Rankin in Africa: Images of love in a land of conflict

When Rankin went to Congo he wanted to capture images of love in a land of conflict. He tells Claire Soares what he saw, and offers one lucky Independent reader the chance to join him for a day's shoot
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The wizened woman cradling her baby granddaughter, the eager schoolboy balancing his books on his head, the hairdresser showing off her latest creation and the dreamy-eyed couple recalling the day they met at market.

The subjects stare dramatically out of the white canvas. It is only reading the captions that you get a sense of the reality hidden by the blank space: a country wracked by violence, lives littered with loss and upheaval. But visually extracted from the physical context of the Democratic Republic of Congo, these people are presented not as victims but ordinary folk, full of love – for a partner, for a baby, for knowledge, or simply for looking good.

It is a quite deliberate strategy adopted by British photographer Rankin, although he is more used to sitting the likes of Kylie and Lindsay Lohan in front of his trademark white backdrop. "I wanted people to relate to their humanity, the expression in their eyes and on their faces," he told The Independent. "These are neither ugly images of brutality nor sentimental images of suffering. I wanted it to be like looking in the mirror."

The latest assignment for the man who has been known by his middle name all his life saw him fly to Sange in troubled eastern Congo with Oxfam. The town's population has doubled in size as people have fled the fighting, and Oxfam is on the ground trying to provide clean water and sanitation.

Among the displaced masses is 25-year-old Zafrani and her husband Farbrize. Their love story began in a market where she was selling banana juice. Initially, she thought he was a bit scruffy (his shirt wasn't tucked in) and was wary of his intentions. But he proved he was serious and the couple got married - only to have to abandon their home when the conflict got too close.

On arrival in Sange, they were taken under the wing of 45-year-old Annie along with eight others. "I accepted them because I think it is good to help other people. In Congo anyone can be in need of help at any time. Today it is our friends; tomorrow it could be us," Annie explains. "We eat together – we share our food. We go to different churches but people are more important than their religions and it's our duty to look after each other."

What most struck the Scottish-born Rankin (full name John Rankin Waddell) about the DRC, was that he never heard anyone moan. "In London people are always griping – about their relationships, their mortgages, the trains being late," he said. "In Congo there's none of that constant analysis and portraying yourself as a victim. People live with conflict and poverty, but there's so much humanity, a deep instinct to help one another."

And that came through in the makeshift studio. "There was not that self-awareness that people have in the West when they're posing. And there was not that minute self-critical scrutinising of how you look. It was really refreshing."

As well as taking his own portraits for Oxfam's From Congo With Love exhibition – which opens today outside the National Theatre on London's South Bank – Rankin also handed out disposable cameras to his Congolese subjects and encouraged them to go behind the lens, and capture what was important to them.

The results offer a unique and intimate portrait of Congo life, a kind of extended family album. There are cheeky boys flashing their stomachs, mothers preparing meals, a shrine to Arsenal and even a runaway goat.

Some like Muvida, the grandmother photographed by Rankin holding her dead daughter's newborn baby, had never even picked up a camera before the workshop. When the class first started, she was holding the camera the wrong way round. But Rankin was amazed by her final image: a vivid pink flower, entitled Nature. "I think their photos are more powerful than mine," he said.

Prize draw

Win a day with Rankin

Fancy yourself as a hot-shot photographer? Here's your chance to win a day on a shoot with iconic portrait photographer, Rankin. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness and take part in all the glamour of a photo shoot, and maybe even get to hone your photographic skills with Rankin and his team. To enter: send your name, address and telephone number to The Independent, 2 Derry Street, London, W8 5HF or email your details to rankin@independent.co.uk before midnight GMT on February 28.

Terms and conditions

This prize draw is free to enter. Entrants must be over 18. Only one (1) entry per person. There will be one first prize of a day on shoot with Rankin, at a mutually agreeable date and place, some time before 28 February 2011. The prize consists of this experience alone, and does not include transport, spending money, food, drink, accommodation or insurance. Five runners-up will each receive a signed copy of the book, We Are Congo. There is no cash alternative to the prizes stated and the prizes are not transferrable and no part or parts of the prizes may be substituted for other benefits, items or additions. The winner will be drawn at random on March 5 and notified within five working days. The editor's decision is final and binding. No correspondence will be entered into. By entering, all eligible entrants agree to abide by each and all of the above terms and conditions as well as those listed at www.independent.co.uk/legal