Canon Ambassador Valtteri Hirvonen confesses to being a “bit of a rebel”, but his dark day shoots and grainy images belie a sense of unexpected calm.
Have you ever sat in the middle of chaos and somehow been able to feel a sense of peace? Canon Ambassador Finbarr O'Reilly looks for those quiet moments, where daily life continues as normal, despite a reality that is framed by turmoil, conflict and tragedy. When he took this picture in Eastern Congo, he also recorded the sound – four teenage girls practising music in a dirt yard. Life goes on, despite everything.
“When I finished my degree, I went backpacking through East and Southern Africa – and that's when I travelled through Rwanda and Eastern Congo. Congo is a huge country and such a fascinating place in terms of history, and Eastern Congo is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. It's a land of volcanoes and lakes and looks like parts of Switzerland – a magical place – but it's also a tragic place. I think having been there just as the genocide was unfolding in Rwanda left a mark on me. I got out of there and ended up in South Africa for the elections that brought Nelson Mandela to power, but there was always a part of me that wanted to go back and try to understand what had happened in Rwanda. Almost a million people were killed in Rwanda and then five million more civilians died in Congo as the war spread across Central Africa and dragged on for decades. These are unfathomable numbers. How does how that even happen? How does it get ignored? What's going on in societies where this can happen? I wanted to try and make some sense of it.
My experiences in Rwanda and Southern Africa drew me back, so when I got an offer to work in Congo, I jumped at it and eventually went to work for Reuters as their correspondent in the region. At a certain point, I started adding pictures to my stories and discovered that important stories, largely ignored by the Western media, would end up on the front pages of newspapers or in magazines if I included images. I realised that this was the way to get these stories out. The images had the immediate emotional impact that words simply don’t, and my photography has always been story first. What is happening? What does it mean? And why?
At first, I was probably delivering images I felt that editors wanted but the more I worked, the more I realised that I wanted to challenge people's preconceived notions about places. Yes, I'm covering a conflict in Congo, but let me also provide some additional context by doing a supplementary story on the traditional hairstyles in Congo. In Senegal, where I lived for more than ten years, there was an amazing fashion week and people don't often associate glamour with parts of West Africa. The reality is, if you're in a place with conflict, yes, there will be human tragedy, but people's lives go on at the same time.
This picture is a perfect example. I was covering an Ebola epidemic – one of the scariest diseases known to humankind. It's too easy to be drawn to the drama of the treatment centres, funerals, and fear, as well as the violence that surrounds it, but there are quieter moments. As I walked down the street, I heard the sound of trumpets and on turning a corner I found these girls rehearsing. It was such a beautiful moment; their town was at the centre of the epidemic and this picture challenges all the human drama that was attendant to that situation. These are the stories and images I tend to look for – quiet moments in the middle of chaos.
As a photographer, you're exploring an outer world – a world that is in front of you and around you. But writing my book, Shooting Ghosts, and reflecting on these experiences was also an inward journey to this other landscape of the mind, emotions and psychology. What I've learned is that my own experiences and traumas are very different to those of the people I'm documenting. I have also been shaped by my understanding of who tells the story because across Africa and in Congo, the narratives have been largely determined by foreign, white male photographers, capturing Africans in distress and in situations of crisis. This shapes the picture of a continent, country or people, as we can subconsciously bring our own perspectives, judgments and racial politics, without knowing the harm that can do.
Congo is compelling, both strategically and historically. It’s a very important country and one of the wealthiest in the world in terms of natural resources but has been highly exploited. And although the country is a mess and the war is brutal, Congo is impactful to our collective history in ways we don't even realise. Of course, it is a difficult place to work but I have long-standing relationships and have committed myself to reporting from there – not just for me but because over the last couple of years I have met some extremely talented Congolese journalists who often don't have access to the same kind of opportunities as I do. We’ve been working together to not only develop their skills but to share their work. Their stories deserve to be told.
For example, in 2019 I was commissioned by the Nobel Peace Center as the Nobel Peace Prize photographer, the year Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was the Laureate. But as Ethiopia has such a strong photographic community, should a foreigner be telling the story? I recommended contacting Aida Muluneh to see what we could do together, and the two of us came up with a plan where she would curate the work of Ethiopian photographers, and I would shoot pictures of Ethiopia for the Nobel Peace Prize exhibition. In the end, instead of just me, an outsider providing a very superficial view of the country, we had this nuanced view from half a dozen Ethiopian photographers, half of them women, providing an inside and outside perspective of Ethiopia.
When I was a young, ambitious journalist, I wanted to make a name in the industry. But as you hone your craft and your sense of purpose, it becomes less about ego and more about integrity and purpose. I'm no longer so naive as to think that I can change the world. However, I believe there is great value in contributing to the flow of information coming out of a place or an issue. A single picture can't sum up everything and shift collective consciousness, but we need to address the issues of our time or those we feel are important to us and the societies we live in. In the end, some countries just draw you to them. It comes down to the people you meet and the impact their presence and existence have on you. That’s why I love this image; it shows a place of such joy and humour. The way in which people just get on with life is hugely inspiring – it elevates my spirit. And I don't think I've ever laughed so hard as I've laughed with friends in Congo. It's these little moments in life that give us hope.”
Learn more about Finbarr and his work here.