Interview of Gwenn Dubourthoumieu
ArtPhotoLimited : In which city did you take this photograph?
Gwenn Dubourthoumieu: The photo was taken in Gbadolite, in the extreme north-west of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the birthplace of the former dictator Mobutu, who built 3 palaces there
Why are you particularly interested in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
I lived almost 5 years in the DRC. In 2007, I went as part of an NGO specialized in humanitarian demining. I was not a photographer at the time: I was working for this NGO (MAG - Mines Advisory Group) as coordinator for the province of Ecuador, where Gbadolite is located. I stayed there for 8 months. Then, I did a second mission of 20 months, in 2008-2010, still for MAG, but in the east of the country. In April 2010, I resigned my position to become a freelance photographer. I stayed in the DRC until 2012. Over time, I have established many contacts (friendly and professional), and I return almost every year since.
It is one of the former palaces of President Mobutu. What led you to visit these palaces?
In 2007, I was coordinator of the NGO MAG in Ecuador, in the north-west of the DRC. I lived in Mbandaka, the capital of the province. One of my colleagues went to Gbadolite to clear the Coca-Cola plant there. He showed me pictures of the Mobutu palace. After that, I never stopped wanting to go myself to photograph them, which I was finally able to do at the end of 2010.
Could you explain a bit more about the context in which this photograph was taken?
I went to Gbadolite at the end of 2010. To be able to finance the trip (even from Kinshasa, you have to take a plane, and since there is only one flight per week, you have to stay there for at least a week) I sold the idea of a report on the vestiges and the nostalgia of Marshal Mobutu to the Agence France Presse, which therefore sent me to Gbadolite. This photo was taken in the "official" palace (the other two palaces in Gbadolite were private residences of Mobutu), which was (and still is) squatted by soldiers. In the Congo, it is very difficult to make photos in militarized places. But thanks to my colleague, the one who had cleared the Coca-Cola factory, I had contact with the Colonel in charge of the military zone. I knew he loved the Scrabble, so I brought him a Scrabble box so he would accept to see me photograph the palace.
It is an architectural photograph but you insisted that there are two people in the background, why?
I made a first series of pictures of architecture without character. When I sent them to the AFP photo manager, Roberto Schmidt, he complained that there was no one on the pictures. So, I had to negotiate to carry out a new series of photographs the next day. And it is finally this series (with the characters) that I have retained.
Did you meet them personally?
The people photographed live in the palace. These are military families squatting the palace.
Last question more personal: since when do you practice the profession of photographer?
Since April 2010.
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