War photography forces us to ask questions about the limits of cultivating empathy via looking, and the limits of seeing self in the other when the image before us intimates something so violently different from the life experiences of the viewer. The troubling ethical questions that surround photographing conflict are centered around the attempt, by the photographer, to evoke a responsiveness for the distressed people within the photographs from the readers of these images – those who are almost never the subjects in the photographs, who are hardly ever ‘one’ with the subjects. Moreover, war photography often exploits our aversion and attraction to violence: when we see images of semi-starved people fleeing from burning homes, or eyes enlarged with terror, we are accosted by a double impulse: to simultaneously glare voyeuristically, and to look away.

Photography depicting danger to human habitation, the worst of human depravity, and the hell holes of the world where every breath signifies the precarious of all that which the viewer regards as sacred is meant to engage those whose safe lives are in stark contrast to such instability. Such images are meant to engage evoke both our awareness of the discord and difference between our lives and theirs; yet, they trigger uncanny feelings of familiarity. Inevitably, we ponder harrowing questions about our desire to regard such violations, while receiving a grotesque sort of sublime pleasure. Small wonder, then, that image-makers of warfare, who make a living out of constructing “statement photographs” of scarred lands and hopeless bodies, are often critiqued for the vicariousness and predatory nature of their photography. In the end, we are left wondering about the photographer’s (and the audience’s) complicity in brutalising those who are already in precarious positions by our intrusion into intimate, violent moments in their lives.

It is with all this disquiet about regarding the pain of others that I look with great wonder at Richard Mosse’s Infrared images of eastern Congo, taken with Kodak’s colour infrared film, Aerochrome. The film, Mosse explains, “was developed during the Cold War, in collaboration with the U.S. military, to read the landscape, detecting enemy infrastructure,” and to render camouflage useless, thereby allowing the user to detect enemy positions in areas of dense vegetation. Civilians like “cartographers, agronomists, foresters hydrologists, glaciologists, and archaeologists” became fast friends of Aerochrome; soon thereafter, in the 1960s, its usage disintegrated into the world of kitschy psychedelic album art.

But the word psychedelic, Mosse points out, is tied to its Greek root: a soul-manifesting experience. What Aerochrome conveys, in Mosse’s hands, is that manifestation of souls, in profane places, within profane bodies that we may believe to be devoid of the sacred. The quietness of the eloquent tremors delivered by his photographs may only communicate disturbing doses of aesthetic pleasure to those expecting the obvious shocks that are the bread-and-butter of statement photography. What we get, instead, is the photographer’s invitation to us, the observer, to go beyond being told what to think by the black and white of the newsreel and charity speech. But because the images “disorder the aesthetics of conflict,” notes artist Mary Walling Blackburn in an exchange with critical theorist A.B. Huber, they make us ask further questions about the “ethical dimensions” of suspending “the real”; we worry that the campiness conveyed by all that abundant pink, and the sublime escapism possible with beautifying the ugly are “modes of political disengagement,” precisely because “the surreal quality of these images respond to our desire to be distracted from trauma at the moment of engagement, to float near, but not be engulfed” by the real (in Triple Canopy, “The Flash Made Flesh”).

Much of Mosse’s work sits apart from what was globally visible about the conflict in the eastern Congo. Mosse’s use of Aerochrome attempts to engineer new ways of looking at the eastern Congo and its conflicts, beyond meaning-denuded statistics about the three million deaths, and what often seem like repetitive, boilerplate stories aimed for a ‘Western audience. Mosse writes, in the essay introduction to his new book (Infra: Photographs by Richard Mosse, 2011), “I felt Aerochrome would provide me with a unique window through which to survey the battlefield of eastern Congo. Realism described in infrared becomes shrouded by the exotic, shifting the gears of Orientalism.” It is the very ability to “shift” the photographer’s and the viewer’s Orientalist “gears” – those inevitable set of images, words, and conflicting emotions towards which our minds grind, the moment we hear the name, “Congo” – that allows Aerochrome’s scarlet and pink dyes to manifest soul where there appears to be darkness.

Mosse argues that while the word “surreal” is perhaps an accurate term for the infrared representation of the Congo, “as it exists beneath realism (infra means below, beneath) … any reading must also take account of this particular colour infrared film’s genesis as a military reconnaissance / aerial surveillance technology, an essentially western technology developed to fight a kind of warfare that is fundamentally scientific, which operates on the premise of “knowledge is power” (first instance of this idea was in Hobbes), a technology developed specifically for the gathering of intelligence.”

