The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a country whose Catholic Church is incredibly powerful, with unprecedented national reach compared to other organisations. It’s also a country in political turmoil, with President Joseph Kaliba refusing to stand down. In response to the country’s corrupt and violent government, the Church’s Priests have become symbols of peaceful protest, attempting to lead their people towards an untroubled transition of power.
For London-based photojournalist, Hugh Kinsella Cunningham, the country – as one with recent and current trauma and conflict – provided a chance for him to highlight the resilience and power that exists in its landscape, not the “imagery of pity that the previous generation of photojournalists established as a trope”. Having worked on a series in the DRC the previous year, Hugh decided to travel back to the country to tackle something more heavyweight, with a greater relation to its turbulent situation.
It was after visiting an exhibition of Tim Hetherington’s work that Hugh realised photography was something he wanted to pursue. “I was studying English Literature at the time but realised, from that show, that a narrative depicted with images can be every bit as engaging and emotional as writing,” he tells It’s Nice That. Now, his work builds upon his literature background, telling stories of “extraordinary people in unexpected places”.
The series, Rituals of Resistance (Congo on the Brink), which was originally published on Topic, was shot over a month, as Hugh visited all of the churches involved in political resistance countless times, witnessing several services a day, starting at six AM. “Congo is quite an intimidating place to start reporting from, with photographers initially viewed with total suspicion everywhere,” Hugh explains, “many of the pastors were initially reluctant to be interviewed, which is understandable as, due to recent events, many are being monitored by the regime.”
Spending so much time immersed in his subject, however, proved the significance of the topic. “The Church provides important structure and hope for life in some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods,” he remarks, adding that, “the priests are also far more of an accessible and welcoming authority than the government has ever been.”
Hugh’s depiction of this community is sensitive to these facts. Taking inspiration from fashion photographers, as opposed to photojournalists, his compositions are thoughtful and powerful, placing focus on those he is celebrating. Although beautiful, its the images intentions which really allow them to resonate. “From [the Church’s] perspective,” Hugh comments, “the more international interest their story attracts, the less chance the government will feel it can get away with firing live rounds at peaceful Church-led protests.”
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