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Congo war horrors in bubblegum pink

The Irish photographer Richard Mosse has generated much attention with his pink war zone landscapes of the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The photos and installation are well-intentioned, but raise further questions.

Safe From Harm, 2012. © Richard Mosse. Member of the self-defense militia Mai Mai Yakutumba posing in a camouflage headdress made from foliage, near Fizi on Lake Tanganyika, South Kivu.

The Irish photographer Richard Mosse recently won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for his photos and installation titled The Enclave.

The installation, shown in several cities already, consists of six big screens and displays the conflict zone of Eastern Congo where an estimated 5.4 million have died and more than 2 million have been displaced over the years.

Mosse uses an infrared camera that turns the landscape into a psychedelic, bubblegum pink colour. This type of film was developed during the Second World War to detect camouflage installations. Through the use of the infrared camera we see a completely different image of a conflict zone than we are usually confronted with. Mosse shows us a conflict zone in electric pink and red colors that provide for surreal yet beautiful imagery. The viewer is immediately intrigued by the intensity of the shocking pink landscapes. What does it mean if we start considering war zones beautiful? Our minds are supposedly placed before an ethical dilemma. It is exactly this contradiction created by Mosse that he is praised for. The jury of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize applauded his ability to “combine form and content to draw attention to a conflict, which despite costing the lives of millions of people has largely gone unnoticed by the West.” Perhaps it’s the ‘act of drawing attention’ that becomes important in truly understanding the influence and meaning of Mosse’s work.

Richard Mosse, The Enclave, 2013. Six screen film installation, color infrared film transferred to HD video. Filmed in Eastern Congo. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery. Photo © Tom Powel Imaging inc.

Beauty in The Enclave is used to make people feel something. Human suffering combined with beauty might indeed pose the mind for an ethical question. However, what is the outcome of this ethical question and to whom does it matter? The rationale seems to be that people will really start seeing the conflict, human suffering and think about what it means. Maybe they will even think about the influence of documentary photography and how images are produced. But do we need unrealistic, bubblegum-pink images from conflict zones to make this happen? And why is it important?

What does it mean if we start considering war zones beautiful?

I do understand the idea behind the use of the infrared film and making invisible suffering visible, but I believe the infrared film at the same time alienates human suffering and places it in a completely different realm.

The colonial idea and imaginary of the ‘Heart of Darkness’ plays a big role in understanding Mosse’s work. It comes to no surprise that within mainstream media and popular culture this image is still reinforced. Not to long ago airline KLM advertised with flights to ‘The Dark Continent’. As we know, Africa has long been seen and described as a place of ‘darkness’, ‘savagery’, and ‘wilderness’. And of course in doing so, Africa and Africans became homogenised as being one big group. As writers and scholars such as Chinua Achebe and Edward Said have argued, Africa is portrayed as “the other world” – a world that only exists by virtue of Europe. Meaning that we can only understand Africa in relation to Europe. We cannot disregard the power and the legacy of these colonial tropes. The ways in which Africa has been exoticised has a huge influence on the way we understand representations of Africa today. Mosse has read Heart of Darkness, thedisturbing and contested novel by Joseph Conrad, and in many ways this novel inspired his work. Mosse says, in a 2009 interview with Joerg Colberg,

“I find the book disturbing and have been haunted by certain images from the narrative which are portrayed in a keenly cinematic style. I still wish to remake some of these scenes as video pieces. Conrad’s chaotic and fragmented sensory description of a situation is very close to how we see – how our eye darts and stops repetitively across a scene. It’s very close to photography itself, and especially the moving image.”

Wave of Mutilation. © Richard Mosse

Although Mosse is intrigued by the work of Conrad, he understands that Conrad offers a problematic picture. To a certain extent Mosse wants to break with these stereotypes through using the infrared film. In the same interview Mosse says,

“The subject of my work in Congo is the conflict’s intangibility, the irruption of the real beneath the generic conventions – it is a problem of representation. The word ‘infra’ means below, what is beneath. A dialogue about form and representation is one of the work’s objectives, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing if people get hung up on the way Congo has been depicted, rather than what is being depicted. That’s the point, really.”

Colonel Soleil’s Boys. North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2010. © Richard Mosse

The colonial idea and imaginary of the ‘Heart of Darkness’ plays a big role in understanding Mosse’s work

The intangibility of the conflict, lack of international attention in combination with pushing documentary photography into another direction, has greatly influenced the now bubblegum-pink ‘Heart of Darkness’. His work is almost a form of advocacy – look at this saddening overlooked conflict and see. If anything, Mosse’s work shows us that we are not able to see or understand this conflict in Congo without putting it in a framework that is familiar to us. In this case, smashing, beautiful, pink landscapes instead of the landscapes as they were, do the trick. However, is this pink ‘Heart of Darkness’ to a certain extent not equally alienating as the popular portrayal of ‘heart of darkness’ in the West? The pink colour turns the landscapes and its people into alienating subjects, as if they are not human but part of a different reality. The argument being that people will actually look and see the conflict now might be true. However, how long will they be intrigued and what does their compassion even mean on a broader scale? This artistic exploration doesn’t take away apparent power dynamics when it comes to the representation and documentation of conflict zone’s of Africa – even if they are pink.

Nowhere To Run. South Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2010. © Richard Mosse

Watch this video for some background stories told by Richard Mosse to Frieze.

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