I went to a talk today by Richard Mosse, and it changed my mind.
One of my favourite books ever was PJ O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell, in which he describes himself as a trouble tourist, and to be honest with you, that was my preconception as I went to view Mosse’s exhibition of stills and video. A trouble tourist with a camera. But of course, as we all know, there is a fundamental fifth hidden force of the universe. Ahead of gravity, the strong force, the weak force and electromagnetism, comes the one hidden by intergalactic hippies since before the Big Bang. The thing that makes the world make sense.
In that seminal work, O’Rourke describes how he went to a Christian theme park with his girlfriend. We came away converted, he said. To Satanism.
I went to Richard Mosse’s talk about what I considered his holidays in Hell, convinced I’d be listening to some sort of high-tech charlatan and I came away, if not quite converted, then certainly persuaded. The fact that he’s an engaging, likeable sort of guy did him no harm but at this hour of my crusty old life, I hope I’ve moved beyond base naivety. The fact is that he got himself in there, talking to the Congolese rebels, the warlords, the M23 lunatics, the Hutu, the Tutsi and the multifarious tribes in that conflict without borders.
He met them, he negotiated with them and he took their pictures. I don’t think I’d have the guts to go where he went. As he flashed his image of a highly-educated, cultured, murderous paramilitary leader on the screen, a man well-known for inflicting appalling atrocities on the civilian population, a curious circularity began to spin around in my head.
Yes. That man might be Colonel Kurtz, but where did that Apocalypse Now conceit spring from? The Congo, via Joseph Conrad.
Richard Mosse went to the actual Heart of Darkness where a killer poses for the camera, adopts a stylised ingrained Victorian pose while at the same time hating the photographer.
Reviewing his work before the talk, I failed to understand its significance, and that’s because context is everything. I admired the astonishingly high quality of the huge wall-covering prints. I thought the landscape was beautiful, and I asked myself questions about his choice of infra-red film to shoot everything, turning the lush green equatorial jungle to bright pink, but I missed the point. Those lovely clean hills standing proud above the forest were the product of deforestation caused by people fleeing from the Rwandan conflict of 1994. Victims of genocide were in turn ruthlessly driving Boreal people out of their forest homes to create pastureland for their cattle. And in turn, locals were fighting back against the Tutsi and the Hutu.
Nothing is simple.
As a privileged North-European, back in the mid-Nineties, I saw the Rwanda-Burundi conflict as something imposed on a blameless native people by the ruthless Belgian oppressors, and to a large extent, it was, but we don’t have a monopoly on heartlessness, as African tribalism has shown the world over and over again. And the current low-intensity war in Congo is simply a continuation of that, combined with many other tribal conflicts, orchestrated by the forces that profit from the Congo’s vast riches.
Who might those forces be? All of us in the West, in addition to the Chinese who by now seem to own most of Africa.
The rich, industrialised world stood by and ignored the Rwandan genocide of 1994 because all they saw was a crowd of blacks killing each other. They didn’t intervene, unlike with the absolute turmoil in Europe and the USA when white, rich, educated Europeans began killing each other in Yugoslavia at about the same time.
I don’t blame Richard Mosse for this, because his work has a particular focus, but context is important and so is contemporaneity. We watched bodies flowing down the Kagera river in Rwanda like so many cut logs, and we tut-tutted. At the same time, we agonised over Sarajevo and we quite properly went into spasm when Mladic murdered 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica. But still, the truth is that nobody cared about the Africans, then or twenty years later.
Richard Mosse’s pictures fit into a particular time-frame.
The 1990s were notorious for two things: mass-murders of blacks that nobody cared about and mass-murders of whites that mobilised the globe.
Many fine photographers covered the Yugoslav bestiality. I’d love to see an exhibition setting their work and Mosse’s work in a single context.
What about the day-to-day mundane technicalities?
On an aesthetic level, Mosse’s pictures are simply wonderful. Shot with a large-format camera,using 8×7 negatives, they exceed anything that most of us could ever achieve with digital SLR and its concomitant limitations. Mosse’s pictures are simply astonishing, and I take my hat off to him for his achievement. He presents the viewer with a staggering physical embodiment of his vision, produced in the finest possible quality, and of course, that brings out the geek in all of us. What did you use to shoot that? What exposure? What speed?
It doesn’t matter. Our little technical obsessions count for nothing.
All that matters is this: did you get the picture right?
For the most part, Richard Mosse got the picture right.