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J’can photographer snaps way into African documentary

Published:Tuesday | July 14, 2020 | 12:00 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Eliane Ilunga and Niclette Ilunga (no relation to each other) at a copper mine in Tenke, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Portrait artist and commercial photographer Barry Harley.

Jamaican photographer Barry Harley is among 121 creatives who recently won the 2020 Communication Arts award of excellence and was featured in their professional journal.

Harley’s photos form part of a documentary exploring the hazards and abuses young women and children face working in unregulated, small-scale cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa, which produces 60 per cent of the world’s supply.

The documentary will also feature Hear Congo, a non-governmental organisation that is liberating hundreds of young women from these abysmal mines, teaching them an income-producing trade and empowering them with leadership skills so they can, in turn, mentor other girls.

Harley is still overwhelmed by the award, which he said is humbling and a validation of the work he did in Africa in 2018.

“Winning the award for this project, which has some deeper meaning, is pretty powerful,” he told The Gleaner.

Just over 2,500 entries were submitted to the 61st annual photography competition.

Harley moved to the United States for college at age 24 and has been in the field of graphic design for most of his life.

In 2005, he and his wife, Julie, who is a photography graduate of Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, purchased some camera equipment.

She had not been practising photography for a while, but had grown tired of working in pre-press.

“At the time, she still wasn’t into it, so I said, ‘Hey, that piece of machinery has to make some money.’ I picked it up and I started to play around with it, and then I took a lighting class from Joe McNally and it just all went crazy from there,” he recalled.

His current photography focus is twofold – it brings in earnings while satisfying his passion.

“Architectural and hotel photography is what pays the bills, and then the portraiture side I love because I get to tell stories of people and also help organisations – like non-profits that I do some work for – to tell their story and get more eyes on their stories than just the words on the page,” the Ardenne High School alumnus shared.

How he got involved in the documentary project is sheer brilliance as he always dreamed of visiting Africa for photography purposes.

Twenty years ago, while working as a graphic designer in Florida, he interacted with a client, Laura Cerwinske, who was a writer.

“We’ve always stayed in contact and she saw my photography work in my later years and one day while she was working with this non-profit, she basically told them, ‘You have to take Barry with you the next time you go to Africa to capture the story’,” he related.

Having heard the first mention of the continent, he was elated that he did not recall much of the conversation and he got the chance to travel to Africa twice.

“It was a roller-coaster ride of emotions. From exhilaration to bawling to ‘Wow! These people are amazing’,” he said.

There was a common thread among three of the girls he photographed – they had all lost both parents at a tender age.

The story of 19-year-old Niclette Ilunga, who was forced to drop out of school and work in the mines to help feed her large family, stood out to Harley.

She tolerated bullying and accepted the ongoing risk of sexual abuse from perverted and drunk miners.

Ilunga became sick after labouring for seven months at the cobalt mines and learnt of Hear Congo while recovering.

Six months of training and a month’s internship later, she landed a job as a seamstress and now owns a business, making custom dresses and volunteering as a peer educator.

The documentary has not yet been named, but a trailer is expected to be released in August.