Things Fall Apart: Masculinity and Violence in Congo

Democratic Republic of Congo War
Pete Muller
An unnamed Congolese soldier stands for a portrait in a village in North Kivu province.

Last month, as the UK held the first-ever global summit aimed at ending sexual violence in conflict zones, Pete Muller was asked to present his portraits of Congolese women who had been victims of such crimes and, in some cases, have spoken out against their assailants.

There’s no doubt that the 32-year-old American photographer, who is now based in Nairobi, Kenya, is proud of these portraits, which he produced for the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict. Yet, he tells TIME, these photographs don’t tell the whole story.

“[Behind the story] of almost every brutalized woman, there’s a man. But somehow, it’s become a women’s issue and their burden. They have to learn how to cope with the things that we, men, do, and we’re sort of left off the hook. The question should be: ‘How can we stop this from happening in the first place?’”

With financial support from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, Muller has spent the last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) photographing and talking to men – soldiers and civilians. His goal is to “understand the causes of male-perpetrated violence,” he says. “I’ve been talking at length with these guys about their impression of what being a successful man means. For example, in Congo, I found traditional ideas of manhood, where a man has to provide for his family and defends it. So, I ask them whether they feel they fit that definition. I’m working around the hypothesis that when men are not able to achieve what are often rigid standards of what makes successful manhood, they become extremely anxious and volatile, and they will revert to dangerous and violent behavior in order to try to assert themselves as men.”

Rape Trail in Democratic Republic of Congo

Pete Muller—AP

Sido Bizinungu, a close associate of Lt. Col Kebibi Mutware, smokes a cigarette after being convicted of crimes against humanity in the town of Baraka, Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday, Feb. 21, 2011. Ten of eleven accused solders were found guilty of crimes against humanity including Mutware, who was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Kebibi is the highest ranking Congolese army officer to have been convicted of crimes against humanity. The group carried out a mass rape and looting campaign in the town of Fizi in January.

In the DRC, a country in tatters after two decades of conflict and civil war, men and soldiers have experienced an unimaginable level of trauma, says Muller. “In society, a soldier with a gun is seen as a powerful man, but within the structure of the military, these guys are often unpaid for months at a time, they can’t provide for their families, they are often on combat operation consistently, sometimes for years. They get no home leave; they get little rations or equipment. And they get zero psychological support.”

When Muller has managed to talk with these soldiers, the results have been surprising, he tells TIME. “They’re used to foreign journalists asking them about the war, so when I ask them about their childhood, their fathers and their kids, the emotional outpouring is really touching.”

These conversations will form part of Muller’s body of work. “I’m still figuring out what the best concept will be for this,” he says. “I don’t want to put anybody in a dangerous situation, so I’ve included portraits of men I didn’t speak with, and there are people that I did talk to but didn’t photograph. And I’m giving everybody anonymity. I don’t even share first names.”

Muller plans to continue the work in South Africa and Namibia, and he hopes to find further funding to add Palestine and the U.S. to his list. “I think this issue is universal,” he says. “Myself, I was raised to be quite masculine – playing football, fist fighting. It took me a long time to be in touch with myself and get away from that social posturing. People talk about photography as therapy, and I know some disagree with that, but for me, this work is very therapeutic.


Pete Muller is a photographer based in Kenya. He was named LightBox’s 2011 Wire Photographer of the Year. See more of his work here.

Olivier Laurenis the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent.


 

Related Topics: , , , ,

Latest Posts

2014.  Gaza.  Palestine.  Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from 8 July 2014 – 26 August 2014, killing 2,189 Palestinians of which 1,486 are believed to be civilians. 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.  It's estimated that 4,564 rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

Inside Gaza with Photographer Peter van Agtmael

What photographer Peter van Agtmael encountered in Gaza changed the way he worked.

Read More
WASTELAND PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated December 2014 and exclusively in conjunction thereof.  No copying, distribution or archiving permitted.  Sublicensing, sale or resale is prohibited.     REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM.  Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing.        Mandatory usage requirements: (Please note: you may select 5 branded images for online use and 3 images for print/unbranded)1. Include mandatory photo credit with each image2. Show the December cover of National Geographic somewhere in the post (credit: National Geographic) unless using only one image3. Provide a prominent link to: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/12/superfund/voosen-textat the top of your piece, ahead of the photos 4. Mention that the images are from "the December issue of National Geographic magazine” GOWANUS CANALNew York, New YorkPollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead, copperYear listed: 2010Carved from a tidal estuary 160 years ago, the Gowanus Canal is Brooklyn’s industrial artery—and a deeply polluted waterway. Even so, it’s frequented by herons, seagulls, crabs, and canoeists. Defying local fears of economic stigma, the EPA listed the canal as a Superfund site in 2010. It hopes to start dredging contaminated mud in 2016.

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 24, 2014

Mideast Israel Palestinians

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 14 – Nov. 21

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,253 other followers