Marcus Bleasdale cracks open the heart of impossible conflict for Human Magazine
Nearly two decades ago Marcus Bleasdale was working as an investment banker in London. Upon hearing the news of a massacre in The Balkans, a colleague of Marcus’ asked him what he thought of the event. Understandably, he was troubled, replying, “It’s horrific, isn’t it?” But he was interrupted, “No, no, no, what do you think it’s going to do to the dollar market?” Marcus submitted his resignation that day, and three days later he was in The Balkans. He bought a 10-day ticket, but ended up staying for a year. He packed a camera thinking it would be useful, not that it would turn into a tool he could use for evidence in international criminal courts.
Since that moment almost 20 years ago, Marcus has gone from a novice to one of the most influential photojournalists in the world. His time in the Balkans acted as the forge for the work he would come to create. He explains, “It formed the focus of the work that I do towards human rights and focusing on the unjust and looking to try to engage policy makers and decision makers. Engaging in real change.” His latest assignment for Human, the new publication by Human Rights Watch, brought him to the Central African Republic to bring us a thunderous look at their “Unseen War.”
Over the course of three to four months, the small country burst into inconceivable violence following a yearlong deterioration of their political apparatus. Tensions had risen steadily between religious groups that finally exploded when the Sélèka, a coalition of rebel groups that had risen to unsteady power, was disbanded and left leaderless. What resulted was, “Society lost its sense of civility and went into some period of madness,” Marcus says. “And we were there to document that.”
“Madness” is a word we’ve become too comfortable using for even the most well-executed political campaigns that happen to offend our sensibilities. But when Marcus uses it, he uses the word for its definitive value. He uses it to describe the chaos: “It was neighbor killing neighbor. Quite literally: a man or a boy leaving the house and going to his neighbor and killing them on a daily basis. And we saw that multiple times every day for weeks, and weeks, and weeks, across the country.”
Marcus has made a life of chasing these impossible events over the globe, but he’s never come against something quite like this. He’s seen this sort of temporal psychosis before, but it’s always been of a leader with an obedient following. In CAR, it was the whole population. “This was more a society, a whole group of individuals on both sides of the conflict. It’s probably the wrong term but they kind of went psychotic. The whole society was psychotic for a period of three months.” Marcus describes the altered state of collective consciousness saying, “People that killed would never have killed before, and would never kill again. But at that moment they thought it was quite right to kill. And there’s no reasoning behind why people reach that point of anger, of hate, of thoughtlessness.”
When you look at his photos, you almost have the impulse to look away. Not only because what you’re looking at is the root of horror, but also because it is so intimate. You’re seeing something you know you shouldn’t be allowed to see. Marcus was able to photograph all sides of the conflict, from mothers mourning their children, to the men with machetes freshly wiped of gore. Typically this kind of access is available only after nurturing mutual respect and trust. But in CAR it wasn’t necessary. “They didn’t really care that [anyone] was there,” he says, describing their responses to being photographed. But these images will have consequences and that potential is being felt: “I think they’re starting to understand now the implications of the presence of the media.”
The role of the photojournalist is to document what’s happening and communicate the state of affairs, acting as the eyes for those who cannot, or should not be there. But in a conflict like what happened in the CAR, it’s nearly impossible to stay removed. Marcus is very strict about not affecting the environment he finds himself in. It’s not easy to do. “What I think about is evidence: Who is doing this?,” he asks himself when he walks into a situation. “Let’s get a photograph of the individuals that are engaged in this action so that we can use this as a tool for prosecution later on. And then leave.” His photographs have been used in government hearings throughout the world, in addition to global publications, and the International Criminal Court. His camera plays witness to the crimes most of us have willfully ignored, or been made oblivious to.
Marcus was in CAR for more than four months, but never for longer than four weeks at a time. The pressure was so acute, and situation so intense, that to stay longer would have shifted anyone in a way that would have been foundationally transformative. He says, “It’s an environment in which you can’t really immerse yourself in completely. It tends to really overpower your senses and frankly, I have been affected by it quite deeply. It’s not a conflict you can ignore and the experiences were something I’ll never forget. It is probably the most brutal, savage, conflict I’ve ever been involved in. In 15-20 years of documenting conflict."
To get a closer look, and more information on the conflict in CAR, check out Human Magazine via Human Rights Watch.