The reckoning

Delighted that at least some justice has been served today for the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia after Charles Taylor was  found to have “aided and abetted” war crimes” by a United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague.

 

Sierra Leone - Freetown - Ibrahim, a victim of the rebels amputation policy during the Sierra Leonian civil war. Ibrahim was amputated in Freetown in 1999 when the rebels occupied the Waterloo area. They tried to hack off his other hand but were unable to. Hastings resettlement camp

Kony 2012

I’m coming late to this because I’ve been away but…

The Kony 2012 project is a film that ‘seeks to make Joseph Kony famous’ and in doing so, expose his deeds to a wider world. All very laudable but the entire thing makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Certainly, exposure for such dreadful stories are generally to be welcomed however this enterprise bears all the hallmarks of an emotionally manipulative Hollywood fantasy that a crazed warlord just appeared from nowhere. I’m all for people changing the world but perhaps we might have prequel (I’m not sure that’s a word either) explaining exactly how something as awful as Kony came about. Perhaps we might talk about how Kony fits into the post-Amin world of Acholi politics (Kony’s early pronouncements on Museveni and his ‘Tutsi empire’); we might talk about disengagement in American Foreign policy in the nineties in Africa shaped in part by the New Barbarism thesis. We might talk about the allegation that the Ugandan security forces had an incentive to keep the war going to keep themselves in power. We might also talk about how the discovery of potentially billions of dollars worth of oil has made (especially) the US sit up and look at how the situation might be pacified.

Crucially we might try and work out why the film makers are doing this now when in fact the LRA aren’t currently operating in Northern Uganda. A cursory glance at the African and NGO press show that people who have worked in Northern Uganda on development and reconstruction are generally surprised; this story has moved on (and that’s not to deny the suffering involved). Not only that, they are arguing that efforts should be made to rebuild and that rather than these children being ‘invisible’, they are, certainly to people like Glenna Gordon (the author of the notorious and extraordinary photograph of Russel, Poole and Bailey holding weapons) and others who knows the situation, ‘pretty visible’. It is certainly true that this story was difficult to place in the mainstream media – although that didn’t stop a stream of Western photographers in the early 2000’s going and photographing the ‘night commuters’ as the children were called. In that respect the film certainly manages to circumvent traditional media outlets that wouldn’t want poor African kids getting in the way of their advertising. My point though is that if you want to defeat something, you have to understand it. And that is where this film, devoid of a good deal of context and seen through the distorting sentimental prism of a well meaning white film maker and his child (At 07:35 the white narrator says that ‘we are going to stop them’) falls down very badly indeed.

Something strikes me as deeply patronising in portraying this as a fight between good and evil. I spent a few years in Africa in the late 1990’s trying to make the point that the perpetrators of disgusting violence in the guise of child soldiers – were as much sinned against as sinning. An attempt – however flawed – to expose the mental landscape/legacy of exactly these situations of Post Colonial devastation that led to the rise of people like Kony and Taylor and Sankoh rushing in to fill a space that the State could not (or didn’t want to) hold.

I’m sad to relay to those people urging others to be ‘awesome’ and blindly support this campaign that if we blunder in, as well meaning as we might be, we might just make this situation worse. If a generation of American youth think that by capturing Kony and giving him up to the Hague, we can sort this out they are very much mistaken. Doesn’t that sound like the warnings that we were fed about the ‘madmen’ Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden? And didn’t that turn out well? Kony is clearly a product of the political situation in Post Independence Africa. You deal with that by dealing with the ramifications of poverty, politics and corruption. If you take away the justifications for Kony, you take away his legitimacy and his means of survival. And no, that isn’t as sexy and as easily reduceable to sound-bite length for the YouTube generation – but maybe that means the YouTube generation is the one that needs to remove itself from the tit of ‘info-tainment’ and decontextualised explanations. Ugandans aren’t stupid – they aren’t waiting for the White man to come and save them – they are, against very great odds trying to save themselves. They just need the tools to do that without people either exploiting their country or their situation.

