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Photo : Video : Storytelling

A blog by Paul Bettings

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  • Writer's picturePaul Bettings

Focus in the Chaos

While travelling in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) I felt that I was in a place where you could see the earth continually reforming itself. We would often pass large open fields where steam was coming out of the ground. At night, the clouds above the crater of Mt. Nyiragongo would glow orange from the lava bubbling inside. While walking down the main street of Goma, which was mostly made of sharp black lava stone, my fixer informed me that the ground level storefronts we were walking past were previously fifth floor units of the buildings they were in; when Mt. Nyiragongo erupted and the lava flowed slowly into town, it covered the 4 stories that were now beneath us. When we walked back to our guest house that was situated on Lake Kivu, he told me that the lake has large amounts of carbon dioxide stuck in the bottom layers of its waters. When the lake waters flip (which I guess lake water does), that carbon dioxide will be released into the air and could suffocate the surrounding population. I googled this, it’s called a limnic eruption, and it has happened.

Mt. Nyiragongo spewing ash while we come in to land in Goma. Lava trails from previous eruptions can be seen cutting through the forest.

All this geophysical activity creates stuff the world needs and wants; elements that make our smartphones work and our computers run, and the stones that decorate the rings on our fingers.

My basic understanding of economics tells me that when a country has a resource that the world needs, that country can use the income generated by that resource to build structures and systems that allow people and business to develop. As the economy grows, so too should the living standard of each person in the country. However, in the case of the DRC, this has not necessarily been the case. In the areas surrounding Goma, rebel groups and militias are everywhere, businessmen and local authorities alike hoard the money that is generated by the large mines digging up these valuable resources, and neighbouring countries take advantage of the insecurity caused by all this infighting to reach in and hoard some of the wealth for themselves.

*Of course, using broad statements about economics, rebel groups, militias and governments is not very helpful. There is a lot more history to be explored in the Congo, and things can get quite complicated. If you are interested, may I suggest a book called Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe.

Just outside the town of Goma is where I met Neema. She was in an internally displaced person’s (IDP) camp living in a tent that was mostly made of sticks and rocks and covered by the standard white tarp of the UN. Every tent looks the same, some have more people in them than others, in Neema’s tent there was just her and her sister. Neema arrived a few weeks before I met her and she was very quiet, but very curious. After some initial explanations about who I was and why I was there she started to tell me her story.

Neema woke up one morning to the sound of gunfire in her village. She ran outside her hut to see what was happening and saw a militia group removing people from their homes. She didn’t know where her parents were, she assumed somewhere nearby, potentially in their fields, but she didn’t have time to think. She grabbed her sister and ran. When she was far enough away to feel safe she waited to see if she could find her parents, but she did not want to linger for too long for fear the militia group would find her. She began to walk with her sister on her back, for days she walked along paths and roads and hid each night in the forest for sleep. Eventually she ended up in the tent where we found her.

I sat and listened to her story and wondered how I could capture it well. I wanted to respect who Neema was and illustrate the relationship she had with her sister and the harshness of her story. I decided to take some extra time, but time that was in short supply since my travel companions were already telling me we had to go. I sent them ahead of me and quickly set up my flash equipment, which, at the time, was a small wireless trigger set up on a standard flash unit in a 20in mini softbox. I jerry rigged a system of sticks that held the softbox in the corner of Neema’s hut and started to photograph. I didn’t have too much time to create perfect light, but my main goal was to balance the light inside the hut with the light outside so the entire scene came together.

What I ended up capturing are some of my favourite photos I have taken in my photography career. Neema stared straight at me with extreme curiosity as I took the photos. The intensity and focus of her gaze seemed to fly in the face of her turbulent and aggressive surroundings.

This photo recently won me an honourable mention in the international colour awards. But, more than a good photo, more than balanced lighting, more than a hidden flash unit, what I see in this photo is Neema; focused and intent on survival amongst the chaos.


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