Guerchom Ndebo: reframing the Congo

The 22-year-old Congolese photojournalist discusses his approach to reporting events in his homeland, what drives his work and how he got his start in photography while still a student.
Two men in wellington boots beside a smoking kiln made with earth, one adding fuel.

Participating in the project Congo in Conversation gave Congolese-born Guerchom Ndebo his big break in photojournalism. "At its heart, the project was about collaboration," he says, "which was key in helping me to make rapid progress." In this image, villagers fuel a kiln to make charcoal on a section of deforested land at the edge of Virunga National Park, just north of the eastern Congolese city of Goma. Taken on a Canon EOS M50 with a Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 21mm, 1/1600 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Guerchom Ndebo for the Carmignac Foundation

It wasn't a camera that first sparked Guerchom Ndebo's interest in photography. It was a mirror. Growing up, his mother worked as a seamstress, and as a child he was always fascinated to see her clients' reactions when they tried on their new clothes, looked at their reflections and saw themselves in a new way. "I was curious, I wanted to share their emotions," explains the 22-year-old Congolese photojournalist. Guerchom now uses his photography to help others see his homeland in new ways, holding up a mirror to the Congo. It's a country that has been photographed extensively by outsiders – from Alice Seeley Harris's anti-slavery images in the 19th century to Richard Mosse's 2014 Deutsche Börse Prize-winning bright pink landscapes – but Guerchom's images give an insider's perspective.

Currently a student in Communication Sciences at Bujumbura Light University, Guerchom got his first big break in the photography industry with his series Congo's Charcoal. It was developed as part of the Congo in Conversation project spearheaded by Canon Ambassador Finbarr O'Reilly for the 11th Carmignac Photojournalism Award.

Originally, when Finbarr was named the winner of the award, he'd planned to report from the Congo himself. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, he revised his vision, switching roles from photographer to curator. The result was a collaborative website offering Congo-based journalists and photographers – Guerchom among them – a platform to share the multimedia coverage they were producing and an outlet where narratives about the country could be told by the people who lived there.

A group of people emerging from thick white smoke, walking across black jagged rocks and rubble.

In May 2021, Guerchom covered the deadly eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in Goma. His images of the aftermath appeared worldwide, in publications including CNN, The Guardian and Al Jazeera. Taken on a Canon EOS M50 with a Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 15mm, 1/320 sec, f/3.5 and ISO400. © Guerchom Ndebo / AFP

Growing profile

Guerchom's Congo's Charcoal series investigated the country's illegal charcoal trade, following the process from production by workers in Virunga National Park to consumption in the stoves of the local populace. "Charcoal has been part of my daily life since I was a child. I always wondered how we were magically able to use it to cook food," Guerchom says. "When I got involved in Congo in Conversation, I wanted to explore a subject that was important to me and to share it with others."

It wasn't easy – gaining access took a long time, and the presence of armed groups in charge of the trade was a potential danger – but once the work was published, it quickly set Guerchom on the road to success. After his photographs were exhibited in Paris, Getty Images got in touch and he began working for them as a freelancer, covering news in the east of the Congo – beginning with the assassination of the Italian ambassador, Luca Attanasio, in February 2021. The young photojournalist has since shot reportage for Agence France-Presse (AFP), and his images of the May 2021 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo and its aftermath featured in the media worldwide.

"I come from a place that has, for a long time, been under-represented in the media," says Guerchom. "There are so many stories in my country and my region that haven't yet been told. I'm constantly pitching to my editors – it's not often that I run out of ideas."

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A group of women in colourful, traditional Congolese clothing and headscarves talking to a man with a baseball cap.

