With a special focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo, follow Luke Dennison’s dangerous, tragic and courageous photographic journey. “Many of the subjects in my portraits have been killed”, he says in this interview. The Michigan-born photojournalist is only 24, but he’s been on the field for a few years now. He shares his one-of-a-kind experience through raw pictures of everyday life and portraits of young (and even child) soldiers, who actually want to reenact the ideals and aesthetics of war – “especially to a camera since this is how they wish to be perceived”, explains the photojournalist. We speak with him about mental health, overcoming tough situations, and how his pictures are aimed at bringing awareness to the heartbreaking lives shattered throughout the war in Congo.
Being a war photographer is a very dangerous job not only because you are amongst people and in a location that can result in your death or arrest, but also for your physical and emotional health. Why did you choose this career field?
I grew up in rural Michigan, so it’s often a surprise to colleagues when I tell them where I’m from and even somewhat surprising to me that I ended up doing the work that I do. I started photography fairly young and did all of the typical cheesy things that new photographers do in the process of learning – mostly very bad landscape photos. I eventually became quite bored of those genres because it felt stagnant; nature, while beautiful, doesn’t quite have the same complexity as people. During high school, I stumbled across Magnum Photos, a photo agency with some of the most talented and visionary photojournalists in the world. Studying their work solidified the direction I wanted to take in photography – one where I could explore my own curiosity about the world while talking about one of the most complex issues we face: war.
On your website, it says that you are a “freelance photojournalist with a focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo.” What made you decide to have this particular country as the centre of your work?
The DRC is one of those places that gets in your blood; it’s electric. I think anyone who has spent any considerable amount of time in the country returns wax-poetic about the place. First and foremost, the Congo is a breathtakingly beautiful country with equally beautiful people that are undeniably strong and passionate. I emphasize this because too often the country has been defined solely by the war. Narratives matter. To answer the question directly, the complexity and beauty are what keep me endlessly fascinated. Everything, whether political, economic, or social, is a rabbit hole of complexity.
Everything, whether political, economic, or social, is a rabbit hole of complexity.
As a photographer interested in exploring the psychology of war through visual means, the DRC does not disappoint. From a purely journalistic perspective, Congo is a country devastatingly under-reported on. No one knows about the issues the Congolese are facing, and frankly, no one seems to care. By focusing on Congo and taking the time to learn said complexities, my hope is to better communicate the stories of a deeply misunderstood and misrepresented country.
Tell us about the lifestyle there. How is a ‘normal day’ in your life, if such a thing exists?
Normalcy is quite rare and usually depends if I’m out in the field working on a story or back in Goma. When in Goma, I’m usually writing to editors and pitching story ideas during the day or writing an article for an assignment I recently returned from. In the evenings, I’ll usually meet up with colleagues and friends at one of the many local bars – sometimes discussing work and other times just relaxing. Nightlife in Goma is great. When working on a story, there is no normal but it usually involves travelling many miles by motorcycle and dealing with all of the bureaucracy of the Congolese government to gain access. Accommodations range from sleeping on the ground under a tarp in a thunderstorm to staying in local church guest houses.
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Working in this environment and being surrounded by war and human tragedy in a completely different place must be very difficult. What are some challenges you have faced? Has the language barrier been an issue?
It definitely presents quite a few challenges. The language barrier can be one, but I’ve learned enough in both French and Swahili to show respect in greetings and my fixer (translator, arranger, local know-everything saviour) can fill in the blanks. Another challenge is my skin colour. As a 6’2” white American with a beard, the attention I draw is unavoidable, whether for better or for worse. Sometimes it affords a level of protection, and other times, it puts me in greater danger, depending on the situation. Of course, the greatest challenge all journalists face in Congo, whether local or foreign, is the lack of freedom of the press. All of us face arrest for any reason despite having accreditations issued by the government.
When looking through your photo series Rebellion, there are a lot of pictures of armed men. Do you remember the first death you witnessed?
Human death is a heinous thing and I’d prefer not to talk about it in that way. Many of the subjects in my portraits have been killed. One of my closest Congolese friends knew them well and requested my photos so that he and their wives would have something to remember them by in their mourning. It’s important that none of us forgets that war doesn’t kill meaningless pawns. War kills husbands and sons, wives and daughters, mothers and fathers for reasons that are often blurred or nonexistent. Their lives deserve respect in both life and in passing. There is no glory in war.
