From catwalk to Congo
Famous for his portraits of Kate Moss, Kylie Minogue and the Queen, photographer Rankin has joined forces with Oxfam to bring the faces of those caught up in the war zones of the Democratic Republic of Congo to London’s South Bank.
Rankin’s exhibition – sponsored by the Co-operative Bank and hosted outside the National Theatre – featured his celebrity portraiture with entirely different subjects, the residents of Mugunga camp, home to 17,000 people displaced by Congo’s harrowing violence.
Photographed against Rankin’s trademark white backdrop rather than in their everyday surroundings, his subjects boldly defy the war victim tag and shine out as real people with individuality, humour and warmth. Jasmine, a young girl, mimics Rankin with her own camera made from a tin can; Tumanini, a tailor, smiles broadly as she balances her sewing machine on her head; and Marina, a grandmother, stands proudly with her grandchildren by her side. The exhibition’s title, Cheka Kidogo, means ‘laugh a little’ in Swahili, and celebrates the spirit of the Congolese people in the face of adversity, but it was also the phrase that people called out to their friends when they were being photographed – a kind of Swahili version of ‘say cheese’. An estimated 250,000 people saw the exhibition at the end of 2008.
“I think we have become anaesthetised to traditional photographs of conflict victims,” said Rankin. “By taking my celebrity portraiture style of photography and applying it to the survivors in the camps in Congo I have tried to get beyond the statistics and show the human side of the conflict. “I heard awful stories of young girls being raped and people fleeing attacks on their villages. Despite the suffering that they have been through the people of Congo are just like us and need our help. I hope the exhibition will wake people up to what is going on.”
Since 1998, the country has lost 5.4 million people to conflict, and the disease and hunger it has unleashed. At the time of going to press, over a million people are displaced in the eastern part of the country, with over 500,000 people having fled from violence in the last year alone. Rape is epidemic.
Speaking about his experience in the Congo, Rankin said: “I felt energised by the strength of the people and their will to survive and to make their lives better. Yet they all have these really awful stories. They have all seen their brothers and sisters, wives, husbands, daughters or sons killed in front of them, and you can see it in their eyes.”
As well as taking portrait shots, Rankin and Oxfam staff put on an impromptu exhibition of Rankin’s work in Mugunga camp, with printed photos hung by clothes pegs on washing lines. “It got an amazing reception. Hordes more people lined up and insisted I took their photographs too. They all wanted to have their pictures taken, so they could have their stories told in the West. It was humbling stuff.”
Oxfam designed the exhibition to raise awareness of the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo and build support for its work there. The charity is supplying clean water and sanitation to camps and communities across eastern Congo. It is also lobbying nationally and internationally for better protection of civilians.