Last year, Canadian-British photographer Finbarr O’Reilly shot an image for The New York Times, which featured four Congolese girls playing trumpets in a churchyard. Just outside the frame, Ebola was crushing the region. But in O’Reilly’s photograph, just for a moment, the beauty of daily life takes center stage.
This week, O’Reilly has been awarded the 11th Carmignac Photojournalism Award: an annual prize given to photojournalists covering human rights violations. Typically, the award includes a six-month shooting assignment, but that’s been halted indefinitely due to COVID-19. Instead, we’re left to ponder O’Reilly’s existing body of work illustrating daily life in the throes of a public health crisis, which feels eerily prescient as we navigate the new terrain of a global pandemic. O’Reilly’s images show Congolese neighbors and Red Cross burial workers gathered around the homes of families who have lost loved ones to Ebola, capturing the tension between the universal human need for community and the very real risk of closeness when an infectious disease looms. But his photographs also reveal remarkable resilience, as residents adapt to new ways of living.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a long and troubled history with viruses. The country has battled outbreaks of Ebola and measles (and now COVID-19) while operating with a fragile health system. “This is a population that has been through some of the most traumatic experiences and always perseveres and finds innovative ways [to adapt],” O’Reilly says. “People survive incredible things and what you find in places like the Congo is a real entrepreneurial spirit around finding creative solutions for dealing with things like lack of electricity and lack of opportunities—whether that means fixing a car or a motorbike, or getting products over mountains and all kinds of obstacles to deliver to a market.”
The same is true for how residents have handled infectious disease outbreaks, as they’ve developed new rituals to encourage safe distancing. The photograph above shows the funeral of an 11-month-old girl who died during the Ebola outbreak, as mourners huddle together behind a line of Red Cross workers. Ebola is less infectious, though much deadlier, than COVID-19, and it’s transmitted through bodily fluids, not aerosol spray; that’s why mourners keep a distance from the casket, but not each other.
Photographs have a way of bringing daily life into sharp focus. In O’Reilly’s case, they offer a haunting portrait of the past that now resembles much of the world’s present. “[In the DRC] people just have to cope with whatever they’re confronted with because they have no choice,” he says. “And now we are also confronted with things we have no control over. We’re buffeted by these global forces, but we have to adapt.”
O’Reilly will continue his exploration of how the country grapples with COVID-19, and will collaborate with Congolese journalists and foreigners based in the DRC to do so. Their work will be featured on the official “Congo in Conversation” platform launching April 28.