The Democratic Republic of Congo has been ravaged by civil war for over two decades, with intermittent ceasefires unable to hold for long. The majority of the fighting stems from ethnic divisions, with the Ituri province in the north east of the country worst hit by recent violence. Tension between Ituri’s two main ethnic groups, the Lendu and Hema, can be traced back to the colonial period, when the area was part of the Belgian Congo. The Belgian colonial administrators favored the pastoralist Hema, resulting in education and wealth disparities between the two groups. Many disputes between Lendu and Hema relate to land ownership claims. Estimates put the number of displaced Congolese at 400,000 and 40,000 refugees have left the country for refugee camps in Uganda. Almost all of the displaced from the Ituri region are Hema, while the United Nations says nearly 80 percent of those, who have fled to Uganda are women and children. After crossing Lake Albert by boat, the refugees arrive in Sebagaro, from where they are transferred to Kyangwali refugee camp in Uganda. In addition to over-crowding and lack of sanitation, nearly 2,000 cases of cholera, which is endemic in eastern Congo, have been reported in Kyangwali. Photojournalist Andrew Renneisen compiled the following photo report for The Washington Post on the plight of Congolese refugees fleeing for their lives from Ituri to Uganda. We spoke with Andrew about reporting on such a harrowing story and what he has learnt from his experiences.
When did you first pick up and camera? And how did you go from there to becoming a professional photographer?
I first picked up a camera when I was 11 or 12 years old. It was my mother’s Kodak digital camera and I wanted to take pictures of animals at the zoo. I was instantly hooked and was constantly taking pictures of family and friends. Photography continued as a hobby through high school. When I got to college, I realized I could be a journalist for a living and just how profound an image can be. I ended up majoring in photography and have been working in the industry ever since.
You’ve worked for The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, with a lot of your work focusing on violent conflicts and humanitarian issues. What have you learnt from covering these particular stories over the years and working for such esteemed publications?
That’s a really tough question because there really is lot that you learn from covering stories like these that touch you on both a physical and emotional level — and I’ve only been doing it for a few years compared to a lot of veteran photographers in this industry.
Personally, I think the biggest take-away is to always be a human first. I’m generally meeting people on some of the worst days of their lives. It’s important to understand that and keep it in the back of my head while I am photographing. There are moments as photojournalists we feel the need to photograph, but it may not be the appropriate time. Putting the camera down and talking to someone generally leads to better pictures in the long run anyway.
How did you come to shoot this series covering the fate of Congolese refugees in Uganda? How do you go about preparing for a job like this?
This story was originally an assignment for the Washington Post that got the green light after I had pitched it a week or so prior.
I’m lucky to get to work with great writers and picture editors on a daily basis, and that helps in the preparation process.
In this case, I got to work alongside Max Bearak, the Post’s Africa Bureau chief. Max is a fantastic writer and a good friend. We were able to sit down, talk goals, and plan the logistics for this trip. This included making contacts with an NGO already on the ground, Medicins Sans Frontières (MSF), and hiring a local driver we trusted. I also went over some ideas of the visuals we would see with Olivier Laurent, the amazing foreign picture editor at The Post.
This is a similar preparation process to a lot of assignments each with unique variables that present themselves depending on different stories and places.
What did you hope to capture with this series? And how did that translate into your process?
Nearly 400,000 people have been displaced by renewed ethnic violence in Ituri Province on the eastern border the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than 40,000 of them have fled Congo entirely, crossing Lake Albert into Uganda. I hoped to show a glimpse into this relatively forgotten refugee crisis.
That translates to ensuring I am in the places I need to be and have the access to take pictures of the lives of those effected.
Can you tell us about your experiences while shooting in Uganda, from the banks of Lake Albert to the Kyangwali refugee settlement?
Our first stop in the assignment was Sebagoro, a village on the edge of Lake Albert. You can actually see Congo from the Ugandan side. This was a landing site for the majority of refugees at the time. The journey can take anyway from three to ten hours in rickety wooden boats.
The arrival is quite random so we waited to see families as they came in and were processed by UNHCR and the Ugandan government. They were then transported by bus to Kyangwali refugee settlement — about a two-hour bus ride from Sebagoro.
In Kyangwali, we documented daily life in the camp, as well as a cholera treatment center, which had documented 2,000 cases in the settlement.
The United Nations says nearly 80 percent of those who have fled to Uganda are women and children. Does this correlate to your experiences on the ground? And what struck you most about the refugees you met? Did you have the chance to hear their stories?
Yes, the amount of women and children was notable, not to say the camp had no men, but it was quite apparent. Many men stayed behind in their villages in Congo, sending the women and children. The stories people told of the violence in Congo was nothing short of horrific. It seemed if you weren’t killed at home in your village in Congo, you had no choice but to flee to Uganda or else you would die of starvation in the bush.
The majority of these shots make no effort to beautify the situation in Uganda. How conscious are you of avoiding highly aesthetic shots, while compiling such a report? And what are your considerations when it comes to composition and style?
First and foremost my job is to document. I think there is a difference in beautifying a situation and trying to make a photograph with visual appeal. Obviously, I want to make a photograph that draws attention and I think photographs need to have visual appeal to accomplish this.
In this case, there was no effect to beautify the situation, because it wasn’t a beautiful situation. It was, and still is, a crisis and I want people to know that.
You shot this series with the Leica M Typ 240. When did you start shooting with this camera? And what do you consider the advantages of your set up for reportage photography?
I first started using Leica cameras in 2013 and have been hooked ever since. The M240 is one of my favorite cameras to work with. I generally just work with a 35 Summicron. It’s small and less intimidating then a lot of the bigger SLR cameras but provides the same quality. Working with a rangefinder helps to slow me down and think more about the frame.
What are you currently working on and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I’m currently working on continuing a project to understand the multitude of conflicts in DRC and the impact it plays on the destabilization of the country as a whole. I’m also making a trip to Yemen soon.
And finally, what one piece of advice would you offer to anyone looking to become a professional documentary photographer/photojournalist?
Make mistakes and learn from them, and always treat the people you are photographing with respect.