Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Deutsche Börse shortlisted photographs of Congo"s civil war

A few days later he boarded a plane to eastern Congo. He had tested the film

only once ‘and it looked vaguely OK. Actually it looked pretty bad, but I

went anyway.

There was a certain amount of self–destruction about that first journey. I

wanted to do something that would probably fail.’

Platon, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012. PHOTO: Richard Mosse

In 2008 the International Rescue Committee estimated the death toll in

war–torn Congo at 5.4 million. ‘But we don’t hear about it, because they’re

dying from a lack of sovereignty and constant displacement, shitty

diseases.’ Four rainy seasons a year make the jungle voracious. The

architecture is built to be abandoned because the front lines are constantly

shifting. News – of massacres and mass rapes – takes days to emerge from the

jungle. ‘By the time photographers arrive there is nothing left to see. It

was this lack of trace that interested me, and ultimately the failure of

documentary photography,’ Mosse said. ‘Conflict is complicated and

unresolvable, and it’s not always easy to find the concrete subject, the

issue, and put it in front of the lens.’

Short of money, he stayed in Catholic missions. He oriented himself by talking

to the handful of correspondents left in Kinshasa but the longer he spent

there, the more people he spoke to, the more rebels he encountered, the more

convoluted his understanding became. There are at least 30 rebel groups in

eastern Congo. ‘Many of them used to have an ideology but they’ve long since

forgotten it. They fall into alliances with each other, then renounce them.’

It took time to find the rebels.

‘You’d take a Land Cruiser as far as you could go, about half a day depending

on rain, and then you’d walk, stay a night, and then walk another day, until

you passed the front line and into the enclave. Once you’re in there, time

changes, as does logic. Some of these rebels believe they’re bulletproof.’

Mosse spent a lot of time by himself. ‘I appreciate the retreat into your

imagination that happens. I love the blank canvas. I spent hours watching

lizards creeping up on clouds of mosquitoes. I brought Conrad’s Heart of

Darkness with me and I read it over and over and over and over. I fixated on

certain paragraphs. Now I can’t touch it.’

On his return ‘I almost didn’t process the film, I was so horrified by my

impending bankruptcy. I was looking for jobs as a dishwasher.’

Kabila Kabanga, 2011. PHOTO: Richard Mosse

But then he happened to look at a picture he had taken of a landscape. ‘I

almost ignored it because it was a pretty picture, then I realised what had

been staring me in the face the whole time. The pink pushed the viewer into

this extraordinary space, way past the threshold of the imagination and into

science fiction, something pulsating, nauseous. We don’t see in pink, but we

don’t see in black and white either – whichever way you look at it,

documentary photography is a constructed way of seeing the world.’

In 2011 he published the work in a book, to considerable acclaim. About the

same time he began to hear rumours of 16mm infrared movie film that still

existed in the depths of a freezer in Hollywood. It took him more than a

year to track it down, but eventually he found himself back in eastern Congo

with the filmmaker Trevor Tweeten. They had 35 reels of film – each reel

lasts about 11 minutes – and an old–fashioned Arriflex SR2 movie camera.

When they returned Mosse couldn’t find anyone to process the film. ‘I went

from lab to lab thinking, I’m ruined, I can’t do anything with this amazing

footage. But at last I found an old–timer in Denver. It took him six months

but finally he cracked it.’

PHOTO: Richard Mosse

The finished piece has a mesmeric quality. Tweeten perfected a floating gaze,

and with its forest of screens, one feels almost lost. Figures pose and

strut for the camera, sometimes they dance. One moment it’s you and a wide

expanse of bush, susurrating quietly, the next, a young girl is singing in

one ear while gunfire erupts in another. It’s physically immersive and

devastatingly beautiful but all the time you are moving forwards towards the

horror at its heart.

Mosse has been back to Congo once since. ‘I went to get closure, to say

goodbye. I’d hired a car, and the driver was so arrogant, he drove off a

bridge. It flipped, fell about 25 feet. We all survived but I had to perform

first aid on the driver in the middle of a cloud of mosquitoes, in the

middle of swamp, in the middle of night, in the middle of nowhere with all

my cameras everywhere, and I thought this is it, I’m finished. I’m finished

with Congo.’

The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize exhibition, the Photographers’

Gallery, London W1, April 11 to June 22 (

The Vinyl Factory and Edel Assanti present The Enclave at the Vinyl Factory

Space, Brewer Street Car Park, London W1, April 4–26 (

Article source:

Incoming search terms:

No comments:

Post a Comment