Deeply personal, often arresting photographs give a glimpse into the lives of Congolese women and their families in “Portraits of War: The Democratic Republic of Congo,” a new photography exhibition at Mesa Community College.
Part of Congo/Women — an international traveling exhibition and an educational campaign about the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls in the DRC — the images are accompanied by essays that give context to conditions in the Congo, where the average life expectancy for a woman is 46, and 20 percent of children do not live past age 5.
An opening reception, slated for 6 p.m. Wednesday, will feature an African dance performance and special guest Leslie Thomas, the show’s curator. Here, Thomas tells more about the gripping — and graphic — show.
Q: What can people expect when they visit the exhibition?
A: The photos in the exhibition are both black-and-white and in color. The color images are very large — 10 feet wide by 7 feet to 6 feet tall — and they provide intimate experiences in which viewers can spend time with women in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have been experiencing extreme stress and often violence.
Q: What are some of the challenges women there face?
A: The women in these photographs face extreme challenges in surviving childbirth, in providing for their infants and children, in supporting their families financially, in accessing the most basic health care and educational support. They are immeasurably brave and have had the generosity of spirit to manage to share their stories while dealing with things that the rest of us would never have to imagine, much less face.
Q: Tell us about the process of finding and curating such powerful imagery.
A: For me, the Congo/Women journey began when I met (photographer) Marcus Bleasdale and saw some of the work he’d been doing over the past decade in the DRC. His understanding of the complexities there inspired (photographer) Lynsey Addario, with whom I had recently worked on the Darfur/Darfur projections, (who) went to eastern Congo to spend time with women and their families who had experienced extreme gender violence. Additionally, we added images taken previously by Bleasdale, Ron Haviv, and James Nachtwey to provide a full picture of the situation.
Q: Why did these women allow photographers to take their pictures?
A: Because they are brave. And because they would like their story to be told to protect other women.
Q: What effect has the economic downturn had on people’s interest or empathy for the Congo/Women campaign?
A: It’s always tough to connect to people when they feel an issue doesn’t touch them. But violence against women and girls infects all communities. Sadly, it’s been part of human history forever, and the exhibition often serves as a reminder that we need not only to stand with women in the DRC but also here at home.
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