 

 

Uganda - Gulu - 'Edward', 16 is so deeply traumatised by what he has done and witnessed as a.soldier for the Lords Resistance Army that he is unable to mix with other children. At night like many of his contemporaries, he wets the bed and recounts his experiences as he sleeps. Gulu, Uganda, August 1997

 

Uganda - Gulu - A former child combatant for the Lords Resistance Army gives confession to an Italian priest, Father Guido. Gulu, Uganda, August 1997

 

Uganda - Gulu - 'Andrew', 17. Whilst having to fight with the Lords Resistance Army, he remembers killing at least twelve people... but only two with a machete... Gulu, Uganda, August 1997...'We are the miracles that God made to taste the bitter fruits of Time' Ben Okri from An African Elegy.

 

Uganda - Gulu - A young man with obvious trauma is reunited with his mother and sisters after almost two years in the bush with the Lords Resistance Army. Gulu, Uganda

 

The most expensive of cities…

For the second year in a row, The Mercer Group has confirmed that the world’s most expensive city to live in is Luanda in Angola. What the report didn’t make clear was that the city was also one of the most savagely segregated cities in terms of wealth: a tiny native elite and foreign nationals working in oil, sitting atop a mountain of desperate poverty.

I’ve worked in Angola a couple of times and was always shocked at the disparity.  I had, until I looked back at these images, forgotten spending an hour watching Dasilio and his mate fruitlessly begging rich Luandans for small change. I had forgotten the smell inside the tent of Bule’s eye, hanging by a thread, rotten and useless in his head. I had forgotten Engracia sitting in the ruins of her home, destroyed illegally by property developers. I had forgotten the harsh light and the long shadows. Shame on me for forgetting.

My few good memories come, as they often do, by listening to the music on the streets. A decade ago I discovered the delightfully named Bonga via a very talkative taxi driver in the city. That led me in search of saudade – a very difficult Portuguese word that translates roughly as a longing for something lost: a melancholy. You can hear it in the husky Morna of Cesária Évora and you can certainly hear it in the Fado of Carlos do Carmo. You can hear it on the breaking Atlantic waves whispering along the shore of the Marginal where both the rich and poor promenade – but for different reasons…

Here are some images.

 

Angola - Luanda - A street boy stands in front of a poster of Agostinho Neto, a hero of the Angolan revolution

 

Angola - Luanda - Two friends, Bule Manuel (r) from Uige and Joachim from Huambo live together in a tented camp for Internally displaced persons (IDP's) just outside of Luanda, in Viana. Both have lost their sight due to the war and Bule's eye is rotten in it's socket. The two men care for each other as best they can

 

Angola - Luanda - Engracia Lourenco in the ruins of her home in a middle-class suburb known as Golfe 2. In December 2002, men, presumably from the government forcibly demolished privately owned homes on this land. The land titles legally held by the occupants were ignored.

 

Angola - Luanda - A man walks through a shaft of sunlight on a Luandan street


Angola - Luanda - A woman works herself to a religious frenzy during an evangelical service in the Prenda slum

 

 

Angola - Luanda - Dasilio and his friend, both injured during the Civil War, beg from wealthy Luandans

 

Angola - Luanda - Wealthy Luandans dance the night away at Xavaroti's nightclub in the Vila Alice area of Luanda.

 

The cruel radiance…

Some of my images have been published in a new book on politics and photography called the Cruel Radiance by Susie Linfield.

In it, Linfield attempts to refute the argument that engagement with violent imagery makes the reader turn away. She argues that only by engaging with photojournalism and it’s unsettling commitment to documenting atrocity can we understand the world. It is an interesting time to take this line. Modern photojournalism has in the last few years, experienced a bleeding-into from the art world. I’ve written before about a cold un-connectedness that portrays people as butterflies under glass: a seeing that examines every facial detail but tells us nothing about context or the subject’s humaness. Linfield uses the example of Nachtwey, Peress and Capa in what I see as an unabashed attempt to reassert a traditional documentarian’s engaged position against the argument that all journalism of this kind is voyeuristic. Despite my work being included here, I do have reservations about documenting atrocity, but maybe the pendulum has swung far enough the other way: our sanitised, modern media tells us that only celebrity and money and excess are important. What happens over there is just not understandable. Linfield says that it is and it must be. Photojournalism is in need of a defender who can reclaim a moral relevance against Postmodern criticism that has done much to discredit the voracity of photography. We should not “drown in bathos or sentimentality,” Linfield says but “integrate emotion into the experience of looking.” We “can use emotion as an inspiration to analysis rather than foment an eternal war between the two.”

