In 2006, as the Alexia Foundation student winner, Melanie Blanding traveled to the Congo to tell the stories of the women who had been raped during the conflict in the region. The result was her project “Women in the Congo.”
In this interview, Blanding reflects on her experience in completing the project, and talks of her current work and plans.
Q. How has the Alexia grant influenced your career?
A. It completely altered the direction I went as a photojournalist, from focusing on daily news and trying to find employment with newspapers to focusing more in depth on social justice issues and specifically issues affecting women in conflict or post-conflict conditions. It’s been increasingly difficult for anyone to secure or keep a full-time position with newspapers in the States and it was a spring board for serious work overseas that really allowed me to develop personally and professionally to tell critically important global news and learn the skills necessary to work effectively in a post-conflict environment.
Q. How did seeing what you saw in the Congo change you?
A. Even though I had been overseas before, I had never witnessed first hand the atrocities that people are capable of committing. I could not imagine the energy devoted to such creative volatility – all the tactics to humiliate and destroy other people. It shook me to my core and raised so many ethical questions for me about the nature of humanity, my place in the global community and what personal responsibility I had now that I knew what was happening.
I had never witnessed first hand the atrocities that people are capable of committing
I was disappointed by the lack of awareness that the Western world has regarding our impact in conflict regions. In some instances, our market demands even create conflict globally. I can’t change everything, fix everything or help every victim I meet (try as I might!), nor, I have learned, is it my lone responsibility. There must be a concerted national (Congolese in this case) and international effort. That does not absolve me of personal responsibility though. I’m a communicator. I have a camera and ways to help others share their story. I should do my part with what I have.
My brother, Scott, started an organization called Women in War Zones to raise awareness through story telling and to channel resources back to Panzi Hospital, where much of the work was documented. Scott and Brad LaBriola made a film focusing on victims of sexual violence as well and we used the organization as a platform to feature the photography and organize film screenings to raise awareness and funding. I volunteered for WIWZ for four years and now I’m an advisor. It eventually led to the creation of the Wamu Center for literacy and education in Panzi, in memory of one of the young women whose life we documented most extensively.
The website is www.womeninwarzones.org
Q. Tell us about a moment from the project that you will never forget.
A. I was visiting Kaziba in South Kivu and a group of survivors had gathered to tell me their stories. One woman stood up in a crowded room of more than 100 people, and started taking her clothes off as she was speaking. She was telling me about the scars left after being brutally attacked by a rebel group. I asked how many women had been physically scarred from the attacks and every one of them raised their hand. The building where we were meeting was still under construction so I invited any woman who wanted to show me how they had been attacked into a private, empty room and let them strike the pose they wanted to communicate their story. I had time to photograph and interview about 15 women before it got too late to stay out in the village, when the risk of a rebel attack on the road was still too common.
Q. What did you do after your time with Women in Warzones?
A. Focusing in more depth (compared to my background in daily news) on a specific issue like sexual violence in Congo encouraged me to pursue further education, so I decided to study for a Masters in Visual Anthropology. I love the combination of reportage with a well researched approach. I took a step back from my regular responsibilities with WIWZ and switched to an advisory position. I was still doing speaking engagements, but really couldn’t commit the same amount of time I had invested up to that point. In an effort to raise awareness about the issues and needs of women in Congo, I wasn’t shooting as much and I really wanted to get back to my strength and primary role as a photographer.
In 2011, I was awarded a fellowship from an organization called Focus for Humanity (www.focusforhumanity.org). Through that opportunity, I moved to Uganda and was based in the capitol, Kampala, until this month. I spent the year volunteering for young or underfunded organizations, mostly Ugandan, and was also able to pick up some paid work simply by being in the area and knowing the region. I went back to Congo twice to document updates for WIWZ programs in Bukavu, South Kivu.
Q. Why Africa? What keeps calling you back there?
A. That’s where I have relationships. My first overseas experience was in The Comoros Islands as a 19-year-old. I had cousins teaching English at a university there and I had always wanted an opportunity to travel. It was an excellent, peaceful and very friendly environment where I could learn and give something back to the local community at the same time.
