In 2010, a 30-year-old war photographer named Richard Mosse traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo during a lull in the conflict that has wracked the West African country since it gained its independence from Belgium in 1960.
Over the course of several trips through the country’s interior, Mosse amassed a series of photographs he calls Infra, a name derived from the Kodak Aerochrome film he shot with. Aerochrome, which is now discontinued, was originally developed to help military pilots detect camouflage from above: Greens become blinding magentas, and browns become industrial blues. Through Mosse’s lens, a portrait of a deeply conflicted landscape and people imprinted itself in riotous hues. It’s hard to call Infra war photography–and art doesn’t quite cut it, either.
The visual irony–brutal realism painted in candy-colored fuzz–was completely intentional. “Mosse discovered a disorienting and ineffable conflict situation, so trenchantly real that it verges on the abstract, at the limits of description,” explain the curators at Jack Shainman Gallery. “These tragic narratives urgently need telling but cannot be easily described.” Photographing a war-ravaged village with normal film was somehow not enough–Aerochrome became a way to mark the sheer, surreal horror of a conflict in which 5.4 million people have died. In a 2011 interview with Aperture Magazine, he explains his instinct thusly:
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.
Indeed, embedded within Mosse’s approach is a deep self-consciousness about his place as a Western photographer. By way of introduction to an exhibit at Jack Shainman, the curators quoted W. G. Sebald:
& blood for him
as green as
So the raucous color palette is also a kind of signpost–a marker that draws attention to his presence as an outsider–someone who can never truly depict what’s happened there. Like all war photographers, Mosse and his images can’t convey the reality of the conflict, but they can convey his own personal experience of it.
Last week at the Armory Show, Mosse unveiled new photographs–most of them, landscapes–shot on a subsequent trip. At the Venice Biennale in June, he and the cinematographer Trevor Tweeten will debut The Enclave, a five-channel multimedia installation shot over the course of a recent trip back through the Congo.