A personal look at life in the Congo

Story highlights

  • Photographer Leonard Pongo documented daily life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • The African country has struggled over the years with civil war and election violence

(CNN)In 2011, journalists flocked to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to cover the presidential election and the violence leading up to the vote.

Photographer Leonard Pongo had different plans.
"I could have focused on the election, but I chose to follow people around," Pongo said. "I wanted to experience what life in the country was like ... to understand another side of those events -- not those usually reported, but one that was much more personal."
    It was Pongo's burning personal quest that brings us "The Uncanny," a black-and-white series that helps us experience the Congo in flesh and blood.
    These rich portraitures and compositions of Pongo's family members give us a vivid emotion of what it is like to be human as your country spirals into chaos. It is also a photographic detour from the cliche images of the Congo -- a subtler but deeply psychological representation of how war affects daily lives.
    Photographer Leonard Pongo
    War is something only experienced marginally by Pongo, who was born and raised in Belgium to a Belgian mother and a Congolese father. Stories of the Congo were narratives whispered into his European upbringing.
    "I had never been," to Congo, he said. "It was a latent desire I had for a very long time to go there. I don't feel particularly drawn to Belgium ... but going (to Congo) made me feel even more lost."
    Connecting with his family in the Congo, the photographer attended baptisms and weddings, exorcisms and political rallies. Everywhere he looked, he felt a challenge to his core beliefs as he went down his DNA chain.
    "I felt very challenged in my identity, sometimes as a 'white,' others as a 'black' person," Pongo said. "This led to many conflicts, internal and external; many arguments; and it also directed the way I photographed."
    While feeling the warm welcome of his family, Pongo still felt a certain reticence when they looked at the camera. Their trust was not always unshakable, and that state of awareness become synonymous with the Congo.

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    He uses a photo of a family reunion -- the first in the gallery above -- as an example.
    "I find that photo a little disturbing, because all the gazes are going into different directions," Pongo said. "There are clearly some mixed emotions here. And that is the DRC. It is a very complex country, and it is not always easy to read which signs are being communicated. There is a state of tension and confusion."
    Working with the approach of an artisan, Pongo plays with light to create a certain magic in the aura of the people he portrays. It is a useful tool in a place with so many contrasts.
    "I like to remain loyal to the principles of film development and darkrooms," said Pongo, who shot "The Uncanny" on a digital camera. "The light is a combination of using flashes and taking advantage of the amazing presence of the sun. The humid atmosphere, fog and dust renders some interesting possibilities ... like a natural filter."
    Pongo went back in 2013 and said his journey through the country is not over yet.
    "I think I reached my objective, to embed into the daily life in the Congo, which clearly transformed me," he said. "I was allowed into the life of people who were former strangers ... and got a deeper understanding of what daily life in the Congo could feel like.
    "I was also deeply impressed to discover how much life there is in this country, how much more there is to discover, how complex it is to understand, and how much work that will require."