Leica M6 (2 bodies) 35mm and 28mm lenses. If I am working to a deadline and have to file to TIME magazine then I will shoot a Canon 5D with the same lenses. The only practical problem I have are dust and water, but nothing a good roll of gaffer tape can’t solve.

On a more frivolous note, what places do you like to stay at and eat at in Kinshasa or wherever else you spend down time in the DRC?

DRC is a beautiful country. You can go to some of the national parks in the west or east (although in the east at the moment that is where the war is going on). There are gorillas, bonobos, hippos, elephants in the north and an amazing river to explore. There tends to be little downtime as it all ends up being valuable for work.

You’ve won a few awards in your time. As a photographer are awards something you have in your mind when you’re on assignment or just an occasional consequence of a job done well? In essence, are you bothered with the whole ‘awards scene’?

I never have the awards in mind. That is something you put together when you get home and the story is finished. The main Idea is to get the story out and do as good a job as possible to move your readers into some form of action or reaction.

On a related point, you were recently elected to join the VII Photo Agency. The agency only permits 14 members at any one time, how does this recognition compare to the various awards and grants you’ve received over the years? And how, if at all, does it change the amount or kind of assignments you are offered?

It is an enormous honour to be invited to join VII. To be in the same agency as photographers who inspired me to do this job in the first place is incredible. More importantly though, the group is a wonderfully warm collection of people and additional to being a huge inspiration they are a great family to be a part of.

What are you up to next?

Off to Somalia in the new year, then finishing a project for HRW in DRC in March. In between I hope to be going to Venezuela.