In recent times, the age-old conflict between the government and rebel groups in the eastern border region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has flared up once again. For his current project, the London-based photographer, Hugh Kinsella Cunningham, portrayed people who have been driven from their villages by armed forces, and now face an uncertain future in makeshift refugee camps. Amid all the devastating reportage photos, however, moments of humaneness and proximity can often be found.

What drew you to photography and how did you get started in the field?
Concerning photography, I thought it would be a key to travel and unlock the world. It has become that somewhat, but I swiftly learnt that I am the kind of person who loves working and covering one specific context. Within that context though, I am fortunate enough to have commissions for which I get to travel: photography has been the luckiest passport to travel all over the Congo, from the jungles to the savannah, to the conflict zones. I have met the Pope, photographed the front lines, and seen people all across the country struggle and thrive in adversity. I have covered environmental stories too, but always with a focus on the relationship with humans. Meeting people and learning about the world through their stories is what drives me, and with photojournalism you really can feel like you are making a tiny impact on how history will be recorded.

How does your work as a photographer influence your personality and attitude towards social issues?
It is easy to become overwhelmed when witnessing grief and violence firsthand. It is clear that perpetrators of violence in certain global and local contexts have become more emboldened in their actions. Aggressor armed forces or rebel groups are rarely shamed by their own actions. So photojournalism of the suffering and violence these factions create can be seen as a political act or an advocacy tool. That advocacy falls flat if attention is not paid and no consequences arise.
Hidden power is also frustratingly complex to depict. As an example, in December 2022, I was able to access a town in East Congo where local armed groups were being mobilized by the state to fight the M23 rebels. These local armed groups are notorious for their brutality, and I witnessed and photographed child soldiers in their ranks. The creation and dissemination of these images, and of the impact on civilians in the area, only tell half the story. Access to these young men on the ground, suffering and inflicting suffering, is far from the political space where these decisions are made.

So, the limits of photography can be clear if you wish to perceive the form as a means to an end for positive change. This is why the visibility of issues is always key. Stories and ideas must be recorded. It is historically important to create a visual record of our world, and that is a powerful incentive to keeping working and highlighting good work done by community members.

What do you want to convey with the deliberate choice of portraits?
This whole community has been uprooted by the violence, and thousands of tents have become a make-shift city in the mud, rife with disease and sexual violence. Images of people living in the poor conditions of displacement camps evoke a certain feeling. One of pity, of shame, or even of indifference. These images I have taken are intended to remove the indignity and powerlessness of such a situation. The portraits hopefully reflect the personalities and experiences of each individual.

Why did you choose Leica cameras for your work, and how do they enhance your photography?
I was using a DSLR and a zoom lens for many years, and it was time for an upgrade with how far technology has come. The SL2s seemed to fit perfectly with my style. It has a very small body, which helps making portrait sessions more relaxed for the sitter. With a 50mm or 35mm lens, the camera does feel like a very natural extension of yourself, so you can concentrate on the world around. The eye autofocus setting is also great. With portraits especially, you can let the camera do the work, leaving you to completely engage in the interaction with your sitter and their expressions.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers who want to focus on social issues in their work?
Take a risk. If it’s a quieter moment, then look in the opposite direction, see what stories are not being covered. If it’s a big story with much coverage, then evaluate how your version of this history will be different, and engage people in an eye-catching way. Never pursue work you aren’t committed to; and expertise in a certain subject is key.

In 2020, you were on the LOBA Newcomer Award shortlist. What has changed in your life as a photographer since then?
It was a fantastic recognition to be nominated for a story that was very a emotional experience for me: covering the 2019 Ebola epidemic in East Congo. I spent 3 months living in the zone. It was the second deadliest outbreak in history, and the first in an active conflict zone. The chance to highlight the story even more, to have my work seen next to the best photographer’s across the world, and the encouragement from my nominator, Benedetta Donato, were very important. Since then, I have been a finalist for the Amnesty International Media Awards for the past 2 years in a row.

London-based photographer Hugh Kinsella Cunningham specialises in themes revolving around society, health and conflict. He has been working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 2018. His reportage on the Ebola Virus earned him a place on the LOBA newcomer list in 2020. As a fellow of the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, he works for organisations such as Save the Children or the World Health Organisation. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.

Find a comprehensive portfolio of the photographer in LFI Magazine 5.2023.

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