Swedish photojournalist Per-Anders Pettersson recently won 3rd prize in the contemporary issues, singles at World Press Photo for a Congo image. He speaks to Mike Stanton, CPN Editor, about forgotten conflicts, a boat trip from hell and his passion for the Canon EOS 5D.
“I’m drawn to places like South Africa, like Cambodia, that have suffered terribly and yet survive,” says Per-Anders Pettersson. “I want to be part of people’s daily lives during their most difficult time. I learn so much from these people.”
Per’s desire to document the survival of people in “those places” has taken the Cape Town-based photographer to more than 50 countries over the past 16 years, covering news and features for the likes of Stern, Geo and Newsweek, and is a contract photographer for Getty Images. His most well-known work, a 10-year project to capture life in South Africa, has won him awards and been exhibited at Perpignan’s Visa Pour L’Image.
But in late 2005, looking for a new, long-term assignment, the 39-year-old felt the pull of the Congo, a country defined almost, at least in Western eyes, by seemingly unending conflict, famine and corruption. Over the following 12 months he made four trips to this vast and, in places, impenetrable land, producing images that tell a remarkable and complex story.
The project also coincided with his move from film to digital, and specifically to Canon and its EOS 5D, a camera that Per believes has “set the standard for professional photography”.
Travelling light, and with his ever-present fixer, he started in Katanga Province in December 2005 to document one of worst humanitarian crises since World War 2. In a country of 62 million people, more than four million have died since 1996, mostly from preventable diseases such as malaria, measles, diarrhoea, respiratory infections and malnutrition. Although the refugee crisis has improved a little, many are continually fleeing the fighting between the Congolese army and Mai-Mai rebels in eastern Congo.
Per was in Dubie at the end of 2005 when 20,000 refugees arrived in the space a week. “The Katanga crisis was the forgotten crisis,” says Per. “There were very few journalists covering it. They went to other places like Kivu and Goma, and near the Ugandan border, but not Katanga. I was one of the first to cover it. There is still fighting there and still many refugees.”
Many of those who find work in Katanga end up in the mineral mines. The Congo has some of the largest copper deposits in the world and most of it is exported to booming China. To go to the mining areas, Per had to gain permission from the minister of the interior in Kinshasa. When he arrived at the Ruashi mine in Lubumbashi he discovered that children as young as eight were working in dangerous conditions and that several of the 4,000 miners were losing their lives every month.
When Per returned to the Congo in the spring of 2006, his aim was to paint a picture of one of the world’s great natural features and the people who rely on it. The 4,800km Congo River, in Africa second only in length to the Nile, is the country’s main lifeline. A much fought-over source of food and drink, vital to trade and transport, it rises in the mountains of Katanga in the South East, becoming almost a sea of its own, before surging into the Atlantic 400km west of the capital Kinshasa. His five-week, 1,800km boat trip from Kisangani to Kinshasa was not one is likely to forget.
“First, I got a journalist visa in Kinshasa. That cost about $500 and took a day or two.” He then took a two-and-a-half hour flight to Kisangani, reported to local ministers and set about finding a boat. He was lucky; it took just three days. “I know someone who waited three weeks to get on a boat,” he says.
But this was a “vessel from hell”, says Per. “The captain and the passengers were sane enough, but the crew was a total nightmare with untrained young men, who had no experience, fighting constantly among themselves and their girlfriends.
“I often thought we weren’t going to make it. We got stuck in the river several times in the middle of nowhere. There was no radio on board, no phones, lifeboats or life jackets, and only two toilets for about 500 people. There were also a lot of animals [on board] such as crocodiles, big lizards, monkeys, turtles, and snakes.”
Some of the passengers were on their way to see relatives, others simply trading their wares, but many were looking for a new life.
Thirteen-year-old Clarisse Mondo, whose sister had died just days earlier, was travelling to Bumba in search of her mother. “We found out that her mother had moved to Goma,” says Per, “and she had no way of contacting her. Clarisse was looked after by a family on the boat and decided to follow them to Kinshasa to start a new life.”
One of the biggest challenges on the trip was charging his camera and laptop batteries. “The boat had a small generator that was on occasionally when petrol was available. Without it, I could not have taken any pictures.”
Food was available from the many villages along the way selling fish, fruit and vegetables. But water was more problematic. “The other passengers used the water straight out of the river for everything - cooking, drinking and washing themselves. If I’d have drunk it, I would be dead now. I brought 100 litres of water with me and the first thing I did when we stopped along the river was to find clean water for washing. In the last week of the trip I didn’t really wash at all because there were fewer places to look for water.”
