A GROUNDBREAKING PHOTOGRAPHY SERIES DEPICTS ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST IMPORTANT ECOLOGICAL LOCATIONS AS WELL AS ITS DIVERSE CULTURAL NARRATIVES.
The Congo Basin is a tropical rainforest second only in size to the Amazon. It is described by ecologists as the earth’s “second lung” – vital to the climate emergency and just as vulnerable to deforestation as the Brazilian rainforest. Eva Vonk is a Berlin-based Producer and Creative Director of Tales of Us – an ongoing multimedia project that communicates the urgency of protecting the world’s most fragile ecosystems. From 2013, Vonk spent three years working closely with people in the Mbomo District of the Congo Basin to learn about the importance of oral culture and how it has developed through the communities.
Pieter Henket, a Dutch portrait photographer, has translated these stories into spell-binding images inspired by 17th century Golden Age painting. The resulting series, Congo Tales, raises awareness of the rainforest – spanning 500 million acres and six nations. Henket and Vonk speak to Aesthetica about their collaboration and its wider impact.
A: This series took five years to complete. How did the process change from start to finish? How did it develop – both formally and stylistically? EV: In 2013 my partner Stefanie Plattner and I were asked to create more awareness for the Congo Basin. At the time we both knew very little about this place. I was given the chance to travel to the Mbomo district in November 2013 for the first time. I joined highly ranked biologists, conservationists and other policy makers that were travelling there. Amongst them was a newly built school dedicated to improving early childhood development. It was here that I felt the first source of inspiration for a storytelling project. Oral culture is incredibly important in this region. Throughout our subsequent research trips, we were introduced to local knowledge passed on through storytelling. Stefanie and I had worked together as film producers, so our initial idea was to create a documentary. But once the stories started piling up, photography became a more logical medium.
PH: When you’re asked to join such an important cause, you have to ask how you are going to be able to create a group of images for which people pay attention. With 100 million images being uploaded onto Instagram each day, this is a challenge. Eva came to me with a story she had heard: that when an old person dies it’s like a library of stories burning down. I was able to combine that with my life-long wish of making a series of staged fairytale portraits. Each setup was carefully planned and staged. We spent two weeks before we began actually shooting, meeting with the people to discuss what moments and locations were important.
A: The Tales of Us project included spending three years working closely with the people in the Mbomo district in the Congo Basin. Why did you choose this location? EV: It happened organically. When Stefanie and I were invited to develop an awareness campaign about the Congo Basin we travelled to the Odzala-Kokua National Park. I was very curious to get to know the people who actually live in the forest, and as such I quickly ended up in Mbomo. It is on the border of the national park and can be described as the