The Rape of a Nation Photographs by Marcus Bleasdale. Foreword by John Le Carré Published by Schilt Publishing, 2010.
I've been a fan of Marcus Bleasdale ever since I first heard the story, years ago, of how he became a photographer. With a degree in finance and economics, he'd wound up working in London after college -- with some doubts, as I recall, about the moral code of his profession. Things came to a head the day a colleague walked into the office after some particularly horrendous conflict had hit the news and said, "I wonder how much the price of gold will go up?" as a result of the crisis. That was the breaking point for Bleasdale. He quit that day and never looked back -- going on to get a post-graduate diploma in photojournalism, and from there to years of passionate coverage of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the consequences resulting from the conflict and greed. I admire the man, and his commitment to bringing these stories to a global audience.
I have to admit to my own biases here -- as a photographer who works in color, and has worked in many post-conflict settings in Africa, I often tire of the endless portrayals, in gritty black-and-white, of the "darkness" of this amazing continent, its disasters, wars, famines and diseases. My experience has shown me far more life, far more spirit, far more determination, than what is captured in many of these earnest reportages. That said, Bleasdale's work still stands for me as a compelling, honorable -- and model -- documentation of one of the most critical human rights stories in Africa.
Bleasdale's photos are beautifully composed, quietly elegant and always full of compassion for his subjects. In these pages, he creates a sweeping tale of the DRC, opening with his well-known photos of forced-labor gold mining, and moving through conflict and child soldiers, displaced persons' camps, street children, contentious presidential elections, cholera and malaria, the rape of women, and closing finally with somber images of burials.
As sobering as the images (and their brief accompanying captions in the black margins of the pages) are, there is often a deft sensibility at work here, one that captures beauty and humanity, in the midst of dire situations. One of my favorites is the photo of the young child soldier, riding a bicycle down a dirt road, back to his base. With gun slung over his back, he struggles to control the bike -- which is too big for him -- a glimpse of innocence in the most inhumane of conditions. Equally powerful is the image of the body of a dead government soldier in the road; Bleasdale frames the image so that the body is barely visible, and the background out of focus. Instead of the horror of death, he draws us to the man's forearm, which rises in the middle of the frame, fingers gently folded in a loose fist. For the briefest of moments, we are allowed to remember what it means to be human, that this could be a man contentedly stretched out on the ground, hand moving towards the sky, contemplating life -- not death.
The book's design, beautiful in its understatement, is by Teun van der Heijden, who is by far the most interesting designer working with photographers today (Black Passport by Stanley Greene; Diamond Matters by Kadir von Lohuizen). The black-bordered pages (each photo lays out across two pages) are interleaved with white, vertical half-pages of text -- interviews with individuals who are named on the reverse of each chilling statement. A sharply observed foreword by novelist John Le Carre serves as both background and commentary to the photos that follow.
In the current debate flying in the photojournalism community about conflict photographers -- why are the photographers the story these days, and not their subjects? Do they get too much glory? Does their much-lauded work lead editors to the neglect of quieter equally important stories? Bleasdale's work stands as a quiet testament to the best of his field, as does his own integrity. Not only has he committed himself to a long-term project, producing a remarkable series of images, he has devoted himself to making sure his subjects ARE the story - partnering with groups like Human Rights Watch to tell the story of the DRC, to keep its people in the news and on the minds of legislators who have the power to act.
Sara Terry A former staff correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and magazine freelance writer, Sara Terry made a mid-career transition into documentary photography in the late 1990s. Her long-term project about the aftermath of war in Bosnia -- “Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace” -- was published in September 2005 by Channel Photographics, and was named as one of the best photo books of the year by Photo District News. Her work has been widely exhibited, at such venues as the United Nations, the Museum of Photography in Antwerp, and the Moving Walls exhibition at the Open Society Institute. She is the founder of The Aftermath Project (www.theaftermathproject.org), a non-profit grant program which helps photographers cover the aftermath of conflict. She is currently directing and producing "Fambul Tok," a documentary about a post-conflict forgiveness and reconciliation program in Sierra Leone, which recently won a grant from the Sundance Documentary Institute.