Unity – South Sudan

Photos by Renaud Philippe
Interview by Laurence Butet-Roch

Renaud Philippe, photographer and member of the collective KAHEM

Currently, it’s chaos in South Sudan. There’s a permanent tension, largely caused by the political conflict between the President and the former Vice-President who come from two different ethnic groups. Violence has displaced many to areas where people are already poor and have few resources to share. At the same time, several armed groups are taking advantage of the instability to seize power in some regions. As a result, divisions have multiplied. Of course, in order to put an end to the civil war, a solution must be found to the hostility between politicians. But it will not solve all the problems on the ground. It will take time for the country to recover. Young people have grown up in a context of violence, civilian populations are living with heavy trauma, the education system is non-existent, and so on.

My photographic work is far from being able to explain the situation in great detail or offer an in-depth analysis. That’s not the goal. Since there is little media out there, my intention was to show how outrageous the conditions of life in South Sudan are. The Bentiu refugee camp, for example, is now the second largest city in the country. Designed to accommodate 60,000 people, it hosts twice as many. That gives an idea of ​​the magnitude of the situation. Another example is the Nyal region, which is controlled by the rebels, and where several civilians are hiding. Since it’s mostly marshes dotted with small islands, people feel safer. The armed forces cannot move quickly through them. But it also means that humanitarian aid is difficult to deliver. There is almost no food distribution. Refugees are left to their own fate.

I remain convinced that photography has enormous humanistic power. An image that reveals reality in a sensitive way can affect the audience and generate reactions. But to do so, it is necessary that these photos be seen. The editors of many newsrooms, by their own admission, are indifferent to the subject. Why? I have no idea. As far as I’m concerned, it seems to me natural to want to reveal the disparities that exist in the world and to try to remedy them.


Richard Morgan, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Coalition

Since its creation, the young country of South Sudan has seen two main factions fighting for power. Unfortunately, they have succeeded in giving this conflict an ethnic character, even if their main aim is to control the fate of the territory and impose their personal agenda. Beyond the violence, there is a drought aggravates the situation. Out of a country of 12 million, there are more than 7 million people suffering from food insecurity, at least 2 million refugees outside the country, mostly in Uganda, and almost as many are internally displaced. The majority of those affected, over 85 percent, are women and children.

From a humanitarian standpoint, we are all connected by our humanity, so when there is a part of our family that suffers, we all have a responsibility to react. But, of course, it is difficult to feel accountable when it comes to a complex story happening far from home. Canada, as a country that benefits for a vast array of resources, stable incomes and security, has a responsibility towards other states, especially a young one like South Sudan. Not to mention that when such crises are allowed to escalate, they eventually affect us in one way or another.

Though the UN has a peacekeeping force on the ground, it has difficulty intervening to provide some stability. On the one hand, the mission is under-equipped and on the other hand, the government isn’t proving to be very collaborative. That said, recent statements by the President give us some hope. The humanitarian community is also facing challenges. For a long time, in an effort to replenish its coffers, the national regime charged a tax to any organizations wishing to work in the country. It took a lot of pressure to have it lifted. And since 2013, 85 humanitarian workers have been killed in South Sudan. It’s a difficult context in which to work. But humanitarian agencies do. The seven members of the Humanitarian Coalition are present, in South Sudan and in countries hosting refugees. They provide emergency assistance, including food, clean water, sanitation, shelter, safe spaces for children and women, and medical assistance.

Since the beginning of the current crisis, media coverage has been rather poor. We were looking for a way of bringing Canadians to care about the situation. That’s why we support the work of Renaud Philippe. Visually, the challenge is: how to show people in need while reflecting their human dignity, their courage and avoiding exploiting their misery. Renaud’s photos are beautifully sensitive. People are not transformed into objects. They’re treated as subjects, which helps the public identify with the people of South Sudan. They also show that life goes on. Take the image of young people playing soccer, for instance. Renaud’s report reflects the needs, the suffering, but also the solutions, and the spirit of solidarity that gives us hope.

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Renaud Philippe
Renaud Philippe grew up and lives in Quebec City, Canada. An independent photojournalist and member of the Quebec collective KAHEM, he focuses on exclusion and exile. He is moved by the drama experienced by those who had to leave everything, victims of war, injustice and natural disasters.
Laurence Butet-Roch
After falling in love with journalism through “Scoop”, a Quebec sitcom set inside a newsroom, Laurence Butet-Roch studied international relations at the University of British Columbia and photography at the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa that led her to become a photographer with the Boreal Collective, a photo editor and a writer. Mindful of the evolving media ecology, she is currently pursuing a Master of Digital Media at Ryerson University.