How Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army uses photographs as weapons

Bodyguards of the now-deceased LRA commander Vincent Otti, around 2003. (Charles Tabuley/Kristof Titeca)
Bodyguards of the now-deceased LRA commander Vincent Otti, around 2003. (Charles Tabuley/Kristof Titeca)

The French news magazine Jeune Afrique noted on Nov. 20 that despite decades of international attempts to capture warlord Joseph Kony, he remains free. Kony’s movement, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), began in the mid-1980s with the goal of protecting Northern Ugandans from the newly installed regime of President Yoweri Museveni. But the insurgency turned against civilians, becoming notorious for mutilations and large-scale abductions. By 2006, the LRA had abducted up to 38,000 children and 37,000 adults, researchers estimated. Those abducted were forced to become fighters or fighters’ “wives” — a euphemism for sex slaves — and household servants. Today, the movement has only about 100 to 150 fighters left, but they are still abducting and causing insecurity in the borderlands between Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

Although the LRA has received much global attention — think of the Kony 2012 video of the American organization Invisible Children that went viral on YouTube — few images of the rebel movement are available. Apart from a few widely used pictures of Kony taken during peace negotiations, we know little about what life within the rebel movement looks like. My recently published book, “Rebel Lives: Photographs From Inside the Lord’s Resistance Army,” aims to change this with photos taken by LRA commanders in the early 2000s. I collected hundreds of photos over many years in Northern Uganda, making copies from those held by former rebels, peace activists and journalists. Over two years, I also located the former rebels in the photographs, both to ask their permission to use the photographs and to understand the photographs’ meanings and uses.

The LRA used pictures for 3 strategic purposes

By analyzing hundreds of photos, I found that the LRA carefully used its photography for three strategic purposes: to magnify its strength, to tie abductees to the movement and to contest its international image as a band of “lunatics.”

The LRA largely ruled through fear. At the peak of its power, in the second half of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Lord’s Resistance Army had about 3,000 combatants to fight a government army of 40,000 to 60,000 government soldiers in an area about the size of Belgium or Massachusetts. So maximizing its threatening appearance and unpredictability was crucial to its survival. The movement used unpredictable and extreme violence to control the population. Photography was part of this strategy.

Kony used the photographs to showcase the group’s military power — and thereby scare the population. From the 1990s onward, the LRA received plenty of weapons from the government of Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, which it showed off in the pictures. Many show rebels posing with their weapons or stacks of weapons and ammunition. The LRA would leave these images in places where they would be found, such as near army barracks. As a former rebel told me, “We would purposefully drop our photos, and leave them there, so the UPDF [government army] could see our weapons! When the UPDF is following you, you just leave the photos, so they become scared. They will see how we have all these weapons.”

Charles Tabuley, the late commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, pictured around 2003 with a girl in a military uniform from his “family.” (Charles Tabuley/Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative)
Charles Tabuley, the late commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, pictured around 2003 with a girl in a military uniform from his “family.” (Charles Tabuley/Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative)

The LRA wanted to scare the population and the government, but it was also communicating its continued existence and strength. The Ugandan government declared many times that the rebels had been defeated. But by distributing these images, the LRA proved otherwise.

Additionally, within the group, photography was used as a weapon. Former combatants testified that photographs were taken while they committed atrocities — under duress — against loved ones. This proof of heinous acts — which would cause their home communities to reject them, should they ever escape — was used to discourage efforts to leave.

Many of the photos depict a striking normality. LRA rebels dress up in their Sunday best with their family members, often with a sheet erected as a backdrop. These pictures are similar to family photos taken elsewhere in Uganda. In their ordinariness, the photos provide the rebel group with an unexpected image. Although this reflects broader photographic practices in Eastern Africa, these images were carefully curated by the LRA. On one hand, the group was very much aware that the news media portrayed it as filled with insane and irrational actors — “grasshoppers in a bottle” ready to destroy one another, as Museveni once said about the Acholi ethnic group, from which the LRA drew most of its members. In response to this, Kony and other LRA commanders frequently referred to their humanity in interviews. The photographs served a similar purpose and sent a clear message: LRA members were normal.

Joseph Kony with his “wives” and child, taken around 2003. (Charles Tabuley)
Joseph Kony with his “wives” and child, taken around 2003. (Charles Tabuley)

As with more violent images, these types of photographs served an internal purpose. Abductees were forced to cut all ties with their former lives. Some of them were even forced to kill friends or relatives. They were encouraged to forget about their past and treat the LRA as their new “family.” Family-style photographs helped reinforce this. As one peace negotiator told me: “The idea of the LRA was that they wanted to present themselves as a family. In a family, you take pictures. We can kill you, but we’re still family!” Through these photos, the LRA visually reinforced the idea of itself as a family. Much as in “normal” families, LRA households would keep photo albums, show them to visitors and take photos to commemorate special events.

Photography as propaganda

It may seem surprising that an isolated group such as the LRA, which does not use social media or the Internet, put such an emphasis on photography. But for most of its existence, the LRA carefully used photographs to shape its international image and to communicate with different audiences. The photographs offer glimpses into the ways in which the group understands the world and still wants to be seen: threatening and “normal” at the same time.

Kristof Titeca (@KristofTiteca) is an associate professor at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp and author of “Rebel Lives: Photographs From Inside the Lord’s Resistance Army” (Hannibal Publishing, 2019).

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