I enjoy traveling and would love to work in other regions, but the way my network has developed has taken me back to east Africa most frequently. There’s no such thing as a photographer who simply goes somewhere all alone and makes something of it. Even if you walk off a plane by yourself, you’ve got to build relationships within the community to find a place to stay, eat, get around – all the basics. And if you’ve got a specific assignment to fill, then you’re probably coordinating with a fixer, often a translator and of course the individuals and issues being photographed.
I was so compelled by the stories women in Congo were sharing that I couldn’t leave and ignore what I heard. For at least that time in my life, 2006-2010, I knew I was doing what I was supposed to, where I was supposed to, when I was supposed to in eastern Congo. I hope there will be more significant projects in my lifetime, in east Africa and elsewhere.
Q. What are you working on now? Can you sum up your life and your work at the moment?
A. I’m working on building a sustainable business. A lot of documentary photographers have left the industry over the past few years or decided to make a living pursing other types of photography. We don’t always have the luxury of focusing on work and stories that we want to tell. It’s certainly not easy to make it in documentary work right now and not all of the work is glamorous. Believe it or not, work can become incredibly repetitive overseas, just like it can in the States. There’s no pet of the week, but the stories of war, famine and poverty throughout Africa are unfortunately very common. I spend a lot of time in orphanages and hospitals. I’ve been working on a number of short-term assignments for organizations needing updates in annual reports, feature stories and portraits for editorial publications, covering stories like the drought in the Horn of Africa. I don’t have another big project in the works just yet.
Q. What are the themes that run through you work? Do you have a long term project you are working on?
A. My work has focused more and more on humanitarian needs the past couple years. I like in depth, issue reporting, but it’s hard to find funding or a home for those pieces, even though they’re stories that really need to be told. There are so many needs and issues affecting people and communities globally, I keep gravitating to themes that especially affect women, home, the land and sense of community. Not so much landscapes, but the way people are connected to land that means something significant to them.
At first I felt like a failure with the work in Congo, because the violence wasn’t stopping and it was difficult to get it published anywhere.
I’ve had the idea of Home in mind for a couple years, but haven’t pushed too hard to produce anything on it yet. I think it stems from my own desire to have a more permanent home base again, and a community where I’m personally invested on more than a visual level. I’ve been traveling for so many years I don’t know how to stop right now. So I’m fascinated by what makes a place a Home and how people create that. Even someone ‘homeless’ has places they frequent most regularly and a niche carved out in their community; then I think of refugees, who have been forced from their home for political reasons or natural disasters, with little to no planning. I have a handful of images and interviews saved, but it’s the sort of piece which I think I’ll be working on for a few years or more, even if I’m the only person who ever sees the work.
Q. What is the most frustrating or difficult element of the work you are currently doing?
A. At first I felt like a failure with the work in Congo, because the violence wasn’t stopping and it was difficult to get it published anywhere. Talking about sexual violence isn’t at the top of most ‘polite conversation’ in the West. Not even in Congo really, but they have to face it because it’s in the midst of so many families. I had to deal with feelings of guilt for being born where I was and for not being able to do enough to help the women. I had to recognize that overwhelming circumstances take a monumental community and often nation-wide effort. Nobody else expected me to solve all the problems, I needed to give myself the freedom to do what I could and not agonize over all that I couldn’t. I wouldn’t be able to continue covering humanitarian issues if I hadn’t come to that realization; being overwhelmed debilitates a person and then they’re not useful for the work they intended.
Q. What are your intentions for the future?
A. I’d love to find a full-time position right now, with a publication or organization, so I can focus on being a good photographer and good story-teller and less on managing a business. I work on my own a lot but I really love being part of a team, even if it’s just coming back to an office or coffee shop a couple times a week for camaraderie and to talk shop. Full-time is scarce though, so as long as I’m a freelancer, I’m trying to get to the point where I have enough consistent clients to work on shorter assignments eight or nine months a year, and focus on one larger project the rest of the year.
The starting point for the interview was the questionnaire Blanding completed which is featured in the “About the photographer” section of her project, “Women in the Congo.”