A small step

It seems that the Pope has signaled that condom use might be justified to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS. A brave, welcome and clearly significant decision that will certainly save thousands of lives.

Rwanda - Kibileze - Emmanuel Singizumakiza, a health educator shows a boy how to use a condom

Good news from Africa

I was heartened by the news on Friday that Sub-Saharan Africa is leading the global decline in new HIV cases. It seems that countries in this region have seen an infection rate drop of 25% apparently due to better education and preventative measures.

A few years ago, I was commissioned by Positive Lives to spend a month on the Rwandan/Burundian border looking at the lives of those affected. The Rwandan government had made great strides in their efforts to get people tested and educated about the risks but crucially about how to live and cope with the illness. The work won the Amnesty International Award in 2006.

As I said at the time, it seemed to me that the Rwandese, packed tightly into their borders, had learned the real meaning of forgiveness and acceptance.

Rwanda - Kibileze - Saidi Ruhimbana (40) comforts his wife Anastasie Hwamerera (40). Both have AIDS but Anastasie is very sick. In order to pay for medicine for their treatment they have spent their savings and taken some of their children out of school. Saidi was formerly a builder but is now too weak to lift anything heavy
Rwanda - Kibileze - Theogene Niyongana gives a lecture on HIV and AIDS to a group of people waiting to be tested for the virus at Kibayi Health Centre. By addressing their status, sufferers learn how to increase their life expectancy.
Rwanda - Kibayi - A woman receives her AIDS test result with shock at Kibayi Health Centre. The result is 'undetermined' which means she will have to be re-tested
Rwanda - Kibileze - A woman is given the results of her HIV test at Kibayi Health centre
Rwanda - Kibileze - Jean Pierre Sibomana (31) who is HIV positive, laughs with his wife and children (all HIV negative) about his wedding photographs. Kanage village

Rwanda - Kibileze - Teacher Potamienne Komezusenge (37) plays with her youngest child. She contracted HIV from her husband who died of the diesase and is buried in the back garden under a wooden cross. She says "As long as I feel strong, I feel OK emotionally... sometimes there is stigma here... but the biggest problem is money". Kibileze, Rwanda
Rwanda - Kibileze - Emmanuel Singizumakiza, a health educator shows a boy how to use a condom
Rwanda - Kibileze - Narcisse, who is HIV positive and the president of his local AIDS Association - Girimpuhwe ('Have compassion') - prays with his family at home at dawn before they start work in the fields. Kibileze, Rwanda
Rwanda - Kibileze - Narcisse, who is HIV positive and the president of his local AIDS Association - Girimpuhwe ('Have compassion') works in his fields

Without labouring the point, it was a pleasure to be taking pictures that weren’t simply showing people dying. I see so many photographers making work that purports to show an explanation of a subject but actually is little more than graphic cliche of a situation. That, at a time of crisis for visual journalism, isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to simply point a camera at someone and say ‘how terrible’. It says much that everybody has a camera and thinks that they have a right to call themselves a journalist by photographing the nearest horror without context or understanding. We earn a dubious and tenuous ‘right’ to report the world to itself by entering into a dialogue with it: an impossible covenant with a subject that tries not to perpetuate stereotype, easy answers or sloppy conclusions. It isn’t enough to go and photograph beggars on the streets of India for example to further our own purposes under the cover of journalism. We had better have a damn good reason to invade people’s spaces and lives. If you need an example of what is decent and committed about documentary practice look no further than that of my former Network Photographer colleague, Gideon Mendel who has spent more than a decade committed to the portrayal of HIV/AIDS in exactly the way I am talking about.

