Photography as Advocacy: Origins of a Journey

Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact moment when you decide to change the rest of your life. For photographer Marcus Bleasdale, it happened one London morning in 1998 when he walked into the office where he was working as an investment banker. “Even at that point, I had long known I wouldn’t stay in banking, but that day there was just this trigger,” he recalled. “I didn’t even sit down, and I walked into my boss’s office and resigned.”

Not long afterward, Marcus first arrived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with an idea to retrace the river as Joseph Conrad might have seen it as he penned Heart of Darkness. The images he made then were the first of what became a living body of work that would span the next 13 years.

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2001: Growing up with war, a young Congolese ferry worker stays alert on a trip on the Kaisai River.

Marcus’s documentary coverage grew increasingly in-depth as he used his camera to investigate rampant natural resource exploitation—and most importantly to him, the resulting violence, corruption, and ultimately crimes against humanity suffered by the Congolese people.

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2007: Fearful of being raped in their villages, women haul water and supplies to a settlement for displaced persons near Goma as fighting raged between government and rebel forces.

Between his trips to the mines for this month’s magazine story “The Price of Precious,” Marcus and I edited through his images at National Geographic headquarters. I asked him what it was that made this place so important to him. He replied, “I stay in Congo until I can’t stand it anymore and have to leave, but it’s that very feeling that always brings me back there again.”

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2006: Viewed through a cracked windshield, a United Nations armored personnel carrier patrols a dirt track during fighting in the Ituri district in eastern Congo.

Marcus is a photojournalist who believes that making a photograph is just the beginning of the work. His tireless partnerships with like-minded NGOs and advocacy groups have helped to grow powerful campaigns creating real social change. You learn this about him quickly, as the email signature stamped on his every outgoing message reads, “Sent from the machine I am pretty sure is not conflict mineral free nor made with the highest labour standards – hoping and working for change in both areas. Together with you all hopefully.”

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2005: A boy loves the feel of a shower at a care center for homeless children in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Thousands of children wander the city’s streets, their families destroyed by warfare, AIDS, and poverty.

Indeed, paired together with reports by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the Enough Project, and Medecins Sans Frontieres, his unflinching images have been presented before policymakers, technology manufacturers, financiers, and other powerful international interest groups.

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2003: Armed with an assault rifle, a child soldier pedals to a rebel base in the Ituri district in northeastern Congo.

Some of these groups have gone on to modify their purchasing practices, effectively drying up the funds to wage the wars and instead channeling investments into local community-building efforts on the ground within the DRC. Other groups have successfully used his images to hold accountable both government officials and rebel warlords alike for human rights abuses before the International Criminal Court.

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2008: Government soldiers uneasily wait out a storm near Goma following a night of battles against the CNDP (the National Congress for the Defence of the People), a rebel force implicated in civilian massacres.

Marcus reflects, “It is our responsibility as photographers to use the work we create to make it the most effective it can be. We cannot stop wars with pictures, but we can provide the tools for the dialogue, which eventually will stop wars.”

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2003: Catherine, a wounded nine-year-old girl, flees Drodro village on a makeshift stretcher following an attack on the local hospital. Militiamen from the Lendu ethnic group massacred 14 patients in their beds. Slashed in the leg by an attacker, Catherine was too frightened to remain at the hospital for treatment, fleeing to the bush for safety.

In 2009 a selection of his black-and-white images were exhibited before the United States Senate during a hearing on sexual violence in the DRC. That session sparked a sequence of events that resulted in the government committing more resources to its treatment and prevention. And as the images gained traction and exposure, Marcus was able to partner with the Enough Project to use his photographs in the successful campaign that further pressured the government to pass a law that now requires companies to disclose the source of purchased conflict minerals—used to manufacture the consumer electronic products we all use today—in the DRC.

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2006: Grief overcomes mourners at the funeral of ten-month-old Henry Konerala, who died after severe diarrhea and vomiting at the Gety camp for internally displaced civilians. The baby was one of 18 people who died that day in a camp housing more than 40,000 refugees, many weakened by hunger and disease.

For our article this month, Marcus returns to the DRC to examine the evolution of mineral mining since the passage of that very law he helped to bring about. An investment banker quit his job, found his calling, and made the first images that embarked him on a photographer’s endless journey. His photography led to advocacy, the advocacy led to change, and that change is what he now returns to document—keeping a constant eye on what still needs attention after the attention has waned again.

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2005: On an evening without war, a fisherman pauses to watch women from a camp for displaced persons gather water in the Congo River near Nyonga.

Pamela Chen is Marcus Bleasdale’s photo editor for “The Price of Precious,” featured in the October 2013 special photography issue. Follow Pamela on Instagram and Twitter. Learn more about Bleasdale’s work on his website.