In this article, award-winning photojournalist Hugh Kinsella Cunningham reflects on his approach to visualising forced migration in DR Congo.
While reporting on the resurgence of the M23 conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and covering the region as a photographer since 2018, displacement has been a recurring theme.
The M23 rebels battling the Congolese national army claim that their fight is to protect the Congolese Tutsi community; they are also motivated by grievances with previous peace deals. As a result of these encroaching rebel offensives, nearly half a million civilians have fled their homes. The crisis is vast, and difficult to relay with an empathetic lens. To consider some of the challenges of visualising displacement, this article will focus on the space in and around a single displacement camp, Kanyaruchinya, a site north of the city of Goma, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Civilians arrived here throughout 2022 as waves of fighting erupted in the border regions between Congo and Rwanda. The same area was also a camp a decade ago, when heavy fighting culminated in the 2013 defeat of a previous M23 offensive. Thousands live here in poor conditions. With the conflict still ongoing, camp residents run a high risk of encountering bandits, rebels or soldiers from the national army. Sexual violence and murders are common in these moments. Congolese peace activist Edoxie Nziavake states: ‘women have to move like snakes in the field’ to avoid such potential assailants. Safety is a difficult thing to find in and around these camps.
The camp as object
Up and away from the struggle and hurry of conflict, fleeing and settling, this image shows the displacement site from a birds-eye perspective. When photographed like this, the camp itself becomes an object. Such a perspective is useful to convey an instant sense of the immediacy and extent of displacement and provides clear visual information about the scale of human tragedy.
Poor living conditions are plain to see and explain with this image. The muddy ground becomes sodden in the recurring seasonal rains and diseases like cholera quickly begin to arise. Lack of sanitation, sexual violence, flimsy shelters, and lack of infrastructure all compound to create a very challenging environment. The vast space occupied by the camp is also hard to contain and protect. As a result, civilians seeking safety within its ambit remain highly vulnerable to spill-over violence from the conflict, as well as criminality driven by desperation within the camp itself.
Seen through this distant lens, the camp is an object of attention through facts and figures, but the audience remains detached from the lived experiences of the people trying their best to survive in it.
Subjects of displacement
Conflict, upheaval and displacement are not only events which take place in remote geographic locations, far-removed from everyday life. Rather, displacement dynamics are an integral part of human experience in many communities of Eastern DR Congo. Bearing this in mind, another way to visualise displacement is by placing people, as individual subjects with distinct lived experiences, at the centre of focus.
Photographed here in the Kanyaruchinya camp is Aline Usindi and her young child. Aline is a 25-year-old woman who fled the town of Kibumba (22km away) when it fell to M23 rebels, and she now resides in the displacement site. The black fabric background, hanging from bamboo canes, creates a studio, and removes the sitter of a portrait from their context of mass suffering. This makeshift studio, located in a quiet corner of a camp, produces a calm environment where individuals may, if they wish, share their perspectives and recount what they have witnessed. The portraits are intended to be presented alongside quotes from the sitter, bringing people’s stories to the forefront. Aline shared that her family had to flee fighting in the middle of night, while listening to loud gunfire and explosions that made her feel nauseous. The personal gravity and terror of people’s experiences of war is lost if their words are not recorded alongside their images.
Photography like this intentionally models itself on Western European traditional portraiture, with the lighting and posture of the sitter evoking and mimicking the style of 17th Century paintings. Creating this work as a Western photojournalist operating outside their home society, there is a conscious abstraction of a story from the global South into a more culturally familiar form. This raises interesting questions, and problematically hints that stories from neglected crises across the globe have to be re-told from a Western European perspective to create a body of work that will resonate in the same society.
Subjectivities of displacement
This photograph is purposefully intended to simultaneously invoke the intense claustrophobia and the dehumanising aspects of displacement. The blurred style removes the outlines of forms, muddling the thousands of people who have been forced together, each losing their individual voice in a context that is unsustainable to support life, in both practical and emotional terms.
As viewed through television news reports and diplomatic press releases, a displaced community is ‘in stasis’. The facts of the matter present a community that has been forced from their home region, and now must wait, living elsewhere until they may return. The state of displacement is, however, far from static. People are beset by continual stresses and go through an endless cycle of tasks that must be undertaken to survive. In Eastern DR Congo, the displacement camps are barely 20 kilometres from the frontlines, and the risk of conflict spilling over and uprooting families again is high. Daily actions and exertions become ‘do or die’. Camp residents constantly queue for supplies, walk long distances to collect water and wood, queue at a health clinic or search for lost loved ones. Under such conditions, existence is reduced to bare life. As displaced mother Neema Zabayo in Kanyaruchinya camp says: ‘this life has no comforts. I have 6 children and we may all die of hunger. I feel awful as a parent bringing my children to this place, and I can’t do anything about it’.
The other side of displacement
While displacement is often visualized through the experiences of its victims and responders, it can also be seen from the perspective of those triggering it. These pictures show, on the one side, the Congolese army on its way to the frontline and, on the other, self-defense militias who ally with the military to push back rebels.
Documenting the mobilization of armed actors is an important part of the work of reporting on the harms of displacement inflicted upon communities. Indeed, displacement often occurs in contexts of great confusion, as both sides of a conflict contribute to growing insecurity and abuses on civilians.
The M23 conflict has seen particularly widespread disinformation on social media. In a strategy that clearly takes precedents from Russian and Syrian government obscuration and truth-twisting, the Rwandan government has denied any involvement in the crisis and spread falsehoods via state propagandists in its campaign of support for M23. In addition, press releases and social media posts claim that the M23 group is in fact fighting for the interests of local civilians.
As conflicting narratives and accusations circulate, images like these are essential to provide visual documentation of the presence of armed actors in given areas, identify them and corroborate claims of collusion. For instance, the M23 has been seen to fight side-by-side with Rwandan government troops, by whom it has also been supplied with new equipment.
For civilians, all of this is experienced as traumatic background noise, with constant military movement around them. I have even spoken to civilians who report that military convoys to the frontlines around them have claimed lives and caused injuries by running down civilians in their path. It becomes clear to civilians that their lives have been made secondary to the machinations of the ongoing conflict, with displacement one of the many ways in which their human rights are infringed.