The visual vocabulary of conflict photography is notoriously narrow for a genre that intends to make visible and on some level understandable a subject beyond the experience of the majority of people. For example even several decades after colour film became widespread and practical, black and white remained the normal pallete of conflict photography. It was a revelation for me when I first came across Larry Burrow’s colour photographs of the Vietnam war, I couldn’t reconcile this lush, almost Arcadian countryside with the hellishness of the conflict that was shown taking place in it. This new visual information forced me to consider the country and conflict anew.
To some extent this narrow photographic vocabulary has broadened in recent decades. Black and white photographs of war are now the exception rather than the rule. Equally photographers are deploying increasingly complex visual and conceptual strategies in their examinations of conflict. This has sometimes allowed them both to overcome the weaknesses of traditional modes of reporting, and to avoid newly emergent difficulties in the way modern wars occur, for example the new practice of embedding, and the tendency for journalists to become targets alongside soldiers.
The work of the artist Richard Mosse (who was amongst four other artist-photographers shortlisted last week for the 2014 Deutsche Börse Prize) combines both colour and concept to document on-going instability in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This is an enduring, brutal and yet little understood conflict, estimated to have resulted in the deaths of nearly five and half million people since 1998. Shooting on Aerochrome, a now discontinued infra-red film developed by Kodak in the forties for aerial reconnaissance, Mosse has produced a book (2011’s Infra) and along with his collaborators cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and composer Ben Frost, also a multi-channel video piece, The Enclave, which was on show earlier this year as part of the Venice Biennial.
Because of the way infra-red light responds to plant foliage, the boundless Congolese jungle is rendered on this special film in a bizarre fluorescent pink, while the artificial greens of the rebel’s camouflage responds differently, causing them to stand out starkly from the landscape that once masked them. The resulting photographs are images of a strange and extreme beauty, with AK-47’s, refugees, skulls and the other iconography of war and instability rendered amongst an unreal landscape hued in pinks, reds and blues. The intention is seemingly to achieve something similar to the effect Burrow’s colour photographs once had on me, to force a viewer to again notice things that have become familiar almost to the point of invisibility.
The Congo is dangerous ground for Europeans, literally but also metaphorically. It’s a country perhaps more than any other in Africa that has been wracked by the legacy of the colonial era. This history of European misrule is so close to the surface. Limb amputations for example, which are often discussed in terms that suggest they are a quintessentially African form of brutality, were a European innovation introduced to punish slaves in Belgium’s Congo Free State. For Mosse as a European, to offer to reveal what he suggests cannot be seen or shown by others, including natives of the Congo (to use that word here feels troubling enough), seems to me already to be entering onto territory that must be navigated with the utmost care. At the same time his essay in the introduction to Infra, Mosse indicates an awareness of this problem. Perhaps as an Irishman – a country always a victim of the crimes of empires rather than the perpetrator of them – he feels sufficiently distant from this history to comment on it.
I suppose having commented on Mosse’s intention to show us something, the obvious next question is what does he show, what are the messages one is tempted to take away from a viewing of this work? I can’t escape from two very obvious interpretations, readings that are strangely diametrically opposed. One which I imagine Mosse might more readily accept, is that the jungle and the rebels are two separate things, they are not to be confused or conflated. We are not to imagine as Europeans have over many centuries, that the violence of the rebels is somehow bound up in the place, that they are part and product of the jungle they operate within, in an almost Conradian sense of a madness which infects and corrupts all those who enter.
The other reading reflects the difficulty I have accepting that ridiculous colour palate as merely the by-product of a particular medium selected to facilitate a conceptual strategy. Even if Mosse himself complains that ‘people are so offended by the colour pink, it’s just a fecking colour’, that pinkish red hue is just too strong to feel like a side effect, and rendering the landscape as it does it becomes tempting to read the opposite message into the photographs. That these are landscapes stained with the blood of millions of people, that it is impossible to extricate the place from a conflict which has continued in one form or another for more than half a century, and is part of a legacy of bloodletting that goes back twice as long. I have little doubt this is a reading Mosse would distance himself and his work from, but for me it is there none the less.
Beauty has always been problematic in conflict photography, this was at least part of the reason for the slow acceptance of colour film by journalists in warzones long after it had become the norm in other areas. There was perhaps a sense that it undermined the gravitas of the subject matter by making something so painful appear too pleasing. Yet under the right circumstances all photographs have the power to be aesthetically pleasing, almost irrespective of what material they are made on or what they show. This is one of the photograph’s very strange, almost magical abilities. Mosse is well aware of this, indeed it forms another vital pillar of his visual strategy. He argues that by making something terrible appear beautiful it ‘creates an ethical problem in the viewer’s mind so then they’re like confused and angry and disorientated and this is great because you’ve got them to actually think about the act of perception and how this imagery is produced and consumed’.
It’s a compelling idea, but does it work in practice, or does the debate just get misdirected as it has been in many discussions of Mosse’s work, on to the means and not the message of the photographs? Equally as much as these photographs prick the eye and mind and force a reconsideration of what they show, in another sense they also increase the sense of distance between viewer and conflict. The imagery is like something out of a science fiction film, indeed multiple reviews have described it in such terms, and this I rather feel is part of the problem. This could be a computer generated fiction, it could be a conflict taking place on another planet like the surreal, hyper-visual one depicted in the movie Avatar (a sense reinforced rather by Ben Frost’s minimalist electronic soundtrack for The Enclave, replete with rather alien sounding faux radio chatter). Larry Burrow’s Vietnam photographs, for all the many problems you could choose to level at them, made Vietnam feel like a very real place.
Although I think it’s a very interesting strategy to attempt to counter a perceived deficiency in photographs of conflict by intentionally making that deficiency as extreme and evident as possible, I’m not sure it’s one that works in this case. Mosse treads a perilously fine line with his work in the DRC, between knowingly and cleverly commenting on ‘the perennial seductiveness of war’, and overstepping, falling into the precipice of taking the photographic aesthetic of destruction and brutality to an entirely new level.
It’s equally a bold and brilliant use of infra-red photography, a technical specialism rarely used in particularly thoughtful or interesting ways but one in which Mosse has established himself as a clear leader. The transfer of this technology into the field of moving images is also remarkable. Trevor Tweeten’s footage is incredibly beguiling, the steadicam gliding dreamlike behind rebels wading through long purple grass, past crowds of silent staring Congolese, ever onwards into this alien landscape.
Infra and The Enclave are conceptually compelling, and very beautiful bodies of work, but both leave me with more questions and qualms about the process behind the images than with the appalling things they actually show. Photographed somewhere else, and focused on a subject with less history and less gravity, they might have evaded these problems, but the conflict in the DRC seems too important to become, as I rather feel it does, the over-shadowed side show of a huge conceptual ploy.