Photography as a baton: Spreading the message of Congo’s women

By — April 16, 2012

It’s easy to get bogged down in statistics of women who experience sexualized violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The numbers are staggering: A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in May 2011 showed that 12 percent of women in Congo had been raped at least once in their lifetime. That’s approximately 1.8 million women. Or 1,152 women raped every day, 48 raped every hour, or four women raped every five minutes. That’s about a rape a minute. 

But there’s another way to look at these horrors. “Congo/Women,” an exhibit co-produced by Art Works Projects and the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College, Chicago, has traveled the world since 2009, showing the faces and stories of the besieged.

Maria, a mother of three, lost her arm defending her children in Nizi, northeastern Congo. In 2003, she recounted the story of soldiers eating her flesh after they hacked off her arm. (Marcus Bleasdale)

“It's often too easy to feel that the problems of others who live far away in circumstances we cannot imagine are not ‘ours,’” said Leslie Thomas, curator and co-director of “Congo/Women” and the founding executive director of Art Works Projects. “But if we do our job right, the arts can help us come together and take that next step to support those with whom we share this earth.”

Six large, graphic images of wartime violence against women as well as 32 smaller black and white shots by photographers Lynsey Addario (who wrote this guest blog entry for us in February), Marcus Bleasdale, Ron Haviv, and James Nachtwey, are accompanied by essays that provide a deeper understanding of the conflict, including one piece that offers that “sexual violence is not inevitable,” which we here at Women Under Siege believe as well.

An example of how shedding light on gender-based violence through art can “have a powerful role as mirror and map to influence social change,” according to the “Congo/Women” website, the exhibit has found that ultimate purpose in one of its showings, at the Senate Russell Rotunda in Washington.

“There were, surprisingly, senators who didn’t know that the situation in the Congo was happening,” Bleasdale, one of the exhibit’s photographers, told Women Under Siege. “We educated them, related discussion, and created a movement that led to significant action in Eastern Congo.” The photographer has spent more than seven years in DRC photographing brutal violence and rape.

Bleasdale elaborates on how art is an empowering medium for activism. As a photographer he’s capable of highlighting the most extreme human rights abuses around the world. But it’s through artists partnering with NGOs, advocacy groups, and individuals that lobby organizations and governments can learn about abuses, including sexualized violence used in conflict, he says.

“Photography is almost like a baton that we pass from user to user, and hopefully through that we can give the tools to proper people who have access to other people who can change the world for the better,” said Bleasdale.

Thomas explains that telling the multiple stories of Congo’s sexualized violence involves an array of specific challenges due to the shaming of rape victims by communities and placing blame on the victim rather than the perpetrator. The photographers of this exhibit worked closely with Congolese women and their families.

“At the end of the day, the job of all of us working in human rights is to let the story of individuals shine through our chosen mediums as storytellers,” said Thomas.