In Kinshasa, a city of eight million people, Per, like many who had made the journey for the first time, discovered the dark irony of its old nickname, ‘La Belle Kin’. Work is hard to come by in the capital and after four decades of mismanagement under the corrupt dictatorship of Joseph Mobuto there is almost no public transport.
“There is just one commuter train making two trips a day,” says Per. “Thousands of men cling onto it. I saw no women on this train.”
In the Matonge district of central Kinshasa, Per found Betty Nginamawa and her friends working as prostitutes for as little as US$1 a trick. Betty is one of an estimated 15,000 children working the streets of the city. She had been rejected by her family and although able to live in a shelter, she would not abide by the rules and was therefore often homeless. Just before Per arrived in Kinshasa, the shelter threw her out after she was caught supplying the other girls with Valium.
With scenes of harsh existence all around him, Per-Anders was keen to reveal another more prosaic and frivolous side to the capital. “When I saw ads for the Miss Congo competition I jumped at the chance. I always want to find something that is uplifting,” he says.
His most recent trip, in autumn 2006, was to eastern Congo when he was able to attach himself to a CNN TV crew that was filming army movements in the area. He visited a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders and found a government soldier who had injured his hand after fighting with fellow soldiers. MSF is one of the few organizations working in difficult areas of Congo and Per realised that the doctors were very sensitive and a little hesitant about him taking pictures.
“It helped that it was a small camera and I was allowed to take pictures, but because the patient was a government soldier and the doctors were very weary of appearing to take sides and there were a lot of rebel soldiers in the area. So his uniform was removed. The doctors help everyone and need to be seen to be independent.”
As Per prepares to return to the Congo for the fifth time in 15 months, he reflects on what drives him to such places.
“I’m a photojournalist of the old generation and I’ve never been just interested in photography or photography as an art. My main aim is not about capturing the most outstanding or award-winning images. My aim is to understand the story I’m working on and then capture if fairly and with the utmost respect for the people I spend time with.
“I started the Congo trip on my own, without a commission, before Getty supported me. If you have a passion you should just do it, even if it’s not always easy. I have lost money on nearly all of my trips, but you can get it back on other assignments. You shouldn’t always do what the client wants you do. You have to make sacrifices sometimes.”
Per Anders Petterson’s equipment:
2 x EOS 5D
EF24mm f/1.4L USM (rarely uses)
EF35mm f/1.4L USM (mostly uses)
EF50mm f/1.4 USM (sometimes uses)
EF70-200 f/4L USM (rarely uses)
Mac laptop (15-inch)
4 memory cards
On the Congo trip Per took the two 5D bodies, the 35mm, 50mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses (he no longer has the latter). He also carried a phone, laptop and batteries. Most of the images were taken with the 35mm lens. The 70-200mm lens was seldom used.
“Many people ask me how I can get the colour I do on film or digital and whether I have any special settings or filters, etc. I don’t do anything. I use standard settings. but the colour and pictures come from my eyes and how I see the world, and how I expose it.
I was probably one of the photographers refusing the longest to switch to digital. For a good reason: I mainly do magazine work. I needed something that equalled film or was better. With the EOS 5D, I had suddenly found a camera that suited all my needs and I switched from using Nikon and Leica.
I use a big file size and full size chip. And the quality is really outstanding especially in low light. I mostly use the camera on 100 ASA and only in very dark light would I use higher ASA. With the 35mm lens I use it mostly wide open.
I service my equipment about three times a year, after a long trip or if I’ve been to sandy areas. I’ve never had any problems with dirty sensors…probably because I rarely take the lenses off the cameras. I nearly always have the same lenses on each camera.”
“James Nachtwey was an early inspiration for me, especially his book, Deeds Of War and his colour work. I’ve always liked many of the older generation of National Geographic photographers such as William Albert Allard, and Steve McCurry has always been an inspiration.
For me a great image is one that tells a story about an issue or the subject matter. I feel it’s more important for an image to have a journalistic rather than an aesthetic value.”
Biography: Per-Anders Pettersson
Per-Anders Pettersson was born in Sweden in 1967. In 1990, he began covering major stories around the world for the likes of Stern, Geo and Newsweek. Per now lives in Cape Town and is contracted to Getty Images. He has gained several international awards for his work.