He writes, also, of the discoveries he made of his abilities, and where his attention took him as a photographer:

One of the great surprises of my work in Congo was the discovery of my own interest in portrait photography, which I had never previously attempted. There was something about making portraits of rebels in eastern Congo in which the subject seemed very clearly to resist the camera’s objectification. Making portraits of these people was often a sort of face-off confrontation, in which the subject (not just rebels, but also villagers) seems clearly violated by the lens at the same moment that they adjust their posture to pose for the photograph. I found this resistance fascinating, as it seemed to highlight the subject-object relation of photographer and photographed. There’s a certain vulnerability revealed by the subject’s stony defiance of the camera’s gaze in images such as General Fevrier or Tutsi town, which I feel only serves to emphasize the authorial hand, and its objectification of the other, like a European child pointing his finger at a black man in a provincial German supermarket (something I witnessed last week).

Whatever Mosse comments upon is arrived at through the picturesque nature of the infra images, and observer’s engagement with the subtleties carried within the beauty of the photographs. While many other war photographers direct the world’s attention to the spectacular moments of a conflict, collective grief for lives lost, or the massive aftermath of damage to structures, Mosse’s images capture what appears to be a near peaceful aftermath – the lonely remainders of domination and fear. The images contain little of the aggrandisation of aggression, even when the soldiers pose and posture; instead, as A.H. Huber explains, the use of Aerochrome “makes vivid” the ways in which “cruelty can be sublime, and violence can ravage and remake a landscape in ways we may politically detest but also find visually arresting, even beautiful…[the photographs] arrest us as viewers, and in doing so interrupt our habits of perception.” Huber argues further,

I think photographs always simplify and falsify the world they show us, but Mosse’s Congo photographs also expose something of the instability and contingency of our perception. And yes, in this way Mosse keeps faith with a kind of queer critique, the hallmark of which is the impulse to make the power of objective claims visible: What is real, and who decides? The stakes are high when we are dealing with histories of violence, where one never knows if the devil of disbelief might outshout the devil of indifference.

When I first read Huber’s analysis of how Mosse maintains “faith with a kind of queer critique,” I couldn’t let go of that idea. What does it mean to “queer” something? How does that upset/reconfigure – beginning with sexuality/gender, but in other arenas, too? William B. Turner, in A Genealogy of Queer Theory writes that queer theory emerged out of feminist theory and critical theory, “with a focus on the investigation of foundational, seemingly indisputable concepts, particularly with an eye to tracing the historical development of those concepts and their contributions of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ such that the differences of power along those axes of identity pervade our culture at a level that resists fulsomely the ministrations of political action conventionally defined” (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2000, p. 3).

My Theory Uncle in Denver, Colorado adds, “At its most banal level, queer theory would interrogate what constitutes a picnic and what are the threads of identity, power, representation, gender, and sexual practice / identity that constitutes a picnic.  And maybe that wouldn’t be so banal after all,” because, as a tool to interrogate the axes of power, desire, identity, gender, sexual practice, representation and sexual identity, Queer Theory helps us ask seminal questions about “how certain forms of difference become acceptable bases for the most violent expressions of prejudice while others do not,” or, “In other words, what sorts of differences matter?”(2).

It is that desire to investigate “seemingly indisputable concepts,” tracing “the differences in power” which allows Queer Theory to “resist fulsomely” conventional definitions. Mosse was also able to latch on to the idea that both technique and technology would permit a revelation of conventions; in fact, he understood, instinctively, that a technology meant to harrow into shadow spaces, revealing all that one deliberately secrets away, could, instead, expose the closeted anxieties of the looker.

One of the troubling aspects of his journey as a photographer has been the upset his infrared work causes, offending “sensibilities on both sides of the spectrum,” writes Mosse. First, “dyed-in-the-wool reportage photographers,” the old guard of photojournalism, often seem to find the infrared colour palette in this work to be a flagrant violation of the “rules of photojournalism.” Certain war photographers “dismiss the work outright,” which makes Mosse wonder whether they are simply busy with “the guardianship of realism.” Along with the umbrage caused to the traditions of photojournalism, he also runs into the issue of who should have the right to represent, “as if representation was territorial,” and he were “trespassing,” Moss writes. The question is whether a European man – and Irish man – can accurately speak for the Congolese. Certain discussions have “swiftly became heated and accusatory.” He countered these heated questions by asking whether Steve McQueen may go to Belfast to make Hunger, “a film about “my” Irish troubles? Doesn’t he know that only the Irish are allowed to represent the troubles?” Mosse counters that the territoriality surrounding representation of the Other is deeply problematic, precisely because such protestations do not take into account why “fresh opinions of [an] outsider’s perspective might offer new ways to understand the old calcified clichés.”

