Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Enclave

We looked in on the Photographers Gallery yesterday to see the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize contenders.  I was particularly interested in The Enclave series by Richard Mosse (which has won him the prize), documenting the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He hit upon the inspired idea of using discontinued infrared colour film, which was formerly used by the military to identify camouflaged targets.  The infrared light reflected by grass and trees appears in lurid but strangely beautiful shades of pink. Mosse hopes his work will help to bring exposure to a conflict that goes largely unreported in the media, just as the infrared film was designed to make the invisible visible.  In the video below, he talks about the film he made as part of this project - more visceral, proximate and scary than the "beautiful" landscape photographs you can see behind him as he talks.

The photograph I was initially drawn to in the exhibition, Men of Good Fortune (2011), is a picturesque composition of gentle grassy slopes, pastoral figures and trees that might have been artfully placed by a Capability Brown.  These hills were originally inhabited by Congolese tribes who grew crops and hunted for bush meat, until they were driven out by pastoralists who cut down the forest for grazing.  Richard Mosse's camera renders this landscape's history of intimidation and human rights abuses in shocking pink, like superficially healthy teeth subjected to a plaque disclosing tablet.  Nowhere to Run (2010) shows another vista of unearthly pink hills, which seem to have undergone the kind of transformation J. G. Ballard described in The Crystal World. This rose quartz-coloured terrain is, according to the caption, 'rich in rare earth minerals like gold, cassiterite and coltan, which are extracted by artisanal miners who must pay taxes to the rebels.'

Of course one question these photographs raise is whether the aesthetic pleasure they provide is a distraction from what is really happening in The Enclave.  Would direct documentary images be more shocking or informative?  In the interview below, Mosse says that one of the difficulties he encountered was that the the deep wounds inflicted by rape 'lack a visible trace' (last week's End Sexual Violence in Conflict conference here in London, which my wife took part in, was designed to raise the profile of this issue).  His images may be beautiful on the surface, but, he suggests, beauty is effective - 'the sharpest tool in the box.  If you can seduce the viewer and you can make them feel aesthetic pleasure regarding a landscape in which human rights violations happen all the time, then you can put them into a very problematic place for themselves - they feel ethically compromised and they feel angry with themselves and the photographer for making them feel that.  That moment of self awareness is a very powerful thing.'

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