Musings: Michael Christopher Brown in Congo

While working on a project that was a mammoth photo editing task—our Congo story, published on our News site—I came across Michael Christopher Browns’s ironically lovely images from the Congo, taken between 2012 and 2013. The original news story is an 11,000 word piece that dives deep into Congo’s conflicted and violent history, and its strained yet hopeful relationship with the United Nations peacekeeping mission.

A colleague suggested the images might work well as pairings, or “diptychs”. When I started playing with different juxtapositions, I found many layers of depth, meaning, and again, beauty.

For some who visit Africa for extended periods of time, the relationship becomes a love-hate one at best. It’s been 11 years since I left Kenya and I’m still torn. There is so much to love that it blows your mind, and so much daily misery and poverty, the pain can be unbearable. Looking at Michael’s Instagram photos, I couldn’t help wondering where his feelings fell between the two, curious whether they might perhaps fall right where love meets hate—wherever that is.

“Congo can be hot but it is a rich environment, full of life’s needs, so it is easier than say, living in the extreme cold. Emotionally it can be tough to handle the stark socio-economic contrasts and when I feel myself getting numb to those I know it is time to leave.”

“I tried living there but there were too many things I missed about home, and the bureaucracy tends to defeat motivations. I’ll always go back, as I see it more as a beautiful place than a horrific place. As do the Congolese, so although there is a lot that can and does go wrong, there is much potential.”

I was struck by the image of the FARDC soldier camouflaging himself in tall grass and flowers—even his gun is adorned with flowers—somewhere in North Kivu. This photograph is a study in contrasts. What is conveyed is the possibility of danger-in-hiding and something else—a sense of calm and quiet in an existence we can only imagine is anything but. And then we take an abrupt step up and away, looking down on lush tropical brush that is hiding…what?

In another scene at the Goma airport, planes abandoned “due to wars and volcanic eruptions over the past two decades” have become “a playground for street children, some of whom sell the parts which are made into stoves and other items to be sold on the streets of Goma,” he says.

“I passed by those planes dozens of times and each time wanted to photograph them, but they were always guarded by soldiers and off limits as they were within a military installation. But when the M23 vacated Goma in the fall of 2012, there was a window when nobody was guarding them so I went there in the afternoon and spent a couple hours photographing these kids who I had seen climbing around the planes before on numerous occasions. The next day I was almost arrested when I tried to go back, and now the location is blocked off by a high concrete wall.”

En route to Uganda, Michael told me that indeed his is a love-hate relationship with Africa. But, he says he’ll “always go back,” as he sees it “more as a beautiful place than a horrific place…as do the Congolese, so though there is a lot that can and does go wrong there is much potential,” and indeed, much beauty.

Read Congo: Special Report and learn more from the Conflict Minerals story published  in the October 2013 issue of the magazine. 

View more of Michael Christopher Brown’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

Follow Sherry L. Brukbacher on Twitter and Instagram.

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