How are you able to cope with the tragedies you have seen?
Mental health is a very important topic. The conflict reporting community continually strives to offer avenues of support for those that are struggling and there are many great resources available because of this. Personally, I have been fortunate thus far. Of course, with any stressful job comes anxiety and its lasting effects. The work also has the tendency to make one cynical. I’m always careful to take breaks when I need them and usually spend my time camping and fly fishing at home. Nature has wonderful healing properties. I do, however, think there must be more done to support the psychological wellbeing of local journalists who are not afforded the luxury of being able to leave and take the time to reset. Much more is at stake for those reporting on their own communities; I am privileged to be able to distance myself.
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What goal(s) do you hope to accomplish as a war photographer?
I suppose my main goal is to create work that doesn’t get tuned out by the Western world. We have all been bombarded by graphic photos from the continent of Africa over the past few decades and have somewhat become desensitized to it. Inspiring change through shock and awe-type photos is a flawed tactic. We naturally want to distance ourselves from awful things, not partake; having been constantly fed a single narrative for years, I believe there is a mentality of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. I want viewers to engage with my work and see Congo in a different and more intimate, personal way.
Currently, I’m pursuing a couple of ideas that may eventually become projects, mainly exploring the psyche of young men in war – specifically, how young men and boys romanticize the ideals of war and reenact those ideals on the battlefield, especially to a camera since this is how they wish to be perceived. The reenactment of these ideals is often poetic, as if they’re actors on a stage playing a role (bravery, manliness, honour – the common tropes) yet beneath all of that is the reality of war and the suffering it brings. Having met various armed groups in Congo, it continues to fascinate me how they choose to portray themselves in front of the camera. My hope is that people will see rebel groups less as hardened killers and more as young men and boys looking for a place to belong, exploited by corrupt politicians and the war machine. Empathy goes a long way.
You have quite of few sets of photos and each one speaks thousands of words. Some of which are in black and white, while others are in colour. Why is that?
Often times, it’s simply due to lighting and texture. Some photos are more effective in colour and others are better suited for black and white. There usually isn’t a deeper meaning, though I have gradually been moving away from black and white altogether since the aesthetic has been beaten to death in war journalism.
Which of your photos would you say is your favourite?
Ah, favourites are hard! I’m quite critical of my own work so it’s hard to see any of them as great. My favourite series of photos are those of the armed groups I have met because they scratch the surface of what I’m most passionate about talking about with my photos. They are far from perfect or complete and I have so much more I want to explore on that topic.
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Based on your photos, you seem to have lots of experience in war photojournalism. Do you have any advice for any aspiring war photojournalists?
At 24, I’m fairly new to the field myself, so I don’t feel like I’m in a position to be offering advice. I have met far more experienced and talented photographers than myself with a long-term focus on Congo; namely John Wessels and Alexis Huguet. That being said, for anyone interested in pursuing this line of work, I recommend some serious soul searching. Culture has a way of romanticising the work we do. I can assure you there is nothing romantic about it. Combined with incredibly low pay that often comes months after a completed job, you really need to be passionate about the people and their stories. It’s very important to begin with honest intentions.
From what you have witnessed throughout your life and time as a photojournalist, what are the most urgent matters/issues to solve?
On a global scale, we need to be more conscientious of the news we consume. There is a reason the world is fed singular narratives and it starts with the consumer, whatever sells the best will be what editors demand of journalists in the field. Do your own independent research. Congo (and all other war-affected countries) exist between the news blips. Context is key in understanding the world around us. Freelancers also deserve to be treated better. Low and late payment alongside unanswered emails and calls show a general disrespect for the work freelancers do – work that is not only dangerous but incredibly important in independently shedding light on the world’s most underreported regions. Unfortunately for Congo, there are many urgent matters and very few solutions. I think the most tangible thing that can be done is self-education on these topics. Global awareness is paramount.
In the future, do you plan on moving to other African countries or changing to a completely new setting? What’s on your horizon?
There is so much more that I want to do and projects I want to complete in Congo that I haven’t even thought about focusing on another country. I’m sure the time will come to move on, but for now, I’m still focused on the DRC until I’ve said all that I’ve wanted to say with my work. Maybe that will never even happen.
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