The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most brutal conflict zones in the world. But well known celebrity photographer John Rankin has captured a different side of the war-torn country with a collection of heartwarming photographs that show the spirit of the Congolese people. They are now on display in London.
"Cheka Kidogo" means 'laugh a little' in Swahili, a simple phrase but hard to come by amid the war and brutality of eastern Congo. But, love and laughter are the theme for a photo exhibition on Congo at the National Theater in London.
Over 30 black-and-white and color prints are on display, they show families in their homes, a smiling little boy sewing a torn football, a man showing off his new black hat. Others are simple portraits of people in everyday life.
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What's amazing is that these pictures are from one of the deadliest war zones in the world, where a tribal and regional conflict has raged for over a decade.
Rankin traveled to eastern Congo to find simple human expressions of love and optimism amid the hardships of war. "All the kind of photographs I was seeing coming out of conflict zones were almost kind of treating the people within them as they were victims and I just had this really funny idea that in those situations that people were just going to be people and they will be very very positive and very human and very accessible. And what we need to do is make them accessible," he said.
And, so off he went with the international humanitarian group, Oxfam, for two visits to Congo: in 2008 and late last year.
Rankin and his team traveled to refugee camps in Sange, Goma and surrounding villages with disposable cameras and film. And local Congolese people actually took many of the photographs, says Rankin. "My idea was kind of to allow the people of the village to have authorship and ownership over the way that they were perceived back in the West. And, the photographs ended up becoming a kind of fun family album of the people we met there and they are very similar to the photographs you would take of your family," he said.
Zafarani and Nbyde are two of the many subjects of the photographs. Zafarani stands with her arms around Nbyde's neck as they smile for the camera. Their story is printed beneath the picture where she recalls how Nbyde courted her to marry him.
According to the U.N. mission to Congo, more than five million people have been killed, and two million displaced in eastern Congo since 1999. Rankin says the conflict has not gotten the media attention it deserves.
Rankin, who is best known for his portraits of royalty and celebrities, says this experience left him humbled. "I was definitely, I felt very insignificant. And then I met the people, and meeting the people and the kids especially really threw me because they kind of defied even my expectations of positivity," he said.
And Londoners have been braving rain and winter temperatures to see the exhibit. Some say the photographs have come alive for them. "I like it very much. Immediately I felt it brought the photographs to life like nothing else would. We get so bombarded with images, and somehow it really made it real for me." "I thought it was really nice… it showed interviews with people and says about the way they live."
Rankin says for the Congolese people, the pictures, were more than just prints. "One of the guys came up and he said I love this photograph and I'm going to use it for my coffin when I die, this is the photograph I'm going to use to show who I was. And you know… it's the most amazing thing anyone has ever said to me about a photograph," he said.
Rankin says one of his personal favorites is a photograph of a little boy looking up at the camera, smiling with a mischievous look in his eyes - just like little boys tend to do. That's just one of the collection called - From Congo, with Love.