Richard Mosse's Infra is a remarkable work in progress of what we tend to casually refer to as the conflict in Congo. Why go there? Why use colour infrared film? Jörg Colberg, founder and editor of Conscientious, a website dedicated to contemporary fine-art photograph, asked him.
Jörg Colberg: Let me start off by asking why/how you decided to take photographs of Eastern Congo? How did your interest in the region develop?
Richard Mosse: Congo is regarded as one of the first places in which photography became a powerful humanitarian force. Around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a watershed of concern surrounding the Belgian monarch, King Leopold II’s personal abuse of power in the region. This was simultaneous with the rise of photography within mass media. Two English missionaries, Alice Seeley and John Harris, left for the Congo Free State in 1896 and photographed the brutal human rights violations that they witnessed there. This and other portrayals of the region’s horrors eventually brought an end to Leopold’s claim to Congo. But the misery continued.
Also at work at this time was Joseph Conrad, a steamboat captain along the mighty Congo River in the early 1890s. Conrad wrote a short novel about his experience, Heart of Darkness. [...] To this day, Congo seems caught in the wake of Conrad’s steamboat. In the western popular imagination, the place is often regarded as touched by madness, darkness and cannibalism. The conflict’s recent disturbing turn towards gang rape and sexual terror, exacerbated by the United Nation’s ineffective and convoluted bureaucracy, only adds to the region’s reputation as Breughelesque and incomprehensible, echoing Mistah Kurtz’s the horror, the horror.
Wandering through the Menil Collection in Houston I was fascinated by Congolese statues that had been studded with metal nails fashioned in waves. Looking at them, I remembered that the slaves on Conrad’s steamboat had been paid in rivets - a kind of placebo currency invented by the Belgians. Here before me, I realised, were complex and challenging aesthetic forms made from these useless iron slivers. I checked the date and it tallied with Conrad’s visit to the Congo Free State. Here was ‘primitive’ aesthetic virtuosity, exceptional works of art produced in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe, made by its victims out of the pathetic and worthless tokens paid out by their brutal oppressors. I could wait no longer.
JC: I’m curious about your choice of medium, using Kodak’s Aerochrome infrared film. Essentially, plants start looking pink, and other colours shift as well, resulting in what one could call a bubblegum palette. Is a bubblegum palette a good choice for a rather complicated situation, about which most Westerners know very little?
RM: […] The false-colour Aerochrome was a thing of the past. I was dealing with an abandoned technology which I wanted to use reflexively, to work this military technology against itself in the hopes of revealing something about how photography represents a place like Congo, a place so deeply buried beneath and stifled by its representations.
I was especially interested in how Aerochrome perceives and makes visible an imperceptible part of the light spectrum. In almost all of my work I struggle with the challenge of representing abstract or contingent phenomena that are virtually impossible to see, or at least very difficult to put before a camera lens. This is especially the case in Eastern Congo, where my subject was inherently hidden. From the little I had learned about this conflict, as well as from my past experience working in similar situations, I knew ahead of time that my subject would elude me. Rather like Conrad's Marlow on the steamer, I was pursuing something essentially ineffable, something so trenchantly real that it verges on the abstract. [...] The decision to use colour infrared film forms a dialogue with these specifics. The poetic associations carried by the pink and red palette are a by-product of this conceptual framework, but a very fertile one. It’s an allegorical landscape - La Vie En Rose - steeped in a kind of magical realism.. […]
JC: Of course, there’s also the problem that we live in the Age of Photoshop, and people might just think you simply changed colour using a computer - which, given the growing number of photo-manipulation discussions - might make people focus on the colours and on whether or not what they’re seeing is actually real, instead of the actual subject matter. Were you concerned about this?
RM: Using colour infrared film and making Photoshop manipulations are both creative decisions. There’s nothing more or less truthful about either of them. However, the decision to use analogue infrared film refers to the specificity of that medium, its genesis as a military technology, its potential to reveal the invisible, and a host of other factors. Infra is concerned with that specificity, and a deeper understanding of the work does require the knowledge that these images are the result of a particular kind of film that is sensitive to infrared light.
JC: Given your choice of film it seems you might have a problem with how conflicts in Africa or the continent itself are usually covered. What is your take on this complex?
RM: The idea of a ‘story’ to be ‘covered’ reveals a photojournalist’s task. Journalism is extremely important when it comes to representing conflicts. But it is not the only strategy available. There’s a range of art forms beyond photojournalism. Since they’re not as concretely instrumental as journalism, they give us a whole lot more space to breathe. That’s very important because the world is a complex place.
JC: Can you talk a little more about what you mean when you talk about art forms beyond photojournalism? What role can art play? And needn’t we worry about art being seen as, well, art, in other words something that’s “just made up”?
RM: I feel strongly that something that is ‘just made up’ can speak more powerfully and more clearly than a work of journalism.
At the end of the day, I feel that journalism’s premise is often not simply to inform, but also to affirm our world view. I take issue not with its informing role, but with this affirmation. I believe that it’s imperative to challenge our thinking, particularly in more volatile and loaded landscapes whose narratives are frequently calcified by mass media interests. My work is not intended as a criticism of journalism (which is tremendously important). Rather, it operates within the open field of contemporary art, where the emphasis is not on the answers, but on the questions - not on the facts, but on what they add up to.
[This is an abridged version of the text. Read full interview here.]
Images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery. Produced with a Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Performing and Visual Arts.
Kodak Aerochrome was developed during the Cold War in conjunction with the US military. Flying at altitude with a nosemounted aerial camera, this film was able to cut through the ultraviolet haze, reading the infrared light spectrum bounced off the earth below. Chlorophyll in the landscape’s foliage reflects infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. Meanwhile, the earth and other contours absorb it. The green camouflage netting above hidden enemy sites absorbs infrared light while the surrounding vegetation bounces it directly back into the sky. In this way, the film technology was used to reveal an enemy’s location. By reading the landscape’s heat, the military had a way to perceive its hidden enemy.