Editor’s note: Excerpts from Richard Mosse’s essay in Infra, his book of photographs on eastern Congo. The book is co-published by Aperture Foundation and the Pulitzer Center. It also features an essay by Adam Hochschild. Advance copies were displayed at FotoWeekDC; the trade-book edition will be released in early 2012.
…I originally chose the Congo because I wished to find a place in the world, and in my own imagination, where every step I took I would be reminded of the limits of my own articulation, of my own inadequate capacity for representation. I wished for this to happen in a place of hard realities, whose narratives urgently need telling, but cannot be easily described. Congo is just such a place. Its war seems essentially intangible. It is a protracted, complex and convoluted conflict, fought by rebels of constantly switching allegiance. These narratives, though brutal and tragic, are not tales that are easily told.
Across the border, Rwanda’s extraordinary economic development is a testament to the successful international marketing of its terrible genocide. Yet Congo’s conflict, writes Jason Stearns, “is a conceptual mess that eludes simple definition, with many interlocking narrative strands. The New York Times… gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, when Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly ten times the rate of those in Darfur.”
Joseph Conrad struggled with the very same problem a century before. “We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled.” He pushes language almost to the breaking point, struggling to recount an elusive darkness. “It is like another art altogether;” writes Conrad, “that sombre theme had given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that would hang in the air and swell on the ear after the last note had been struck.”
Like Marlow on the steamer, I was pursuing something essentially ineffable, something so trenchantly real that it verges on the abstract. I needed to find an appropriate form to better describe this sinister resonance. In December 2009 Kodak officially discontinued their colour infrared film, Aerochrome. This film was developed during the Cold War in collaboration with the US military in order to read the landscape, detecting enemy infrastructure. It quickly found civilian uses among cartographers, agronomists, foresters, hydrologists, glaciologists, archeologists—namely, anyone wishing to study landscape ...
I felt Aerochrome would provide me with a unique window through which to survey the battlefield of eastern Congo. Realism described in infrared becomes shrouded by the exotic, shifting the gears of Orientalism. The film gave me a way of thinking through my role as a white male photographing Congo with a big wooden camera. By extension, it allowed me to begin to evaluate the rules of photojournalism, which always seems to be thrust upon me in my task of representing conflict, and which I wished to challenge in my own peculiar way.
I have always been drawn to work in places of conflict—sites more commonly the concern of journalists. While my work is documentary in spirit, I have struggled with the idea that documentary photography, regardless of the photographer’s concerns, arrives pre-loaded with an implicit assumption of advocacy. My work is not a performance of the ethical. I’m concerned less with conscience than with consciousness. And so I became enthralled by Aerochrome’s inflation of the documentary, mediating a tragic landscape through an invisible spectrum, disorienting me into a place of reflexivity and skepticism, into a place in consonance with my impenetrable, ghost-like subject.
I knew that this strategy and my use of infrared film were preposterous on many levels. But inwardly the idea gathered momentum and before long I had privately reached a kind of messianic state where I no longer cared to perceive the absurdity of my task. For me, so many things that I observed in Congo seemed to fold seamlessly into infrared. Though the work was exhausting and difficult, I began to feel like I was on fire. I became lost in my dreams, truly absorbed. Infrared captured my imagination. It was more than just inspiration. It was a sort of fever. My cynicism evaporated. I had a hunger to make photographs.
Then, over time, a curious thing began to happen. As my understanding of the situation deepened, so I felt that this precarious aesthetic strategy actually corresponded with certain specifics of my subject.
I learned, for example, that a Rwandan Hutu rebel group that I sought to photograph moves nomadically through the landscape, emerging only to loot or ambush before disappearing back into the bush, living in a state of peripatetic exile. In spite of the pervasive presence of these rebels, dispersed widely through the region, they go virtually unseen. The infrared film medium – a surveillance technology created for the purpose of registering the invisible and detecting an enemy hidden in the landscape – began to take an active role in my imagination.
The unseen, the hidden, the invisible – these are all integral aspects of Congo’s war. In Iraq, for example, you have concrete apartment blocks smashed open by Hellfire missiles. The war’s trace is easy to read. You just need to point a camera at it. But in rural Congo, the architecture is comprised of wattle huts, provisional structures that are swiftly abandoned and almost as quickly swallowed by the equatorial jungle . . .
These metaphors began to gradually coalesce into something palpable. My own systematic representation of the fabulous Dr. Seuss landscape of eastern Congo helped me begin to perceive the nature of a future land war in eastern Congo.
I began to take a close interest in the topography of the region. Tutsis have always been pastoralists, living off their cattle’s milk and cheese. Other tribes, such as the Hunde, tend to cultivate crops such as manioc and live off bush meat from the jungle. Concrete aspects of their conflict were written on the landscape before me, clearly visible once one learned to recognize their expression in the details of land use and agriculture. Very soon this topography will be radically altered. The Tutsi will clear the primeval jungle to make way for rolling pastureland, and cows will be herded illegally across the porous Rwandan border. These fields defy any traveler’s expectations, appearing like the bucolic meadows of Northern Europe on equatorial steroids. But don’t be fooled. This spectacular farmland is really the scorched jungle of tribal battlefields masquerading as a Tutsi Elysium, built on the bones of massacres and ethnic cleansing.
Every time I exposed a sheet of this spectral surveillance film, I felt I was documenting the strata of an emerging land conflict, and possible sites of a future war. Yet, photographing herds of cattle at dusk, the results of my process took on the aspect of classical pastoral landscape painting. These echoes seem especially appropriate in relation to Claude Lorrain, master of the picturesque, whose name was borrowed in the late 18th Century for a device known as the Claude glass, or black mirror. This convex oval mirror was made of dark tinted glass and used as a looking aid by painters, and eventually tourists, to abstract the wilderness, softening and mellowing nature’s violent raw form. At that time, nature was perceived as something horrifying and life threatening. With the aid of a Claude glass, though, the artist could physically turn his back on these fearful wastes, softening and mellowing the chaos into a pleasing reflection.
In eastern Congo what is needed is the opposite of a Claude glass. We need a way to look over our shoulder at this exceptionally beautiful landscape and reflect an image of unspeakable tragedy, showing scenes of massacre, systematic sexual violence, lawlessness, banditry, extortion, and intimidation.