Guerchom took courses in film directing and scriptwriting, but found his calling in photography. This image shows some of the 30,000 residents who were forced to flee their homes following the volcanic eruption of Mount Nyiragongo. Taken on a Canon EOS M50 with a Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 32mm, 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400. © Guerchom Ndebo

Constant risk

In his work, which tends to focus on the environment, human rights and culture, Guerchom often reports on situations that are unpredictable and dangerous. For instance, he recently photographed pro-democracy demonstrations and civil unrest in Goma during curfews imposed during the city's Covid-19 lockdown. "There are always risks when you're covering stories, especially in my country, where it can be hard to get access when you're working on certain, more sensitive topics. But I know the region well, so I understand how things work here," he says. "At demonstrations especially, you need to be careful because you don't know what's going to happen from one moment to the next, and sometimes there are real bullets being fired, sometimes tear gas. I try to situate myself behind the police as a precaution."

It was handy that Guerchom's first camera – a Canon EOS M50 – was discreet. He says, "With that camera, I could blend in without attracting attention. It helped when I was shooting my charcoal project because I didn't come across as a professional photographer, and because it's so light I could move around rapidly when covering protests." He's since moved on to the Canon EOS R5. "It's the best camera I've got my hands on," he enthuses. "The performance and quality are just top notch – I'm discovering this more and more all the time."

A top-down shot showing several rows of white helmeted police officers blocking the path of a group of protesters carrying purple and pink banners.

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A funeral procession: a woman in uniform with a green beret holds a portrait of a man in the same uniform while bystanders stand solemnly, many taking photographs.

The steepest learning curve for Guerchom has been building a narrative within his work. His project Congo's Charcoal explores many aspects of charcoal production and its consequences. This image was taken at the funeral of Eric Kibanja Bashekere, one of more than 200 Virunga National Park rangers to have been killed by armed groups in attacks that have been occurring for at least a decade. Taken on a Canon EOS M50 with a Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 30mm, 1/1000 sec, f/5 and ISO320. © Guerchom Ndebo for the Carmignac Foundation

Helping hand

Participating in this year's Canon Student Development Programme (CSDP) has helped Guerchom to keep pushing his pictures, and his career, to the next level. "I've learned so much, it's been really significant for me," he says.

A key benefit of the programme has been the chance for Guerchom to receive one-on-one mentoring from Francis Kohn, AFP's director of photography. The main element they've focused on is editing, something that younger photographers – and also some very established photographers – can find tricky. "You can take lots of great pictures, but then you have to really home in on what's essential to the story and trim down," Francis explains.

Francis adds that, for him, it's Guerchom's ability to get straight to the point that stands out. "In his images, he's able to translate complex stories into something that people can understand in a simple way. That's a really hard thing to do. I find there's a real maturity to his work."

Two Congolese men struggling to push heavily laden motorcycles through flooded city streets.

Guerchom's approach to photography is motivated by "concepts of equality, cultural difference and solidarity". This image, from his Congo's Charcoal series, shows people transporting hundreds of kilos of charcoal on their motorcycles in the eastern Congolese city of Goma. Taken on a Canon EOS M50 with a Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 45mm, 1/640 sec, f/6.3 and ISO200. © Guerchom Ndebo for the Carmignac Foundation

Francis, who began his career nearly four decades ago as AFP's Washington correspondent, admits it's a tough time to be starting out in photojournalism. "But I would never discourage anyone from joining the industry. You can make it if you have talent and determination," he says, adding that the Canon Student Development Programme is a great way in.

Guerchom agrees. "For those of us who don't have access to more traditional routes into the photography industry, the mentoring programme is the best way to learn fast," he says. "I hope this opportunity will continue to be expanded to more photographers from under-represented places like the Congo and other African countries."

As for his own future, Guerchom says he's dreaming big: "I'd like to keep working hard so that one day I might be a Canon Ambassador myself, sharing my experience with others, working on big subjects, getting published in big magazines and having exhibitions so the public can see my work," he says. "Telling stories through images is my passion. Every day I'm improving so I can make these dreams a reality. And when I have done that, my biggest dream is to keep telling more stories."

Rachel Segal Hamilton

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