Exercise 2-5: Continuing the Tradition 

The Rape of a Nation
A child gold miner in Watsa, northeastern Congo. 2004 (© Marcus Bleasdale)

Read the interview with Marcus Bleasdale, Ei8ht Magazine, December 2005 

Marcus Bleasdale is a banker turned photographer, his change of career culminating from disillusionment with the banking world that came to a head with an offhand remark by a colleague about how a gruesome event in the Balkans would affect the dollar-Deutschmark exchange rate which led to his decision to turn his photographic hobby into a career in photojournalism.

The conceit of Bleasdale’s photobook ‘One Hundred Years of Darkness’ (2002) is to follow the journey through the Congo of Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz from ‘Heart of Darkness’. By addressing the genocide in Congo, Bleasdale aimed to emulate the themes of ‘Heart of Darkness’ and challenge the reader to ask questions about themselves and challenge the “shadows and the guilt that rests in our mind.” Although Conrad’s novel is a piece of fiction, Bleasdale also feels it is also fundamentally a piece of journalism which transcends the boundaries between fact and fiction.

Despite photographing mass graves in Sudan which should have been proof of evidence of genocide in the region he has found the international community, specifically the UN, leaving the area largely forgotten due to a combination of complex international politics and the fact the area has no attractive resources. Despite this, he believes the media have a moral responsibility to focus, and continue to focus, on stories such as this with the aim of forcing the international community to react. The main barrier to media coverage is financial as outlets

are more inclined to focus on the lucrative celebrity market rather than foreign news, a position that he finds “shocking and shameful.” 

Because of the difficulty in having his work published in traditional outlets, Bleasdale has had to explore less conventional commissions, for example, the work featured in this article was commissioned by Human Rights Watch and eventually exhibited in a Swiss Bank, quite audacious considering this audience of organisations such as mining companies, commodity traders and governments were responsible for turning a blind eye to atrocities in the search for profit from mining in the region.

On the difficult ethical dilemma about how to respect a subject’s dignity when the images often show the people featured at a point when they have lost everything, Bleasdale states that he hopes the respect he treats those he photographs comes through in the images. The pictures themselves are a small part of the process and he endeavours to build relationships and take pictures that capture this, sometimes this involves putting down the camera and helping them in their suffering:

“respect of the people we work with is paramount to the success of the message you as a photographer are trying to get across, and that is where the dignity is respected while trying to portray an often hard-hitting subject…If your subjects have respect for you and you for them, then I think this will be evident in the final image.” (Houghton, 2005)

On the issue of whether images of Africa as a continent of war, disease and famine perpetuate this negative image, Bleasdale acknowledges the risk, however, ignoring the truth that a large percentage of Africa is like this would be a misrepresentation.

On the relationship he has with the NGOs he works with and whether this affects his scope he is slightly evasive saying that he shoots the way he wants and creates an edit that works for the NGOs later. This is potentially troubling as the NGOs will undoubtedly have an ideological intent – whether this is any different to that which a magazine or newspaper would have is open to debate, Bleasdale clearly believes that his role is to bear witness and produce evidence and that if doing this means working for an NGO it is a necessary compromise.

The Rape of a Nation
The final prayers at the burial of the eight-month-old Sakura Lisi, the daughter of a gold miner in Mongbwalu, northeastern Congo. 2004 (© Marcus Bleasdale)

John Le Carré (2010) in his introduction to Bleasdale’s book on the Congo, ‘The Rape of a Nation’, discusses the complicated history of the state and the difficulties in arriving at any easy solutions. Unable to offer any answers he ends with these comments:

“however intractable Congo’s ills may appear, however drained of compassion we may feel in the face of Darfur and other hells, we must never turn away our gaze. Indeed, we have a moral duty to look, which is what these photographs are telling us.” 

This article reads like the mantra of the concerned photographer – the need to document, produce evidence and bear witness despite all of the intellectual debates and data that might suggest that this activity is futile and no one is listening. Photographers like Bleasdale are driven by the idealism that they must try to change the world through their work no matter how difficult this aim may be, whatever else you think, it is impossible not to admire this aim.

Gideon Mendel: AIDS in Africa 

Mendel
Funeral of Mary Mbwama, November 2000, Nkhotakota, Malawi (© Gideon Mendel)

The photographer Gideon Mendel is referenced on page 39 of the course notes, specifically his work documenting HIV/AIDS in Africa. ‘A Broken Landscape’ was the first response in the late 1990s, however, this subject is something that Mendel has covered for over 20 years in a way he describes as evolving. The challenge of the project is to show the horror and scale of the epidemic while portraying the people affected with dignity and strength. The project has evolved along with the realisation that the issue cannot be addressed with images alone. Mendel sees his role shifting from photojournalist to visual activist, ultimately allowing the subjects to share their own stories in their own words, with their own images.

The course notes suggest that Mendel’s choice to shoot some of this work in black and white, despite mainly working in colour for other assignments, is a major reason why the images were successful for NGOs to use to further their cause.

Bibliography: 

Carré, J (2010) Hell on earth: John Le Carré on Congo. The Guardian, 16th January 2010. Available at:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/jan/16/congo-john-le-carre [accessed 22nd August 2017]

Houghton, M. (2005) Interview with Marcus Bleasdale. Ei8ht Magazine, Vol. 4 No. 3, December 2005. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/foto843marcusbleasdale

Full issue available at: https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/vol4no3 [accessed 22nd August 2017]

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