Tribune. Burnt villages, mass graves, skulls and bones. of the "Militia" of the "Child soldiers" of the "Warlords". Mines and their "Slaves" camps and their refugees. This is generally the image of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as it is broadcast in Western mainstream media.
This image does not come out of nowhere. Since the late 1990s, a large part of the Congolese population lives in a situation of profound political instability and social uncertainty that causes death, hunger or exile. But these realities are, since the war and the establishment of armed groups in the east of the DRC, accompanied by media stories in which – especially in the run-up to electoral deadlines – there is an expectation or projection of the 'Crisis' of "Chaos" of "The explosion of violence" or " the spark ", passing this country, whose east and west are more than 2,000 km apart, for a gigantic barrel of powder. Such comments are most often based on approximate approaches emphasizing a pseudo "Collapse of the state" and on mortality ("5 million dead") difficult to quantify and verifiable.
In early January, this treatment focused on the spectacular was a boon for the Congolese authorities, who regularly accuse Western observers to distort the realities of their country. During the period between the presidential election of December 30, 2018 the announcement of the results, the Minister of Media and Communication, Lambert Mende, has thus caught the international press gathered before him: "We are not a sort of zoological reserve in which tourists from all over the world, longing for curiosities and thrills, can be invited daily by arsonists to feast on the spectacle of clashes between wild species without faith or laws. "
There is a certain disappointment among some of the special envoys, humanitarian workers, diplomats and other observers who have been waiting for a direct conflict or a humanitarian crisis in the electoral process that has led to the unexpected coexistence of the outgoing president's camp. , Joseph Kabila – whose supporters won the majority of seats in the National Assembly – and that of the new, former opponent Felix Tshisekedi. This negotiated alliance, the last surprising act of a long political process, is hardly suited to a description based on the confrontation of two camps.
The existence of massacres, rape and sexual violence, forced displacement and arbitrary arrests in the DRC can not be questioned. They are documented by the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations. But given the difficulties of access and security problems, these data become the main source of news, reports or analyzes disseminated on a large scale.
They are illustrated with captivating images, like icons, most often unpublished by the Congolese media, in full reconfiguration thanks to digital, but which irrigate social networks to support political speeches. One of the latest, during the long electoral period that has passed, shows a protester kneeling and arms in Kinshasa, in front of the headquarters of the Electoral Commission, after the announcement of the postponement polls from 23 to 30 December. That day, according to several witnesses on the scene, there were more foreign photographers than protesters.
Dread, pity, disgust
In his book Before the pain of others (Christian Bourgeois, 2004), the American intellectual Susan Sontag reflected on the changes brought about by the mass distribution of images taken in "distant" countries similar to the DRC. She distinguished two edges of the world: one, vulnerable, whose suffering, death, bruised bodies are exposed; the other, privileged, which puts in images the first one, looks at it, and remains as for him not exposed, or in a differentiated way. "The more remote or exotic the place, the more we are able to look at the dead and dying in the face," She wrote.
One can imagine that the gap between "exhibited" and "exhibitors" widened with the increase of the production and the diffusion of the images, in particular by the social networks. This inequality affects some continents more than others. From colonial iconography to today, Africa accumulates a type of image that conjures up feelings such as dread, pity or disgust, and whose producers are not Africans. This is what the writer and former deported Imre Kertész equated to a "kitsch" of horror. Susan Sontag's unequal image and narrative rights, unmeasured because they are difficult to measure, form an essential part of our spectator relationship to the violence of the world.
It is not trivial that photos taken in the DRC by foreigners are regularly sources of conflict: this country is perhaps the paragon of a spectacular treatment creating amazement. Depending on whether one is in Paris or Kinshasa, one will have relatively more or less chances to control the diffusion of an image, to qualify a legend, even to denounce a false information. And today, perhaps even more than yesterday, a victim of the attack on a village in the DRC will not be entitled to the same media treatment as a victim of an attack in France.
Recently, the United Nations announced that 890 people were killed in December in the province of Maï-Ndombe (west), 300 km north of Kinshasa. If the concrete causes of this violence are not explained, the first pieces of information constitute a story identical to that concerning the province of Kasaï in 2017, and those relating to the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri since the end. of the 1990s: once again, the event is presented as a "Community conflict" indefinite, with its villages burned, its populations displaced and the threat of famine.
Other images, other media, other purpose. On a social network, we saw on the personal page of a journalist returning from Mai-Ndombe photos of skulls and bones thrown into the nature. Compassionate for the victims, the discourse that accompanied them insisted on the ethnic and organized dimension of the violence, that is to say on its intentional dimension, "genocidal", in spite of the absence of elements of investigation. To arouse such affects, under the pretext of testifying, conceals the need for compassion and admiration that would rightfully belong to the sacrificed explorer. However, the reader is not led to grasp the inscription of these forms of violence in their historical and local context, whose interlocking political and economic dimensions are particularly complex in the DRC.
These remarks are less conducive to questioning the fidelity of images and stories to Congolese realities – I myself had to document them, as a journalist for The world – to question the methods of inquiry and the scriptures that build them. Although it is difficult to establish clearly and immediately the causes of the violence, conducting field surveys long enough to describe at least the factual unfolding. Such research is rare, for many reasons, which are as much a result of the profitability more and more demanded by the system of production of stories and images as training questions of those, researchers and journalists, whose activity is to tell.
Unless we want to continue to expose the pain of others in a fundamentally unequal way, we should also question the type of ethics, distance and positioning that could accompany investigations and writings produced from a field like the DRC. What forms of direct danger or more implicit domination can our subjects be subjected to when they become the figures of our images or the protagonists of our stories? What kind of degradation occurs in the exhibition of the pain of others? If we can hardly avoid looking at the dead and the dying "in the face", what treatment should we apply to them to respect their dignity and not to show them "too closely"? How to apply the right to the image and the story of those, in the DRC and elsewhere, who rarely have access to it?
This type of reflexivity is part of the ordinary field of work of the social sciences, and especially of anthropology since some of its actors take into consideration the conditions of its birth as a discipline in the colonial period. The debate is also present in many literary texts dealing with violence and the issues involved in its storytelling. There is no doubt that journalists can also take part.
Pierre Benetti is a doctoral student in anthropology at EHESS in the Center for the Study of Social Movements (CEMS) and former correspondent of the World in the DRC.