Feature: Decoding Infra

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Richard Mosse’s stunning photographs inspire wonder. The highly accomplished, Irish-born, fine art photographer has in recent years gained significant notoriety for his surreal Infra series, which emphasizes the conflict in eastern Congo with deliberate color. A documentary style narrative is told through a bold artistic process that floods vibrant color into consciousness to invade the soul. Recalled is Joseph Conrad’s controversial 1899 novel, The Heart of Darkness, to which Mosse provides a contemporary parallel. Revolutionary in its account of war, Conrad’s novel has been analyzed more than most literature. Decades later, perceptions of war are not limited to accounts in literary works. Bombarded with war images daily, we are immune to and unfazed by much of what we see and read. Yet, it is almost impossible to come away from Mosse’s images without an altered perception. Given this, the power in Mosse’s images demands further examination.

To fully recognize the entirety of Mosse's Infra project, there must be a discussion of the work's three main components as follows: (a) the Congo (the setting), (b) Kodak's Aerochrome film (the medium), and (c) the axis of context--contemporary art photography meets journalistic photography.

 

The Congo. The Democratic Republic of Congo is potentially one of the richest countries on the earth. Located in Central Africa, it is the second-largest country on the continent and is packed with diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and zinc. The country also has supplies of coltan, used in mobile phones. Considering the global need for all of the above, one would think the Congo would be stable. The reality is apocalyptic. Colonialism, slavery and corruption have turned it into one of the poorest most unfortunate places on earth. The country has been slowly “recovering” from what is known as the world's bloodiest conflict since World War II, Africa’s first world war, resulting in at least 5.4 million deaths from war-related causes (mainly starvation and disease) since 1998. The troubled country with a non-existent infrastructure, is overrun by violent warlords, civil war, rape, genocide and terrifying conditions universally regarded as horrific. The Congo has gone to war with neighboring Rwanda twice, suffered numerous coups, and armed rebel groups control the turf in the remote forests. In response, the UN has the largest peacekeeping operations in the world in the Congo, with close to 20,000 peacekeepers on the ground to help protect civilians and aid in reconstruction. Even despite this massive effort, conditions worsen in the Congo.

 Kodak's Aerochrome. Fascinated by the complexity of the situation in Congo, in 2010 Richard Mosse decided to take it on as a new subject in his exploration of conflict-based themes, previous subjects included Gaza and Iraq.  The truth of the matter, however, is that it was entirely possible that Mosse would return without anything notable. Much of the existing infrastructure stood against Mosse’s plight toward exposing the horrors of what was/is happening in the Congo.  The Rebel groups hide in the expansive jungle and tend not to welcome photographers on their conquests and besides that, the jungle disguises any trace of the rape, murder and pillaging incited by the nomadic rebel forces. As if gaining physical access to eastern Congo weren't challenge enough, consider the difficulty of capturing documentable footage of the "conflict" that pervades the people, politics, and future of the Congo. How does a documentarian live to tell about a "conflict" that revolves entirely around corruption, murder, and covert operations without being discovered and killed himself?

Enter Kodak’s Aerochrome and take a step back to consider the bigger picture. This discontinued film is particularly sensitive to infrared light, rather than to the usual visible spectrum of colors registered by traditional film. Since foliage reflects infrared while buildings do not, the US Army used it during the Vietnam War as camouflage detection film, a reconnaissance tool. The film can remotely detect the health of foliage, as infrared registers chlorophyll in live vegetation. Camouflage detection was possible since green paint and false or dead leaves constructed into a disguise could easily be distinguished from the real thing. Shot with this film, green jungles turn bright red and shades of magenta.

Contemporary Art. Rounding out with the final element in this discussion, as contemporary art rather than journalism, Mosse’s use of Aerochrome film offers new ways to see the reality of Eastern Congo beyond the standard news coverage or typically shocking images and statistics. Mosse brilliantly contributes the perspective of an artist to an otherwise unremarkable subject. He confronts that which challenges him, representing an intangible idea through the medium of an innately literal camera. War is anything but simple or in this case, anything but black and white. Instead, Mosse dares imagination with difficult subject matter. Through a color-tinted examination, he constructs an opposing force to draw us in to the conflict… visual pleasure, momentary and metaphorical beauty. So successfully is this accomplished, that instead of turning away we experience a mind-altering hallucination. Instead of seeing what we expect, we are compelled to look closer to question the story behind the rolling hills of lush pink, red and magenta. The ethereal landscapes reveal, through the artistic filter of vintage military film technology, invisible sites of massacres and bloodshed and the people barely existing within it. The triumph of contemporary art is the reflection of truth through personal discovery for both the viewer and the artist.  Art poses questions rather than providing answers and surprisingly challenges our perception of the world.