Photojournalist Carlos Villalon has worked for news organizations around the world. He traveled throughout eastern Congo between April and June of 2006, documenting the impact of war, coltan mining and trade on daily life. The Pulitzer Center is pleased to present his work and commentary here, as a supplement to the Center's own project on Congo.
"In February of 2005 I was looking for a story to shoot, my thoughts were in Chechnya and Afghanistan but I also had my eyes on the DR Congo since those crude street battles in Bunia in the year 2003. I chose the Democratic Republic of Congo since I thought it was one of the most uncovered stories by the media among these two other countries.
It seemed appropriate to find an angle for the every day killings, death and misery there. After spending a couple of weeks reading about the country, I found out about coltan, an element used to manufacture heat conductors which are mainly used in electronic goods like cellular phones, vcr's, plane engines, and lap top computers. I thought the story was great, coltan was going to be my bridge to communicate the Congolese people's story to the world, through coltan and a mobile phone. But at the same time, the coltan market has changed. During the war in 2002 coltan prices were as high of $320.00 per kilo but today it is at normal price of $32.00 per kg.
My angle then was dead, but after studying a bit more I found that Europeans and Japanese authorities are forbidding the use of lead in electronic goods and are instead using tin, another mineral that comes from cassiterite rocks -like coltan. They mine tin in the same places as coltan and it is also used to manufacture parts for mobile phones and computers. Because of the lead prohibitions, tin is on its ten year high price in the London markets.
Why not do a story on gold or diamonds, people asked me, and the answer is because people who trade with gold or diamonds in the western world won't be paying attention to a story on "blood diamonds." I mean after millions of stories the trade has not stopped. So I felt more compelled to tell a story that resonated with the average human being, who live stuck to their mobile phones and lap tops. I believed the story would have more impact if I created this bridge, through every day commodities, between the Congolese and us.
I never expected to see what I saw, I thought it was a terrible place to go before I went, but I came too short on my expectations. DR Congo, especially the east, is a very difficult country to work in: I was arrested twice, had my passport and cameras confiscated, I got malaria, and I was mobbed out of my car by a very angry crowd of people protesting against MONUC, after having driven 3000 Kms between Fizi in South Kivu and Bunia in the Ituri district. But my pains were mostly a ride to the circus compared to what the Congolese have to endure every day. Almost four million people died between 1998 and 2003, thousands are internally displaced every day by armed groups that roam the country side, and if civilians don't run fast enough the men will get killed but not before being tortured. Women and children are raped, often repeatedly, then they might be killed or shot in their genital area. Thousands of women, and children are raped every year in Eastern DRC, sometimes by the same authorities that are supposed to protet them, the Congolese army."
I am Carlos Villalon, photojournalist based in Colombia, South America since 2000. Before I spent ten years in New York, USA, studying photography and doing independent work in order to learn the trade. My own schooling took me to places like Haiti, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and once I felt ready I started to work as a freelancer for several publications. In the year 2004 I published a story that was a cover for National Geographic magazine about Colombian farmers who live out of cultivating coca plants. Their economy is based on bartering the cocaine base for all goods they need in order to survive. I have also worked extensively for The New York Times, The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek magazine and other publications around the world. With this story , DRC, I hope to raise funds to continue my investigation in The Democratic Republic of Congo to create awareness about the situation there. To contact Carlos about his work, e-mail him at: email@example.com