Intel's Ban on Conflict Minerals Wows National Geographic Photographer

Marcus Bleasdale has spent a decade documenting brutal conditions in eastern Congo's mines. He calls the Intel announcement "huge."

Miners eating lunch from a communal bowl in the mining town of Pluto in Ituri Province.

Intel's announcement that every microprocessor that it ships will be made without conflict minerals from Africa hit both a personal and professional nerve for photographer Marcus Bleasdale.

Bleasdale has spent the past decade photographing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to bring the issue to the world's eyes: workers, including children, toiling in brutal conditions in mines overseen by militias in eastern Congo. In October National Geographic magazine published "The Price of Precious," which featured Bleasdale's powerful photos dramatizing the suffering of people caught in the middle of the violent, illegal grab for minerals like tin, tungsten, and gold. They're referred to as "conflict minerals" because of the ongoing strife between army commanders and militia chiefs over control of the mines.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said the company's action is the culmination of years of effort to track down the smelters, more than 60 in all, that provide the company with minerals such as tantalum, tungsten, gold, and tin and then auditing them for where the minerals came from. The result is that, now, all the smelters that Intel contracts with use minerals from mines not involved in the DRC conflict.

National Geographic spoke with Bleasdale in Washington, D.C.

What was your reaction to the Intel announcement?

It was: "Wow!" I have been working closely with the Enough Project to find ways to engage companies on the issue of using conflict minerals, but I didn't expect such a significant action. Intel is one of the world's largest manufacturers of microprocessors. What they did is huge. It gives the effort momentum. Almost one-fourth of the smelters used by electronic companies have been audited as conflict-free. Plus, more and bigger mines in the DRC are coming on tap as certified conflict-free.

There are so many players in this; it is so complex. Conflict minerals are not like diamonds that are relatively easy to source. We need a tracking system.

It must be gratifying to know that your photography has played a role in creating public pressure for such an action.

Let me say that an individual photograph can have a powerful impact. But the real power is what you do with it and whom you partner with. By working with Human Rights Watch, beginning in 2004, my work hit a nerve and was instrumental, for instance, in making a Swiss company stop buying Congolese gold.

What has the response been to your photos in our October issue?

The response has been massive. I have been surprised by how many people were not aware of where the minerals in their cell phones and computers and other electronics came from. I know the article will also engage industries, and there are hundreds of them that use these minerals.

I have also been amazed by the reaction to "The Moment," a page in the back of the magazine with a photograph of a child's funeral at the St. Kizito orphanage in the Congo. As a result of that picture, tens of thousands of dollars in donations to the orphanage have come in, from donors ranging from a media company in L.A. to a law firm in Oslo where I recently spoke. Every cent donated has been spent by the orphanage for the children.

Why do photographs have this potency?

With every conflict it is very difficult to show the enormity of the suffering. You have all these statistics, 4.5 million people killed, 30,000 women raped. To get through to people you have to show individuals touched by the conflict. That's how you engage people, how you shock them to maybe change their behavior. I want to repeat, though: It's difficult for photographs to do this work on their own. You need an advocacy group to partner with who can knock on the doors of Congress and corporations. This advocacy work is as satisfying to me as taking a photograph. (Related: "Marcus Bleasedale on Shock and Change.")

It sounds like a personal brand of photojournalism.

Objectivity is important to me. But when you face such horrific suffering and you know that it's fueled in great part by [the] conflict minerals industry, you want it to stop; you are human and say it has to stop. (Related: "Photography as Advocacy: Origins of a Journey.")