Alban Bulibirha, also known as the self-proclaimed ‘African Visualist’ is in fact, a visual storyteller out of the norm. Born and raised in the tribal lands of Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 27 years old dreams for the world to view his people as he sees them. In a quest to personify dignity and showcase the true colours of one’s home country, Alban’s photography focuses on the ordinary life often dismissed and the beauty that rays amongst his people often disputed. Rest assured, the ‘African Visualist’ is all up for a challenge and doesn’t mind questioning Western ideologies and social norms across his captivating captures of the African continent.
We sat down with the Congolese photographer via zoom call to discuss his upbringing in Bukavu, his entrance into the field of photography and the many social messages he has deemed important throughout the course of his ongoing career.
Could you please explain to our readers; Who is Alban Bulibirha?
I am Alban Bulibirha. I’m a photographer and civil engineer based in Bukavu, South Kivu province, on the eastern side of DR Congo. I consider myself a creative person who’s naturally very observant and full of curiosity. One could say I’m just an observer taking in information and recording whatever I can.
On a typical day, when I’m not on a construction site, I would be out walking, usually at golden hour, my favourite time of the day, looking at beautiful sceneries. The way my mind works is that I’m always framing things as I see them. It is almost as if I walk around with a viewfinder. That’s me in a nutshell.
You mentioned growing up in Bukavu. I imagine it comes with a lot of trials and tribulations, especially as a creative person like you described. Tell us a little about your childhood and upbringing?
I had a beautiful childhood filled with games, friendships and lots of creativity. I was actually a traditional dancer when I was in primary school.
What is this particular dance called?
It’s called the “Ntole'' dance. It’s from the Bushi, an ethnic group on the Eastern side of Congo and my tribe, basically. The dance group I was part of used to perform at school functions and during Mass in church on Sundays. That is how my creative journey began. At the time, of course I didn’t know what it was (to be creative) because it’s just something we did at school.
As time went on, I realised that it was something I quite enjoyed. When I went to high school, I transitioned into breakdancing. We had a crew and we used to perform at school events. I was also DJing, chopping and mixing songs to our dance crew’s liking in order to dance how we saw fit and to get an audience excited. Of course, in Congo, those types of activities at the time were considered a “waste of time”, especially by our parents. I don’t think anyone ever thought about making a career out of their creative expression.
When I finished high school, I got the opportunity to go to South Africa where I studied civil engineering at university. It was during my third year at university that I fell in love with photography. At first, it was just a means for me to get away from the stress of my civil engineering studies. During my free time, I would walk around my neighbourhood and take photos of things I found interesting, just to pass the time. Then, I stumbled upon instagram where I started sharing my photographs and discovered other photographers that inspired me to keep on shooting. About a year later, I decided to buy my first DSLR, a Nikon D3300. From there onwards, I was all about photography.
It would be very interesting to know; what are some of the gears you use to produce your images?
Currently, I use my phone mostly.
What?! That’s a surprise!
For all my previous work, I was using the Canon 5D mark 1, which is quite an old camera. Released in 2005, I believe it was Canon’s first full-frame digital camera. Most of my portraits have been shot on that, with a 50mm f1.4 lens. I recently bought the Fujifilm X100F, which I haven’t used as much because lately I haven’t been shooting often. I wanted to have a camera that I can carry around so that I can keep shooting. Also, I have had to turn down people who wanted to buy my photos on many occasions because a smartphone doesn’t necessarily motivate me to charge for my work as you can’t really print smartphone photographs in large format.
I’m curious, how is photography perceived in your region?
Growing up, you would only see photographers at family events and such. At the time, we only knew photography as a means to capture common events but not necessarily as an art form. Moreover, there weren’t many young photographers because young people weren’t really interested in this field.
Now, surely with so many people having access to the internet, young people have started to get more involved in photography and there are quite a few who focus on photography as an art form. I think things have changed and even people’s perception about the arts in general has evolved.
Can you describe the creative community there?
In Bukavu and in Goma, I have a lot of friends who are photographers. Some of them do wedding and event photography, others do it for fun or for artistic purposes and others have even become photojournalists working for news outlets. We have a small photography community here that will only keep growing. There are some younger people who always come to me to talk about photography, which is something I quite enjoy and I can see that a lot of people are really getting into artistic pursuits.
