Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo , 2000
In 2000, shortly after we decided to set up PhotoVoice, I was approached by Christian Aid about the possibility of training a group of HIV+ women in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, in photographic skills.
I had travelled to Africa before, to Kenya where my father lived for many years, but the D.R.Congo was something else. I buried myself in literature documenting the times from Dr. Livingstone to the horrors and exploitation of the reign of King Leopold II, through the 32-year presidency of Mobutu and up to the present day war with Rwanda and Uganda in the East. The last fifty years of the Congo have been filled with civil war, violent clashes with neighbouring countries and of corruption. Millions of civilians have lost their lives.
Against this backdrop I prepared for this visual arts project, with workshop plans and securing equipment in London. My base in Kinshasa was in a house inside a salvation army compound in the centre of the city – cats screamed all night outside, and cockroaches rustled in the bathroom, I woke frequently to the sounds of people demonstrating in the streets around. Jacques, the son of Christian missionaries, who had been in born in DR Congo was entrusted with my care and he was, looking back – rightfully, terrified I should ever go anywhere alone and without a car and my driver. I had no phone I could affordably use and no internet. There were some very lonely moments in those two 6 week stints in Kinshasa but I made video diaries on the project and listened to the World Service, made some American NGO friends, and buried myself in the project work. That bit wasn’t hard.
Over the first six weeks, fifteen women, beneficiaries of the extraordinary local organisation, Fondation Femme Plus came daily to the workshops I held with Pauline, our translator, many of them walking for miles across the sprawling cities, where public transport hardly existed and every petrol station had long winding queues of trucks and vehicles all in various states of disrepair awaiting a petrol delivery.
The women – in the main widows who had been ostracised by their families and communities after being infected with HIV, often by their husbands – deeply valued any opportunity to gain a new skill or learn something new. They practised with great dedication, warmth and humour and amazed me again and again by their strength in the face of a disease which, for some of them, was already affecting their health significantly and continuing to alter their lives irrevocably.
The women documented their daily lives, and began to turn the camera in on their personal experiences of HIV. They took photographs of their families and loved ones, of their appointments with clinics, hospitals and doctors and of their friends sick with the disease. They also chose to each build and create a personal photo album to give to their children.
Six of the women went on to do the second training phase and concentrated on using photography as a platform through which they could challenge the immense stigma of the disease in their own society, where it affected 10% of the population. Through the process they re-built their own sense of self-worth and realised their voices could be powerful and make a difference. Many of them went on to earn money through photography commissions for local organisations.
The women’s work was exhibited in Kinshasa, where the health minister spoke, and toured across the DR Congo in the following years. The women themselves spoke at the exhibitions and some of them travelled to the UK for the opening of the exhibition at the Africa Centre in London. Christian Aid continued to tour the exhibition widely across the UK and Ireland and the work was shown at many PhotoVoice events and exhibitions as well as in Italy. In 2002, a few of the images were selected for inclusion in Pandemic: Facing AIDS, a UN/AIDS/Time Warner supported multi-faceted outreach campaign. The photography exhibition was opened by former President Bill Clinton at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona as part of the 14th International Aids Conference.
“These women, for the most part rejected, scorned, ridiculed by those that know them, are now among the very few women photographers this country has. From now on they have more than just the means to earn a living, they have a tool which allows them to express their ideas and their feelings in an artistic way. In brief, the can now contribute to the reconstruction of this country, their country, by educating the population through images that they themselves have produced. During the training course I saw the dull faces of the women light up. I saw women who were often coming for medical help come to life and stay three whole weeks without being ill. I saw women who had given up on their appearance start paying attention to the way the look again. This project signifies that this apprenticeship will give them a helping hand towards reintegrating into society, a way towards valuing themselves, a way towards the transformation from failure to victory.” – Bernadette Mulewebe Director, Fondation Femme Plus