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Pictures We Love: Art in the Face of Adversity

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Performance artist Julie Djikey protests against pollution as a “human car,” with oil filters on her breasts and motor oil and ashes from burned tires smeared all over her body.

National Geographic’s Proof blog invited the photography and design teams of National Geographic magazine to look back through the hundreds of photographs from the over 75 stories published in 2013 and select one photo that spoke to their heart, intrigued them, inspired awe, made them smile—in short, to choose their favorite photo from this past year. Over the next several days we’ll bring you a round-up of the breathtaking, the touching, the extraordinary, the imperfect, and the beautiful.

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Kinshasa, Urban Pulse of the Congo, September 2013 Photograph by Pascal Maitre

Luxury and adversity mingle in this dichotomous image made by Pascal Maitre. The opulent ensembles these men style look out of place in the littered streets of Kinshasa. For Les Sapeurs, members of the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People), their clothes are as much about extravagance as they are about creativity. But beyond being a form of self-expression, it is a lifestyle about poise and propriety. Good manners, attention to detail, visual perfection, and social etiquette are of utmost importance to these gentlemen. Although often spending exorbitant amounts of money on clothes in a country where nearly half the population lives beneath the national poverty line, like all of us, they are striving to carve out their identities in the world, moving beyond class and circumstance.

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Kinshasa, Urban Pulse of the Congo, September 2013 Photograph by Pascal Maitre

Susan Welchman, Senior Editor

Pascal Maitre shot this image of Julie Djikley, a street artist in Kinshasa. Julie covered her body with engine oil and wore cans on her breasts as a statement about pollution in our environment created by cars and traffic. On several occasions she carried a gas tank on her back and a steering wheel in her hands, pushing a tiny car made of old cans. In her seminaked state she drew jeers and disapproval from crowds on Kinshasa streets but she continued to walk in silence throughout the city.

Recently her doctor suggested she stop this practice because the oil was entering her body through her skin, our largest organ.

The image is effective without a caption, the composition both momentary and studied. I don’t get tired of looking at this photo because there are so many subtle colors and textures worth gazing at. Unable to see her eyes or what she is thinking, her smile communicates peace and purpose. Her body is that of a strong young woman and makes you wonder why she risks her well-being.

Having traveled to Kinshasa twice I keep this image as a reminder of the strength of poor and concerned artists who continue to communicate what is on their minds amid danger and strife in that dense urban African life.

View these photographs and more in our interactive Year in Review.


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