“The continuing human tragedy of Congo is not a statistic. It is a continuing human tragedy…” remarks John Le Carré in the foreword to this book. His words contain the indignation of a man who despairs at the state of humanity that allows the history of Congo to unfold unchallenged as the West looks on. “We must never turn away our gaze,” he implores. With this collection of photographs, made over more than five years, Marcus Bleasdale directs us to look.
It is an emotionally demanding task to read the introductory words and turn to the images that follow. Unimaginable. Horrific. Brutal. Do these words convey my reaction to the images and the book as whole? Or do they better serve to describe my – and our – collective failure to do something about the scenes the photographs show? Bleasdale and Le Carré point out there are moments of sanity and hope provided, on the one hand, by organisations such as MSF and Human Rights Watch who strive to make a difference, and on the other hand most importantly, by the people of Congo themselves who maintain through all their experiences a “secret gaiety of spirit and a love of life”. In Bleasdale’s first book on Congo, One Hundred Years of Darkness, 2002, I had the impression of a man who was travelling to discover a land and explore a history handed down to him in the stories he had been told. In The Rape of a Nation I see that this same man no longer travels Congo to explore and answer his own questions, he photographs it to lay bare the discovery of our complicity in the evil he has found and pose questions to us.
The layout of the book plays to this intention with its unrelenting depiction of exploitation, the gold and diamond miners; of grief, at one of many funerals for a child; and of displacement, most poignantly realised in a chillingly pretty view of the flower gardens of Aveba where we are told women were rounded up and raped by the military in 2006. Le Carré’s and Bleasdale’s are not the only voices that echo throughout this humble tome. Interspersed amongst the pages are testimonies of the Congolese. Printed on delicate tabs of paper that punctuate the harshness of the black and white photography are the words of Henri, Olive, Régine, Tanzira, Madame Lisi, and Innocent to name a few. Fathers, mothers, children, their words are short but their stories are almost too huge to take on board. These words bring us back from any imaginary space we may have wandered off to while merely looking at the photographs. Through their stories we learn that “the enemies attacked our village”, “the Mayi-Mayi kept us a slaves”,
“I don’t even know how I learned to kill”…
Together Bleasdale’s photography and these recounted stories are so powerful in their symbiosis that this book seems able to actually shout “Read me”. It would be too easy to rationalise this book with simplistic analysis of the photography that seems at times to embody a World Press Photo style of image making– the low-slung Kalashnikov; a half-cut head in the frame’s foreground – but aesthetic deconstruction does little justice to the work or myself. This collection of images and words, ink on paper, is in so many ways a powerful statement on the unrivalled effectiveness of photojournalism. Powerful photography collides with insightful words to construct an enduring narrative that exists both in the present as an act of witnessing and in the future as a valuable document.
As Le Carré says: “To observe pain only through the prism of the boardroom and the computer screen is to sever the vital artery between compassion and action”. Thanks to Bleasdale and his publisher’s gentle, but unflinching, approach to making books it is presented here with force and purpose.