Field Studies: Exploring the Complexities of War-Torn Congo

April 10, 2012

By Conor Risch

© Richard Mosse/Courtesy of Jack Shaiman Gallery/Institute

CNDP rebels being integrated into the Congolese national army, the FARDC, at Mushaki, Masisi Territory, North Kivu.

In Richard Mosse’s photographs from Eastern Congo we see young men and boys with Kalashnikovs, machetes and rocket propelled grenades; rebel groups and their leaders posing against primeval jungle backdrops; government soldiers conducting exercises; villagers panning rivers for gold or selling animals at a market; and half-constructed or abandoned buildings and huts near the front lines of a conflict zone.

In many ways these images are like others we’ve seen from the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are, however, conceptual and esthetic differences that have made Mosse’s work remarkable to many people—including those at the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which supported the work with a fellowship, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which co-published Mosse’s new book, Infra, with Aperture.

The most obvious difference is that elements of Mosse’s images are pink. He achieved this effect by using Kodak Aerochrome infrared film—which was originally created for aerial reconnaissance and has been discontinued—and an odd development process he discovered by mistake. He made the majority of the photographs using a Mamiya 7 and an 8 x 10. He has also worked with a wood 12 x 20 camera, which was modified to accept 9.5 x 20-inch sheets of Aerochrome, to create panoramic landscapes.

Beyond its odd color palette, Aerochrome appealed to Mosse as a symbol of “twentieth century cold war military surveillance technology.” By applying a tool of military surveillance to documentary photography, Mosse hoped to “create sparks of meaning between the overlay of forms.”

When he first traveled to Eastern Congo, Mosse knew no one, didn’t speak the language (French) and had very little money. He spent his first trip in Catholic missions, frustrated at his inability to get around. Eventually he stopped leaving his room. The frustration of being unable to engage with the story was part of the point of being there, Mosse says. “Conflicts very rarely manifest or arrange themselves in the concrete ways that the camera’s lens requires. Congo particularly, the more I read around the subject, I realized how opaque the conflict is, and how byzantine, convoluted, repetitive, incomprehensible.” The complexity of the conflict there would be a constant reminder “of my own inadequate capacity for representation,” he writes in the book.

As journalist and author Adam Hochschild writes in an essay for Infra, the reason the West largely ignores the Democratic Republic of Congo is that the multiple armed factions vying for control make the war there so difficult to understand. “Americans, in particular, prefer foreign conflicts where there seem to be clearly identifiable heroes or villains,” Hochschild writes. “But Congo’s multisided war does not offer this, and as a result it has received remarkably little press coverage for a conflict with one of the highest death tolls anywhere since World War II.”

“I was attracted to this lack of being able to get my teeth into the narrative, and the fact that the narrative is so complex,” Mosse says. “The complexity itself, this opacity, was really the subject of my work.”

Mosse’s use of Aerochrome supported this conceptual underpinning. Because he had very little idea how the photographs he made would actually look, the film served as a constant reminder of “my own inadequacy, my own blindness,” he says. “In that sense it was a conversation with the photographic sublime.”

By hiring local humanitarian workers as guides, Mosse was able to make his way into rebel enclaves and photograph the multiple armed groups operating in Eastern Congo, saying simply that he wanted to tell their stories. His camera was met by many of his subjects with suspicion, he says, which then often gave way to posturing. (On one recent trip, which Mosse made to create a film using a custom infrared stock Kodak originally produced for an independent movie, a rebel group refused to be photographed, Mosse says, because they had just massacred a small village population.) Mosse also negotiated his way onto United Nations plane and helicopter flights, which allowed him to create aerial landscape photographs.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting became aware of the work because Mosse was staying for a time in Congo with the daughter of the Center’s executive director, who is a researcher for Human Rights Watch and was helping Mosse make connections in the field.

The Pulitzer Center has a long history of supporting journalism in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and they felt Mosse’s work, even though he is not a journalist and has worked primarily in a fine-art context, gave them an opportunity to rekindle interest in the underreported conflict there. “Finding different ways to present the topic, to reach a different audience and then link that back to a larger body of work around the conflicts in Congo is really important to us, and this was an interesting way to explore that,” says Nathalie Applewhite, the Pulitzer Center’s managing director.

Mosse admits the Pulitzer Center’s support of his work “could be seen as a little risky on account of Infra’s leftfield approach to photojournalism, folding the ethical into esthetics in a new and unusual way. Infra was never an attempt at advocacy—it was more concerned with consciousness than conscience—and so Pulitzer Center’s support came as a wonderful surprise. Yet Infra has actually affected public awareness of Congo’s war in its own way, giving vivid color to this forgotten conflict.”

That the Pulitzer Center wanted to support Mosse’s work as a creative way to engage audiences on the subject of war in Eastern Congo crystallizes another layer of meaning in Mosse’s photographs—that photography struggles not only to adequately represent the complexity of war and conflict, but also struggles for the attention it deserves. At a recent lecture about his work in Hong Kong, Mosse recalls, a student interrupted him to ask if he thought anyone would think about his photographs if they weren’t pink. “No, I don’t,” he replied.

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