L’institut Français, for example, as well as other new cultural centres around here provide space for photographers who have a project to showcase. They give them the necessary space to run an exhibition. All in all, I think that our community isn’t as big as in certain places but it’s growing.
What challenges have you come across?
I’ve been doing photography for 6 years now. However, I wouldn’t say that I do it consistently. I think the biggest challenge for me is balancing my day job as a civil engineer and my passion for photography. I find it quite difficult mostly because construction work tends to be exhausting and very time consuming. It’s a completely different world compared to photography. However, as I said previously, photography is such a big part of my life and no matter how busy I get with work, I’m always shooting. Whether it’s on a construction site or during my random walks after work, if I come across an interesting scene, and I often do, I’m going to capture it. That’s why most of my recent photographs have been shot with my phone because it’s the camera I always have on me. It helps me train my eyes and keep that creative flow going.
What is your opinion on outsiders coming to Congo and taking photos of the poverty and war zones just to sell them abroad? Do you think it is a fair representation of the country?
Photography has these gatekeepers and in order for you to progress as a photographer, you need access to certain individuals at higher positions. And who are these people? Magazines, news agencies, etc… I’m sure you heard me mention that some photographers in this part of the world have become photojournalists and have built a name for themselves in that space; which I can only applaud because our stories, good or bad, need to be told.
However, the thing about it that I find discouraging is it seems like in the photojournalism world, there are certain pre-established rules on how the pictures must look and what you must show. That’s the side I feel as though it is still very much controlled and most photographers navigating that space don’t have much say into what image of the continent should be portrayed. This is one of the reasons why photojournalism doesn’t interest me personally, but I understand that it is very lucrative and I know that, perhaps if done with more compassion, it can be such a powerful tool.
I think you’re looking at it from a regional standpoint which is valid. As outsiders, we only truly get to witness foreigners entering the continent and basically targeting narratives that sell best. Those are the realities that are shown to us through media coverage.
If I’m being honest with you, that is part of the reason I started doing photography. Growing up as black people, we’re only exposed to our white counterparts on screen. Whenever we were portrayed, it was always about poverty and war, you know. That is the type of mindset I am always trying to challenge through photography. Therefore, whenever I shoot my fellow Congolese or Africans, I always go above and beyond to make them look the way I see them and to capture my people with dignity.
As much as I hate seeing negative images of my country and Africa in general, it’s also the reason a lot of photographers, myself included, want to challenge stereotypes and change the narrative. I think it’s very important and I believe we have made quite an impact already because now, you can see a growing sense of pride in black people. We’re slowly starting to see the results of our efforts.
Is there a particular message you wish to convey through photography?
My photography has two sides: I have the portraiture, which is about dignity and changing the stereotypes that have existed for centuries about black people and the African continent as a whole. My portraits are about showing beauty and proving that Congo isn’t just all about war. We dress well, we have beautiful women, we have beautiful men, we have everything, you know! [laugh] We are people with our own cultures and that should be celebrated.
There’s also this other side of me that focuses on just capturing everyday life. It’s like I just can’t shut off my creative mind and wherever I go, I am always looking for interesting moments or scenes to capture. I had this motto which said “My aim is not to capture the exotic, but the ordinary that is often overlooked.”
That’s very beautiful.
One thing about Congo is that it is such a beautiful country. However, because we have been so conditioned to see our environment as a burden and not up to standards, we often fail to see and recognize the beauty that surrounds us.
When I do photography on the streets, I always look out for beautiful sceneries and I’d just shoot random things trying to capture their beauty. When looking at my photographs, some of my friends often tell me: “The way you show off our city, I’ve never looked at it that way.” I guess the message is “finding beauty in the madness or in the chaos”. That’s just the way my mind works.
I feel honoured just listening to your answers... Any plans you would like to share with our readers?
There’s a project that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I am hoping to work on it this year and hopefully have an exhibition. I don’t think I should give much details but I may share with you this: it’s about the bond between parents and children. It will explore death but at the same time, the infinity of life and how a mark continues across generations. It is still in the early stages but I know it is going to be a photography project, mainly portraiture with perhaps the addition of other elements or mediums.
More of Alban’s work