Michel Lunanga is a Congolese-born native from Bukavu and was brought up in the city of Goma in the country’s east.
He is currently the lead teacher for the Lens on Life Project in Goma where he teaches photography to educate and empower young men and women to make a living as well as to pass on the knowledge to contribute to the greater development of the country. He is also the head of the media department at CAMME RDC, a non-governmental organization based in Goma, which supports marginalized and exploited youth in the region. Michel Lunanga recently founded Life Through Arts, an initiative that encourages and advocates for creative cultural activity in all its forms.
Travelling has played an important role in all of Michel’s endeavors. He studied general pedagogy in his secondary school in Kinshasa, which gave him the ability to teach from an early age and advocate for social justice for children and single women. Michel studied multimedia at the National College of Art and Design in Guangzhou, China where he shot professionally as well.
Michel expresses himself through his photography and uses his work to speak for people with no voice especially in his country. The youth of the DRC given him his motivation. Michel is a contributor to Getty images, a member of the African photojournalism data-base from Congo and is a Millennium fellow.
What was the story of your life before you discovered photography?
I was born in Bukavu to a Christian family and we used to live in a place called Bagira. While my father had a nice job at Bralima (a company that produces soft drinks in DRC, he lost his job two years after I was born. After he lost his job, life became much harder for our family. My mom worked as nurse so she could give us at least something to eat.
My father wanted to give me a name called FIKIRI, which means “thinking,” since he thought I was thinking too much without doing anything. My mom wouldn’t accept this and instead decided to call me USHINDI (Which means Victory). My father decided to leave for Kinshasa to look for a new life and he never came back home. My mom taught me how to be a man and how to respect others. She taught me to never give up in life and that I should always believe when no one else could. That’s where my power comes from. That’s why I’m Ushindi. We moved to Goma in January 1998 with my mom to started building a new life. She got a part time job where she could work so that we can study and have enough food each day.
Nyiragongo, one of the world's most active volcanoes, erupted in January 2002, destroying the city of Goma. As refugees, my family moved to neighboring Rwanda, where we were unable to find food or water and were forced to sleep in tents made entirely of plastic sheeting. The volcano destroyed our home and left little behind after we had to return to Goma. Family portraits, birth records, diplomas, and a lifetime of memories were cremated in the volcano's lava flow. My mother's career as a nurse was lost shortly after the incident, and she struggled to provide for her seven children.
In 2005 a new conflict erupted that was led by a rebel leader called Laurent Nkunda and many previously stable families suffered greatly as a result of the continuous violence and war. It was after this conflict that in 2007 my family founded Camme DRC, a Congolese NGO whose goal was to “help the youth of Congo live a future free of abuse, optimize their capacity, and help themselves.” I started going there to learn anything that could help me in the future.
I started photography in 2013 when I moved to Kinshasa to finish my secondary school. I got a free camera from my sister Christine Lunanga after she saw what I could do with an old one that I used to rent at the organization. Later that year, I moved to Burundi to do my college studies where I chose to live alone and learn life by myself as a student and adult.
I was looking for a place where I could start university and found China very interesting. My sister Christine helped me pay for my university so I traveled to Guangzhou, where I got a chance to study Chinese language and fine arts and also practice my photography production. After Spending 4 years in China, I decided to come back home in 2016 to see if there was way I could use my skills in photography to help young people in Congo that had gone through similar experiences to me. At the time, Camme wanted to start a photography program and they had just met Lens on Life Project.
What was your first experience of photography?
I started photography in 2010 and was called “paparazzi” because I was shooting everything that was near me. My friends used to call me “our famous photographer Michel.” I spent most of my time shooting photos using their phones, and they always said “Michel, you should become a photographer, we really like what you do.” At that time I wasn’t really taking it seriously.
Three times a week I used to go in the nature losing myself when they were issues in my life. It wasn’t easy living with no hope, seeing my mom doing everything for us. I just couldn’t help my family and I hated myself waking up every day, seeing the same situation.
I wanted to capture photos of nature but didn’t have enough money to buy myself a camera since my family was struggling find a way to live. I used to rent a small camera at Camme DRC which allowed me to go out and have fun. Then someone told me “You have beautiful photos, what if you combine nature and people?” I said, “good idea!” and decided to start taking photos of people in the nature. I did so many free photoshoots to get myself a name and today I am where I am because of hard work and clients who believed in me.
Is there a particular moment that has influenced your practice?
When I first realized that the students around me were looking at me as an example, I was very humbled. This was the largest influence on my practice and has driven me to work harder each day.
What stories are you most passionate about covering? What drives you to cover these topics? Where do you find inspiration?
Much of my work is based on fine art photography and documentary reportage but I have also shot as events such as weddings as well as food photography. I am passionate about social justice and the arts. In my work, I try to use photography as a form of advocacy especially for women’s rights, untold stories and conflict in my country. My documentary reportage captures real-life events in the context of war, conflict, post-conflict situations and other issues. I highlight the struggles people experience and the situations that they are living in. I focus on war and conflict prone areas, as well as development and innovation projects worth capturing.
Traveling has been inspirational and has influenced many of my current projects including “the Congo” series inspired by the population around me and the resilient faces I see every day. “African Mother” was created during my time spent in Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi. I recently created a group with friends in the DRC and Kenya called Go Out and Discover where we use social media to promote travel, adventure and shared experiences on the road while helping the community. I have showed my work for 8 years as part of numerous group exhibitions, international organizations, private collections and commissions. In Congo, my work has previously been exhibited at the French Institute of Goma.
How did you discover Lens on Life?
I discovered Lens on Life when the founders Sam and Jack Powers visited the DRC and ran a photography workshop with Camme DRC. This was the beginning of what would become the school that I teach at today.
How would you describe your experiences with Lens on Life?
Lens on Life changed my life when we started working together. I had always wanted to interact with people, face challenging tasks, and take responsibility on a daily basis. Becoming a photography instructor allowed me to do this. I have been working with them now for more than 4 years. As a senior instructor of photography, I am still highly appreciated and get other side work opportunities from Lens on Life. Now I can pay my school fees myself and have started to be more responsible for my daily life. I have had the privilege to continue working for Lens on Life and advance my development during my studies in business administration which I’m doing online. This helps me to do some administration work for the organization.
What did photography mean to you before Lens on Life?
Photography was like a cure for me. I was just having fun. Honestly, it ended up being a passion for me didn’t know what I was doing, I was just taking photos of everything I was seeing. When I decided to take it seriously, it helped me be independent financially, it helped me to pay my small bills while in school, I didn’t have to ask for money from my family.
What do you want to achieve with your photography?
I want to continue helping people and supervise student’s work. Lens on Life is opening a big studio here, which is going to help me to realize my creative works. I’d love to keep working hard and create a big gallery one day in DRC where different people will be gathering together to support students and people’s voice.
I’d love to become a successful artist and get to see my works to be recognized in many famous companies or organizations. I’d also like to expand my knowledge of film making so I can make films for big organizations.