Photograph by Lynsey Addario

“The Congo is the worst place in the world for women,” Stephen Lewis told the crowd at the Rayburn Building on Thursday night. Lewis, Co-Director of Aids-Free World, was introducing the photography exhibition “Portraits of War: The Democratic Republic of Congo.” And after seeing the photographs featured in the show, it was hard not to take him at his word.

The Rayburn Building is the show’s third stop in a two-year tour around North America, Europe and Africa. The traveling exhibition spotlights four photographers (Lynsey Addario, Marcus Beasdale, Ron Haviv, and James Nachtwey) and doubles as an education campaign aiming to raise awareness of the widespread sexual violence afflicting women in the Congo.

The photographs—depicting rape survivors, starving children, and displaced people— make for a heartrending spectacle, their pathos sharpened by the speeches of various DRC experts like John Prandergast, the Co-Chair of Enough Project, Dr. Roger Luhiriri, Physician at Panzi Hospital in the DRC, Sylvie Muanga Mbanga, a human rights lawyer, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

Speeches aside, the point here is the photographs, and they’re brutal—slices of violence that inspire pity and sadness as much as revulsion. The exhibit includes one photograph of a rape victim’s elephantitis-swollen feet; here, the photographer’s choice to frame the feet separated from the rest of the woman’s body creates a distancing and disorienting effect. In another photograph, a group of tiny children look fearfully out of the frame, while the girl in the center, slightly older than the rest, does her best to cover the younger children’s eyes. It’s the futile effort of a child trying to protect other children in a country where 20 percent of children do not live past the age of 5. Even more disturbing: the children stare balefully outside the photograph’s frame, presumably at the same atrocities one sees in the exhibition’s other pieces. The children’s expressions reflect your own horror in the face of images of poverty, rape, and war.

Some of the images in the exhibition, like the elephantisis photograph, are so disorienting they repel the viewer, and prevent a real emotional connection. Others, however, like the photograph of the children, have real artistic and emotional complexity, inspiring not just pity, but also understanding for the people in Congo. The latter category of photographs are perfectly effective for the exhibition’s cause and might help “Portraits of War” achieve its goal to not just raise awareness, but to mobilize people all over the world to fight gender-based violence and create change in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The exhibition’s next stop is at the James Cohan Gallery in New York on Marth 16.

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