Lifestyle review: Portraits from a war

Mark Drinkwater visits an exhibition by celebrity snapper Rankin who brings into focus a humanitarian crisis

Cheka Kidogo, National Theatre, Southbank Centre, London

Celebrity photographer Rankin has turned his lens away from the waif-like models that parade the world’s catwalks and instead focused on the refugee camps of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo in an exhibition for Oxfam.

Using some of the techniques of fashion photography, Rankin has employed stark lighting and high contrast to create punchy portraits. Backlit and mounted on to 7ft-high display stands, these 32 eye-catching images are best seen at night.

It would have been easy to depict these refugees solely as victims. We see that on TV news reports every night. But by showing the refugees in empowering roles, this exhibition manages to focus on positives. Some of the subjects are portrayed demonstrating their survival instincts and aims to be self-sufficient. One arresting image depicts a girl mimicking Rankin with a makeshift pinhole camera. Another captures an entrepreneurial woman balancing the tool of her trade, a sewing machine, on her head.

The exhibition is called Cheka Kidogo, meaning “laugh a little” in Swahili, but there’s little laughing to be had. Look closely and you see sadness behind their eyes their sorrow is inescapable. How could it not be when those featured live in such horrendous circumstances?

This show isn’t an art exhibition in the conventional sense it’s a powerful public relations tool. Oxfam knows that even its most ardent supporters can suffer compassion fatigue. In this show, it has found an engaging way to highlight this issue. Did I feel manipulated? No, not when it’s an understated message about the terrible plight of 250,000 displaced people.

At a time when Britain’s newspapers are fixated by the global economic crisis and failings in our childcare system, these images serve to remind us how comfortably off we are compared with the developing world.

Mark Drinkwater is a community worker and Community Care’s practice adviser

Cheka Kidogo runs until 21 December.

This article is published in the 4 December 2008 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Portraits from a war

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