The essay by Adam Hochschild in Infra gives us the “just the facts” version of Congo’s history, with the variations of history that most Americans do not like to incorporate as ‘real’ history; he begins with King Leopold of Belgium’s early venture into making an area of land almost as big as the United States into his personal colony – and of Joseph Conrad’s vivid, and memorable account of the unspeakable ‘horror’ he encountered, five years into Leopold’s ravages. We also learn about how the Belgian government, realising that the decimated population could no longer produce as desired by their colonial master, gave the Congolese better health care and educations – but not too much education. So controlled was the level of knowledge permitted by Begium that by the time of independence, there were no Congolese “trained as engineers, agronomists, doctors, or army officers. Of some five-thousand management level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans.” The U.S. is not simply implicated, but indicted: “Less than two months after the new prime minister [Patrice Lumumba] took power, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the CIA to have him assassinated,” and then, proceeded to ensure that the U.S.’s “investments were protected” by a billion-dollar system of aid that only served to maintain their ally, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Next to (and together) with Hochschild’s, Mosse’s own narrative is deeply illuminating: some of the things that I felt conflicted about, as I looked at his photographs for the first time in the British newspaper, The Guardian, are explored here. He approaches, with honesty, what it means to arrive as an outsider to Congo, and to continue to be a reincarnation of “Marlow”: without the adequate means of comprehending the visual and linguistic signs, then turning to the surreal as a possibility. While Hochschild’s words provides a sort of reassurance – yes, this wordless horror, too, is representable – Mosse’s exploration admits to succumbing to the classical Conradian “horror” initially, and the wordlessness of encountering all that we regard as Other: the inhuman, the pointlessness of such abject brutality and suffering, and the lack of clear binaries and possible solutions.

Like more illustrious scholars like Chinua Achebe, I have also made it my business to critique the “preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind,” wherein Africa is used “as setting and backdrop…as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril…[thusly] eliminate[ing] the African as human factor.” In Achebe’s seminal critique of Conrad (and the general European inability to word Africa and the African), he does not have a problem with European ambivalence towards the colonising mission and the colonial officers’ aversion to their own “civilisation.” His quarrel is, in actuality, with those who attempt to resolve this discomfort by removing Africans of their full and complex humanity. I, and other critics after Achebe have suspected that for Conrad and his narrator, the wordless horror he experienced was more of an indication of internal processes concerning the havoc he saw, in which he now recognises himself as a small tool – the root of which was intimately tied to consumption and amalgamation of power over supply. Projecting that horror on to the Other has been a part of a long tradition of European (and probably others’) conquest.

In Mosse’s photography, what I note is the possibility of re-visioning that which appears to be horror/wordless. So it’s almost as if we need to have it “queered” in order to see anything in a morass of signals. The infra-work draws attention to the Otherness, and removes difference at the same time without succumbing to a cheesy sort of “We are the World” mirroring technique. Here, we have to live within the grey (or the pink) of simultaneously recognising the impossibility/Otherness of this place, and actually seeing the human actions there, doing things in a very logical fashion.

Mosse writes, in an email communiqué, that he is “particularly drawn to these ideas of ‘the wordless horror’ that I identified in Marlow. He directs me to Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain for an elaboration on the prelinguistic, guttural failure to communicate the experiences of pain. For Mosse, these verbal failures are related to the “abject failure of the dumb optic of photography to describe a complex conflict situation…this failure was most acute when photographing the pastoral landscape of Tutsi highlands [recreated in the eastern Congo], the cattle at dusk, which makes only for beautiful and seemingly reassuring and peaceful imagery but should in fact speak volumes about the land conflict currently unfolding, the deforestation, the poisoning of primeval jungle, and the destructive encroachment of Rwandan pastoralists onto a Congolese landscape.” This litany of disparities “between what the lens reveals, or is able to say, and what is actually at stake” is what Mosse identifies as the “problem with my own technique, the procrustean aspect of Kodachrome, which I seek to violate.”

One can speak easily in clichés about infrared images: how seeing something in infrared light conjures up the magical ability to see the familiar as Other, making the obvious into the uncanny. Under the manufactured surrealism created by Aerochrome, everything we see is near bubble-gum delightful – grotesquely so. Here, conflict over the right to dominate over land, mineral rights, and access to sex is washed over by waves of unexpected rose, splotches of scarlet. But there’s something more aesthetically electrifying within Mosse’s images, beyond the shock of seeing rolling, terraced hillsides as flawless as those Sri Lankan tea-growing highlands with which I am familiar, snaking turquoise rivers, human encampments surrounded by the abundance of banana leaves, and machine-gun-toting soldiers who appear to be clad in campy pink fatigues. We begin by imagining that darkness to be in the external location of the geographical and psychosocial world that is Congo; but soon enough, as Conrad himself recognized on his famous fictional journey down the great river, that darkness is ours, rather than an external manifestation of horror.

Richard Mosse’s “Infra” is showing November 17 – December 22, 2011 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City.

Further Reading