Throughout 2011-2013, Irish conceptual photographer and filmmaker Richard Mosse and his collaborators, cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and Melbourne-bred minimal composer Ben Frost, traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to document what Mosse calls the “Hobbesian state of war” between rebel factions and the Congolese national army in the country’s east. The culmination of these expeditions is The Enclave–a highly-aestheticised, immersive six-screen video art installation, now showing at NGV International.
Commissioned for the Irish representation at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, and the winner of the 2014 Deutsche Borse Photography Prize, the film—and its accompanying photography series 'Infra'—is marked by Mosse’s use of Kodak Aerochrome film. Developed by US military in the 1940s, the infrared film registers chlorophyll in vegetation. It was used for aerial reconnaissance in the Second World War and later became popular with the hippie movement in the ‘60s–both Jimmy Hendrix and Frank Zappa used Aerochrome on album covers. In Mosse’s case, the film transforms the lush rainforest and patchwork farmland of Congo’s Kivu region, and the normally green camouflage clothing of local rebels, into a lurid landscape of pink, purple and red hues.
“I wanted to confront military reconnaissance technology,” Mosse said in an interview with The British Journal of Photography, “to use it reflexively in order to question the ways in which war photography is constructed.” Effectively, Mosse has taken a product of the military and turned it in on itself, using it as a means to shine a light on the ramifications of war.
Since 1997 an estimated 5.4 million people have died of war-related causes in DRC. It’s also estimated that the prevalence of sexual violence, especially in the east of country, is amongst the worst in the world. But as with many African conflicts these crimes appear to have happened in the dead of the night, sidelined by mainstream media and ignored by the international political community. Dismayed by this, Mosse first travelled to the DRC alone in 2011, under the guise of a journalist. The result of this first trip was the 'Infra' series. The following year he returned with Tweeten and Frost to shoot The Enclave.
Mosse had worked with Tweeten before but Frost was a late, rather serendipitous inclusion to the project. The pair met via email after Frost came across 'Infra' in a New York bookstore; one week later the trio were lugging camera and sound equipment across a border in Central Africa. For The Enclave, the addition of Tweeten’s camera work and Frost’s haunting sound design–a combination of field recordings and original composition–elevate and embellish the documentation to a strange and beautiful realm, purposely giving it pop culture appeal. The work of Kahlil Joseph comes to mind. It’s still documentary, but the artist’s tools are front and centre, as is their desire to make the piece emotive and challenging.
There’s a scene in which a group of rebels ambush a tiny, hillside village and a man is left lying motionless in the dirt – it’s fast, kinetic, visceral and confronting. But it’s also difficult to tell whether the scene is real or false; whether the soldiers are genuinely ambushing a village or re-enacting a similar event for the camera, reminiscent of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing. In fact, there’s rarely a scene in the film where the rebel soldiers being filmed aren’t acutely aware of the camera. They’re almost performative: staring down the lens, adjusting their caps and striking macho poses.
Deliberately, Mosse’s work raises many ethical questions about authorship and documentary photography (and whether his subjective approach is any less close to the truth than traditional documentary photography). “Beauty is one of the mainlines to make people feel something. It's the sharpest tool in the box," Mosse says in an interview with Frieze. "If you're trying to make people feel something, if you're able to make it beautiful, then they'll sit up and listen. And often if you make something that's derived from human suffering or war, if you represent that with beauty (and sometimes it is beautiful) that creates an ethical problem in the viewer's mind. Then they can be confused and angry and disoriented, 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."
Both The Enclave and 'Infra' intentionally use the sublime to draw attention to what is actually pictured: traumatic images of war, crime, violence, human suffering, a country at war with itself. Mosse is using his leverage as a photographer and visual artist to shine a light on a humanitarian crisis that he is passionate about.
You can see Mosse talk more about this project in the video below: