The Democratic Republic of Congo, often referred to simply as “DRC”, is a country steeped in reports of extreme violence, corruption and unrest. Citing ethnic conflict and the pursuit of control over abundant mineral resources, The New York Times referred to the country as “one of the biggest battlefields in Africa’s history.” I spoke with photographer Michael Christopher Brown, who is currently based in Goma, about the experience of living and working as a photographer in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The presence of valuable mineral resources is often pointed to as fueling conflict within the country as well as controversy abroad. A lot of attention is being paid to the issue of sourcing “blood minerals” from countries like the DRC, and there has been an increased push for companies, particularly those manufacturing electronics, to be held accountable for the origin of their materials. However, the origin of materials can be difficult to trace even for the manufacturers themselves, as evidenced by Apple’s push to verify that its suppliers were not sourcing material from areas of conflict. On a previous visit to the DRC, Michael Christopher Brown addressed the issues that the country’s mineral resources present. Discussing his iPhone photographs with Time Magazine, Brown discusses the meaning behind his choice to document the mineral trade with a mobile phone: “The electronics industry is one of the main destinations for these minerals, which include tourmaline, cassiterite and coltan. They are used to make critical components of mobile phones, laptops and other gadgets. So it is fitting—if ironic—that I shot this entire essay with my iPhone.”
Returning to the DRC in late 2013, Brown’s photographs examine life within the country as it continues despite conflict. Brown’s current work focuses on issues surrounding the conflict like prostitution and sexual assault.
Although Brown is often featured for his iPhone photography, he is currently shooting with a variety of equipment. “I use medium format film, digital 35mm and iPhone and am shooting video as well.” He states that his best projects “tend to happen by accident, and most times I do not plan too much before embarking on a project. I like to follow instinct.”
I asked Brown about how he transitions back to living in the United States after working on projects like this, which often have such heavy subject matter. Brown says the process of returning home after this type of work has become an easier adjustment, as he has done it so many times. However, traveling to the DRC from the United States “becomes more comfortable but not necessarily easier... If anything it becomes more difficult, as the corruption and habits of how things are done here gets to me after a while.” The violence plaguing the country is well-documented and consistently reported on; Brown’s experience is that unrest is contained to specific areas. “This is the case with a lot of conflicts, the media and/or government(s) makes one believe that the entire country is in chaos but that is just not the case.” He says that staying safe in the country as a photographer is “about knowing the way of the Congolese, knowing something about how to speak with them and knowing at least a bit about their culture.”