The Democratic Republic of Congo is a perennial occupant on the list of the world’s most unfortunate places. Over the past 15 years, 40 armed groups have waged rebellions, counter-rebellions and outside incursions to control either the country or a desired part of it.
The result: over 300,000 killed, another 5 million deaths due to disease and starvation, hundreds of thousands of rapes, countless mutilations.
Last summer, Richard Mosse began exhibiting and publishing his photos from Eastern Congo in a series of work he calls Infra.
The name comes from the Aerochrome film Kodak created in 1942 that Mosse used to shoot his subjects.
Via No Caption Needed:
Aerochrome is a false-color reversal film designed, according to Kodak, “for various aerial photographic applications, such as vegetation and forestry surveys … monitoring where infrared discriminations may yield practical results.” More to the point, it was intended for military purposes and in particular camouflage detection as it rendered the reflections of infrared and green typical of healthy foliage in strong red tones, making it stand out against the façade of dead and dying leaves—often seen in diluted magenta tones—used to conceal the enemy. In short, its purpose was to make the invisible visible.
The result of Mosse’s use of Aerochrome are the highly saturated images seen here. In a review of his work, the Guardian suggests the striking visuals deconstruct cliched war porn and make us reconsider what is actually happening:
But where this technology was invented to detect enemy positions in the underbrush, Mosse uses [Aerochrome film] to make us call into question pictures we thought we understood. These are the images we take for granted from Congo: the ruthless militia commander, the rape victim, an unwitting peasant. But in Mosse’s pictures, Congo’s photographic clichés are represented in a counterpoint of electric pink, teal blue and lavender. By representing the conflict with an invisible spectrum of infrared light, he pushes us to see this tragedy in new ways.
Mosse described his work in an interview with Aperture last summer. In it he discusses the history of representing warfare and trying to capture what is “real”.
Photographic realism has become so inscribed upon twentieth-century depictions of war that we often forget that there were other forms before it: the panorama, the history painting, even 3-D spectroscopic views of the battlefield. In the past, this is how the public understood their wars—as distant sweeping landscapes of enormous scale and detail. I feel that early war photographers like Mathew Brady and Roger Fenton were influenced by these precedents. But they were soon forgotten with small-format technologies, and with changes in the way that wars were fought during the twentieth century. Warfare is constantly evolving; it has recently become abstracted, asymmetric, simulated. We are so removed from the experience of war in the West that I feel the genre may shift once more. The realist forms that were so powerful throughout the twentieth century may now be obsolescent.
In my practice, I struggle with the challenge of representing abstract or contingent phenomena. The camera’s dumb optic is intensely literal, yet the world is far from being simple or transparent. Air disasters, terrorism, the simulated nature of modern warfare, the cultural interface between an occupying force and its enemy, the martyr drive in Islamic extremism, the intangibility of Eastern Congo’s conflict—these are all subjects that are very difficult to express with traditional documentary realism; they are difficult to perceive in their own right. Very often I am fighting simply to represent the subject, just to find a way to put it before the lens, or make it visible by its very absence. This process is inherently “Romantic” because it often requires a retreat into my own imagination, into my own symbolic order.
But the real is central to my interests, as it’s something that eludes conventional genres, particularly Realism. The real is at the heart of contemporary global anxiety; proximity to the real is endured by us all. But I feel that the real is only effectively communicated through shocks to the imagination, precipitated by the Sublime. That may seem like an archaic term, but what I’m referring to here is contemporary art’s unique ability to make visible what cannot be perceived, breaching the limits of representation.
Visit Mosse’s Web site for more images from this series. The Aperture interview along with other coverage of his work can be read here.