When we’re reading about suffering and injustice—especially someplace far away—we tend to think in terms of numbers. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since 1998, more than 5 million people have been killed in the conflict in DRC, and more than 1 million have been left homeless. In the last few months, 250,000 residents of North Kivu province have had to flee from their homes, many taking refuge in temporary camps.
These numbers inform us, true. But they also allow us to maintain an emotional distance. They keep the conflict abstract.
And then something comes along and makes it real.
For me, it was this series of photographs by Rankin, a British portrait photographer sent by Oxfam to take photos of displaced people in the Mugunga Camp, Goma, DRC. From the first moment I saw these images, I felt an emotional connection to them that’s hard to explain. I guess, like most art, a powerful photograph is a difficult thing to quantify in logical terms; it’s more of a visceral feeling, one that runs bone-deep. It almost hurts.
Still, I have to ask myself: out of all the beautiful photos we’ve taken at Oxfam, why do these haunt me so much?
Maybe it’s the way Rankin photographed the men, women, and children from the camp: standing in front of a plain white backdrop, dressed in nondescript clothes that could be Western or traditional. Without visual cues to indicate “poverty” or “Africa” or “refugee,” this could be a photo of the man who sat next to me on the subway last night, or the woman I saw walking to work this morning. These could be my friends, or my friends’ kids. There’s a universal quality to the portraits that makes them impossible to dismiss as “other.”
And yet these are also pictures of individuals, each with his or her story to tell. Without a landscape or background to distract us, it’s the people’s faces—their eyes—that hold all the beauty and meaning. Stoic or smiling, beaming with joy or full of a tight, tense pride, each person looks to us, the viewers, meeting our eyes on the other side of the lens.
It’s true they could be anyone, but they’re not. They are themselves. They ask us to recognize them, but not as numbers. As equals.
“These are people just like us: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, farmers, tailors, shop owners, and chefs, but they’re living in impossible circumstances,” wrote Oxfam’s Rebecca Wynn, who blogged here about her encounter with one of Rankin’s subjects, Charles Kimakura. “We can help them and we owe them that.”
To learn how, go to http://www.oxfamamerica.org/whatwedo/emergencies/congo.