The unstable and unpredictable violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo continues to spiral out of control, displacing more people there every day; two relief organizations have released videos online through which they describe the dire situation and promote the need for their work. They have markedly distinct styles and present themselves as documentary in different ways. Big names are associated with each: Condition Critical – Voices from the War in Eastern Congo is an 11 minute piece produced by Media Storm for Médecins Sans Frontières and features the work of 2008 World Press winner Cédric Gerbehaye. UNHCR yesterday released four versions of Gimme Shelter , ranging from 18 seconds to 4:30, directed by actor Ben Affleck and prominently featuring the song, donated by The Rolling Stones played over video footage of Congolese refugee encampments.
The Condition Critical video, released a month ago, is the centrepiece of an MSF website dedicated to reporting on MSF’s work in DRC. Blogs describe the intensity of crisis in North and South Kivu from the perspective of aid workers and as news reports. MSF describes itself as neutral and impartial in order to access people in critical need; perhaps for this reason there is nearly no political background on the Congo conflict, nor discussion of efforts to end this conflict. With its focus on the humanitarian crisis, the civil war is presented not as motivated acts but as something akin to a natural disaster. I found the lack of historical or political context unsettling.
Gerbehaye’s photography falls within a canon of black and white reportage that is at once immediate and beautiful, formally interesting even when depicting people in terrible situations. While this kind of photography gains its authority by the photographer’s inscription of himself into the picture- through eye contact or with composition, for example- it also tends to abstract the subject by making its subject otherworldly. By making a picture that speaks to universal qualities, there is the possibility that the subject could end up standing not for anyone but for everyone, and by extension, for no one. This criticism is nothing new but it is important if we want to take the situation in the Congo seriously and if we believe that photojournalism is useful.
MSF and Media Storm are aware of what is at stake here and their solution is compelling. Gerbehaye’s pictures are interspersed with interviews with some of his subjects. In their own words, in their own language, identified by name, they describe their own situations and testify to the suffering that they and others have experienced. The juxtaposition of formal still and testimonial video is at once jarring and epic. Suddenly, the story behind each of these pictures is infused with immediacy, and with the sloppy open-endedness and ambiguity of an unresolved situation that defies the definition and apparent clarity that still photos can invoke..
I wish, however, that Gerbehaye’s captions, which can be read on his Agence Vu page or on the World Press Photo 2008 winners website , had been included. Watching the video, I had no idea that the man behind the desk was the dissident leader Laurent Nkuda. The other captions are equally telling and the decision by MSF to depoliticize the pictures by omitting information is frustrating.
Gimme Shelter appears to be a much more quickly turned around piece of work than Condition Critical, and to their credit represents a quick response to a rapidly unfolding situation (though the DRC has been suffering the effects of its second civil war for a decade). The footage was shot by John Toll, whose extensive credits include Braveheart, in November and features largely long-lens, sometimes slow motion footage with no live sound, with a series of superimposed titles listing facts about the situation in DRC. The longest, 4:30 piece plays the song in its entirety and follows a visual narrative arc that describes first suffering and passivity followed by the arrival of UNHCR trucks, and activity, and ending with work and rebuilding. Throughout, the footage occasionally changes mid-shot to black and white, sometimes freezing after it has become a black and white picture, (attempting to invoke through digital effects the kind of photojournalism of which Gerbehaye’s work is a much better example.)
The song Gimme Shelter is the centrepiece of this piece. It’s powerful and dark and of course it’s lyrics are chillingly appropriate, although the refrain “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” have been edited out of the version used in the video. The song’s earlier association with the Maysles film of the same name and the killing of a concertgoer at the Altamont concert already lend it a kind of terrible credibility. Despite the shooting and editing of this piece being problematic- it’s one-dimensional “parachute journalism” at best- and despite the overwhelming power of the song, the conditions in the Congo manage somehow to come through. Not with anything like the immediacy or articulation of the Condition Critical piece, but with enough that the reality behind the video cannot be ignored.
One of the main themes that Jim Johnson grapples with on his blog “(Notes on) Politics, Theory and Photography” is how photographs’ “power to engage the imagination” shapes political participation. He is interested in particular in how photographs elicit compassion and the difficulty of translating that compassion to political action . Johnson has recently argued that viewers, when feeling compassion for individuals within a photograph, are made aware of a situation but not presented with a course of action leading to collective political action, and that compassion may actually preempt action.
(When Johnson talks about collective political action, he does not mean donating to MSF or UNHCR (“UNHCR.org: It’s just a click away”), but something more sustained, with a more tangible end, and perhaps a closer relationship between intervention and desired result. I would argue, however, that our smallest actions must be construed as political events if we want to make sense of the kind of power that we have in this world. Directing your personal resources towards effecting a change in existing power relations is a political decision.)
I think what Johnson has left out of the equation is that pictures are generally viewed in very specific circumstances. In a Sunday supplement, in an exhibition of photojournalism, in an online gallery, attached to a breaking news report, as part of an NGO appeal: the same picture will appear in many different contexts. The question is not what the picture asks of us but rather what the context asks of us, and it is different in each case. Gimme Shelter is an example of a highly articulated context with a very simple goal, a donation of money. As long as something (the song, the images, Ben Affleck) elicits an emotional response that leads to a donation, the campaign has been successful. Condition Critical is an even better example: Gerbehaye’s pictures were made more than a year ago but are effective now as a description of the present because they are evocative. The combined effect of still pictures and testimonial video is overwhelming. In the absence of MSF’s guidance, this video would still provoke an emotional response and for most I think a desire to learn more, which is an important step towards taking action. With MSF’s guidance, one choice for a next step is clear: donating to MSF.
My goal here isn’t to review NGO videos for their own sake, nor to discredit either campaign by unpacking their product, nor to subsume the crisis in DRC to a discussion of visual rhetoric. Rather it is to take seriously the question of how images provoke a response, believing that images can elicit a political response such as donating to a relief organization. These two videos demonstrate ways in which the power of images (or music) can be harnessed in the service of the vehicle that delivers them (in this case a donation campaign). World Press winner Gerbehaye and The Rolling Stones offer their respective projects attention and credibility at the same time that they give them their emotional power. Pictures – like statements- by necessity exist in contexts. If they provoke compassion, then the opportunity to act by donating to MSF or UNHCR is there. Or, you can take the information and act in some other way; in any case, the images are there because there was an institutional will to utilize them and to shape a response.
Global Voices (Blogs on DRC)