Jesse’s book review, Infra by Richard Mosse
In Jesse’s latest review, he covers another one of the books from my own collection, Infra by Richard Mosse. This was a book I picked up on a whim because I had seen others post about it online, but once I got the book I found a rich and compelling story bound by stunning imagery, all taken on Kodak Aerochrome film.
Any asetheticization of war is a difficult. Looking at war torn landscapes that play out like a Dr. Seuss book complete with kids with AK-47s is certainly a challenge (and nearly as absurd as a Dr. Seuss book), but with context you realize the genius of the project itself.
Photographer Richard Mosse set out to shoot war torn Congo with what on the onset I saw as a gimmick but realize the layers in which this project simply is one that will be remembered. Shot mostly 2012, there are 72 photos in the book with two afterwards, one by the photographer speaking on his trip and another on the history of the complex political situation of Congo.
He brings to this project Kodak Aerochrome film that is discontinued aerial surveillance film. Originally developed for use during WWII the film registers an invisible spectrum of infrared light rendering green landscapes hues of purple and pink, which for purposes of war makes identifying enemy positions much easier. Or much more bluntly making the un-seeable, seeable which is metaphoric for a war that has claimed 5.4 million lives since 1998, that most never have seen or heard about.
There is a saying in Congo, “Because we are so rich we are so poor.” This has been the crux for the region that after the end of Belgian colonialism in the 1950s were given the guise of independence. But faced with being cut off from Congo’s resources western powers would never allow of a chance for the nation to control its own infrastructure. This again becomes metaphoric to the use of Aerochrome when considering the life of Patrice Lumumba who was the nation first elected president. He had ideas that were great for his people, but not so great for western interests. He was overthrown by American, British, and Belgian influence in favor of someone who was more in line with their interests.
The result was a move to make the seeable un-seeable as Lumumba was exiled tortured and set to face a Belgian led firing squad and after had his body chopped and dissolved in acid allowing for no chance of martyrdom. Making what was the symbol for African progress un-seeable. The next leader in power would amass 4 billion from western nations while his country starved. The spillover from Rwanda in 1994 was the start and with the fall of their billionaire dictator the country has been (kept) unstable ever since while exploitation continues.
Not only metaphorically does the use of this film explain Congo, but just the surrealistic result is stunning. The photos conjure images of the film Apocalypse Now, the only other instance I can recall in which war was made surreal through color abstraction. Congo does epitomize the title and could have even made a good title for this project. In addition I can imagine the Aerochrome taking on meaning for a white photographer who goes into such an unworldly environment, and conveying to us the surreal feelings of the atrocities that occur yet remain un-seeable to us. And to kill off my “un-seeable” theme, simply put there is just no way to not see these shots because they are really unlike anything anyone has scene which carry a broad appeal, while shedding some much needed light on Congo.
If this was the only thing I have to say about the book, then it would be fairly shallow past the use of special film. But the actually photos and underlying story he tells is pure photojournalism, because if you get past the point that the photos are indeed pink… they would still remain just as good in black & white. I just think they would lack the crossover appeal that is brought on by the Aerochrome, and with such a project you want to grab as much attention as possible.
Visiting displacement camps and following rebel factions through the mountains the story for the Congolese is nomadic. In addition to the now standard photojournalism of Africa, (kids holding guns bigger than themselves, ragtag soldiers with old Soviet weapons, and the dismal conditions of the victims) there are also shots of half built huts, construction equipment, and abandoned places such as airports and communities. What he paints is not only the situation but with these the idea of construction of the home. I don’t think many understand the level of displacement that resulted from the war and the majority of war related deaths are due to displacement in which there is just a lack of the home. The personifying shot of this understated theme comes when he shoots a group of people literally carrying an entire wooden home down the street, that the book simply calls the photo villagers carrying a building. It really is just allegorical of the entire condition of displacement.
Underlying satire can be seen in his photos of celebrities on aid missions taking photos with the refugees offering the western angle of the situation. I also understood the preceding sequence of shots depicting the butchered animals that provide food for the refugees followed by maimed and butchered refugees themselves, being then followed by the media aspects as we come and butcher their situation for our own consumption as we flip through the book in chronological order.
This book is easily obtainable going for a cover price of 50 dollars. There is also a documentary on this project called The Enclave which is shot on 16mm infrared film offering to a unique viewing of the subject just through a different medium. It can be viewed below.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
I am really glad that Jesse covered this book, as I know it was a tough one. It is one of my favourite contemporary photo books and as Jesse said, there is a deeper story to be told in the images, and that can be conveyed through the editing of this book. This is one I will read through many times in the future.