“This is a big inconvenience for me…”

So, apparently, it was a “big inconvenience” for Naomi Campbell to appear before the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague yesterday… words fail me. Sometimes perhaps it’s just best to let people hang themselves by their own words: their own ignorance (“I’d never heard of Liberia…”) and their own selfishness. Of course it’s also a “little inconvenient” to have your arms/legs/noses/genitals hacked off with machetes by rebels financed by illegal diamond mining. But I digress… here are some more “inconveniences”…

Sierra Leone - Freetown - A young girl, with obvious trauma, constantly counts her remaining fingers after rebels cut off her left hand as part of a campaign of terror directed against the civilian population. Murraytown Amputee Camp.

Sierra Leone - Makeni - A woman brutally injured by rebels in an unsuccessful attempt to cut off her arm. The arm is now completely lifeless. The amputees carry the visible scars of the Sierra Leonian conflict on their bodies - a constant and painful reminder of the cruelty and damaged psyches of the years of war

Sierra Leone - Makeni - Isatu, 34, shot through the vagina by rebels after rape.

Sierra Leone - Freetown - Safia, 14 was forced to watch her father murdered. Because she cried, the rebels dripped molten plastic into her eyes. Milton Margai School for the Blind

Archives – rediscovered images 1

I’m currently going through a rather time consuming process with a really excellent editor, to upgrade my website and portfolios (more about this another time). The project involved going back over many of my stories and looking beyond the initial edit to images that were discarded or forgotten. Unfortunately, many of my originals have been lost or damaged over the years but I seem to have made some interesting discoveries: pictures that I’d forgotten about or simply overlooked. During the next weeks, I thought I might post some significant finds. I start with an image from a story in Mauritania about the wind and the desert.

Mauritania - Chinguetti - A sad woman in a house in Chinguetti.

I remember photographing this woman in a house and her looking terribly forlorn, distant and sad. I never could find out why. My notebook tells me that I was with her and her husband for only ten minutes. Sometimes, perhaps its better not to know…

Minor celeb not feeling well shock

I was indebted to learn from every single media outlet today that a minor British celebrity who used to be married to a footballer and apparently sings, has contracted malaria. And on holiday too…

Apparently she’ll live. Unlike the approximate 850000 people still die from malaria every year even though simple insecticide-treated mosquito nets could significantly reduce mortality if made readily available to all people in regions where the disease is endemic. This according to Ann Veneman, head of UNICEF speaking on World Malaria day on April 25th. No – funny I didn’t hear much about that either.

According to Veneman, 90 per cent of those afflicted live in sub-Saharan Africa, and the majority of those deaths are children under five years old. “This shocking disparity is even more unacceptable” she concludes. I completely agree. Thankfully I am no longer cynical about how the media works (…) and certainly wish no-one to be ill… however – on recovery, expect brave celeb to do more charity work on said disease with full media coverage and nothing to change.

Burundi - Ruyigi - Jean, an orphan of Burundi's ethnic conflict at Shalom House shivers under a blanket with malaria. Shalom House was founded by Marguerite Barankitse (known as the 'Angel of Burundi') in 1994. During the genocide, Barankitse, at great personal risk, managed to save 25 orphans, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa and built a home for them. Currently, she has helped more than 10,000 orphans and separated children who can grow up in an "extended adopted family" in security, education and love.

A peaceful New Year

As I was late in posting a Christmas message (I feel like the Queen…) I thought I’d better put something up as late as possible on the last day of 2009.

I seem to have lots of pictures of people dancing and partying across the world but when I thought about it, one image of hope and joy seemed to stick in my mind. The image below show a mother reunited with her son who had been kidnapped and forced to fight for Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda. He’d been in the bush for a couple of years as I remember and I was present in an airless, dusty hut when he was delivered home by the Ugandan Army. His mother, completely surprised by her son’s miraculous appearance (she thought him dead) was overcome with joy and started to pray just after I took this image. I’ve often wondered what happened to him.

Happy New Year.

Peace.

Uganda - Gulu - A young man with obvious trauma is reunited with his mother and sisters after almost two years in the bush fighting with the Lords Resistance Army
Uganda - Gulu - A young man with obvious trauma is reunited with his mother and sisters after almost two years in the bush fighting with the Lords Resistance Army