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Surrendering to the Flow of the Congo River

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Passengers on a freight barge on the Congo River.

Photography is Pascal Maitre’s medium—he loves the magic of photographs and is fascinated by color. But above all, he sees himself as a reporter. The key to his work, he says, is the human connection. He tells me the photographs themselves are easy to take. Gaining access to people is the hard part. And, “Sans les gens il n’y a rien—without people, there is nothing,” he says.

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The sun sets on an overcrowded barge as it chugs up the Congo.

We are talking in my office at National Geographic headquarters, going back and forth between his native French and my English. It is May 2014 and Maitre is in D.C. for the final review of his story “Lifeblood,” a chronicle of a voyage by boat along the Congo River, which is coming out in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic.

Indeed, a story like this would have been impossible without the ability to mine connections, make connections, and have a deep appreciation of the human condition. There were boat owners and captains who didn’t want their boats photographed, administrative obstacles, and the need to make complicated transfers from one boat to the next when there was a breakdown.

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Despite the crowded conditions, a young woman has managed to find a place to lay her head on the long voyage home to Kisangani.

Over the course of four trips, each about a month long, Maitre traveled the massive river between Kinshasa and Kisangani and along one of the tributaries. About half of this time was spent traveling by barge—each one a veritable floating village that serves as the main mode of transportation for people traveling from cities to places so remote that few visitors ever go. They also create an economy of goods and services for people living on the banks, who paddle out in their wooden pirogues to buy items and sell their wares.

60 Seconds of Life on the Congo River

Watch and listen to 60 seconds of sights and sounds along the river

On the river, there are no timetables and passengers are at the mercy of conditions beyond their control—boats get stuck in the silt, break down mid-voyage, or are so overcrowded that they capsize. A journey that can feasibly be done in three to four weeks can sometimes take seven months, Maitre tells me. In the midst of crowded conditions, passengers do what they can to get by, creating a micro-economy, making their way as they go, slowly.

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Villagers bring the bounty of the jungle, including monkeys, snakes, and pigs.

Maitre has photographed other places around the world, but it could easily be said that the heart of his work lies in Africa. Maitre has been photographing life there for over 30 years—in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Madagascar to name a few of the countries.

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With roads scarce in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), freight barges are often the best option for travel. Passengers cook, sleep, and chat amid teetering piles of cargo.

I ask him what continues to amaze and fascinate him about Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the the Congo in particular. Not surprisingly, it comes down to the human spirit. He says that when you’re living on the edge with few safeguards or security, life is stronger than anything. There is an energy and a will to survive day to day.

Africa is a place of great power, he says. The more keys you have, the more contacts, the richer it is, and the farther you can go.

Pascal Maitre was recently awarded the Visa d’Or Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Visa Pour l’Image international photography festival in Perpignan, France.

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