Richard Mosse’s Infra: Conflict, Art and the Regime of the Documentary Image

1. Introduction

While still only in his early thirties, Richard Mosse has exhibited his work internationally, from Tate Modern to Akademie der Künste, Berlin, and Kunsthalle, Munich. His work has already been collected by several museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Musée de l’Élysée, Lausanne. He is representing Ireland at the Venice Biennale 2013 with The Enclave, an immersive multimedia installation projected onto several screens, and composed of footage shot last year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo using an Arri and 16mm infrared film (transferred to HD), with a soundscape recorded on location. To coincide with the Biennale, Aperture has published his second monograph.

Infra, comprising twelve large-scale photographs (each over 2x2m), taken by Mosse in the Congo in 2010 and 2011, was shown at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, Ireland, last August, These monumental images depict a place on earth in which, despite the chaos of civil war, the export of precious raw materials to the affluent Northern hemisphere continues undisturbed. The year before he began Infra, Mosse expressed his intention in an interview with Hans Michaud: ‘I’m hoping to take a long boat ride up the Congo with my wooden camera, shooting the landscape with colour infrared film so that the green jungle turns red.’ Adventurous? No less than his earlier work: war zones, simulated fires, airplane crash wrecks. He explained to Geoff Manaugh: ‘these photos are the result of months of online research, skimming forums, YouTube videos, Google Earth, Flickr, emailing wreck chasers, and cold-calling bush pilots. I’d even surf the web for jpegs of plane wrecks […]. I was searching for accidents so disintegrated and remote to civilization that they only really exist in the virtual imagination of transient and anonymous online communities.’¹ A photograph from his Nomads series (2010) features the burnt-out shell of a Grand Voyager riddled with bullet holes. The ordinary vehicle looks extraordinary, as if Iraq were part of another planet, not ours.

Unlike these earlier works, Infra does not chart a quest for a single inspiring image. The first impression of seeing these very large photographs taken in Kivu, Eastern Congo, and hung in thick light grey steel frames, is that you are looking at paintings. What strengthens that impression is their unnatural colour. The reviews describe it as ‘spectacular’, since it shrouds the Congo Mosse has witnessed in an eerie light which creates a spectacle of light and colour in the gallery space. It is close to Swinging Sixties’ ‘shocking pink’ decorating psychedelic 1960s LP record covers, designed to cloud over the real world with a sense of estrangement, suggesting the altered states of being induced by LSD. Mosse’s photograph Ruby Tuesday is an explicit reference to a Rolling Stones song, a pop reference that becomes immediately problematic when the image itself refers to a jungle patrol of fighters carrying rocket launchers and other weapons.

The other constant of these images is the backdrop, the Congolese landscape of rolling hills, lines of trees, jungle, sky, clouds, snaking river streams, and open fields hugging the contours of the land, where people are dwarfed by the scale of their surroundings, as in Men of Good Fortune, or in the aerial shots, for example Lava Floe, showing the higgledy-piggledy shapes of mountains and sparsely populated townships criss-crossed by dirt tracks.

Such a restricted colour palette locks the gaze onto anonymous human beings. In Vintage Violence the battle dress camouflage of the militia soldiers, originally designed to blend the body into the background and prevent from becoming a target, does the opposite. The title abstracts from real human beings, whereas the senior commander in General Février poses for a formal portrait standing in a bridle path in full, vulnerable view. Here too colour contributes to the estrangement effect, as does the ‘sitter’s’ martial expression and posture. One suspects that a desire for showing off status through representation contributes to what, through the boomerang effect of the colour reversal process, translates into something not anticipated by the subject: rather ludicrous, clashing with the soldier’s self-perception, and ultimately surreal. Then there are the crowd scenes. In Tutsi Town a whole village faces the camera, a sea of heads below corrugated tin rooftops. The eye wanders across the eyes and the expressions to the armed soldier. Is this his village? Are the villagers afraid of him? There’s no way of knowing. Colonel Soleil’s Boys features another crowd scene of a row of combatants who form a line snaking across the field, defined in space by the track, the sky and the sweep of the hill; another image of an alien everyday moment.

What is significant? The combination of human beings and landscape? The fact that people who spend most of their time in hiding, camouflaged by a complicit landscape are willing to be portrayed in the open? The colour? All these photographs are tinged with pink, but La Vie En Rose explicitly draws attention to this aspect in its title which associates a 1950s Edith Piaf song to its odd pigmentation. Omitted from the Cobh installation was Untitled, a portrait of a young man whose face has been mutilated by a machete, such that his teeth protrude outwards. Here the war comes traumatically close to the surface. We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful features two friends embracing in one of many undramatic moments, where strangeness of what is foreign is overshadowed by the familiarity of camaraderie, which is not.

2. Framing the frame

Infra does not relate to the documentary image by suggesting iconographic comparisons, unlike Sans titre (1999-2000), by Pascal Convert, a wax monochrome sculpture based on a three-dimensional version of a press photograph from the Balkans’ war by Georges Mérillon, Veillée funèbre au Kosovo (1990). Sans titre combined art with tragedy (summoning the Renaissance iconography of grief and mourning, Donatello’s reliefs or Mantegna’s paintings). Sebastião Salgado’s black and white photographs were also disturbing for documenting the effects of war and exploitation in artful compositions, such as In The Hellhole (1987) which gave evidence of slave-labour exploitation by multinationals of miners in Brazil, and was the first of many such works on tour in art galleries.²

Nevertheless, when you look at the landscape of Infra, you are also looking at an unspoken contemporary discursive landscape which includes Convert and Salgado, but excludes the problematic of the virtual of much art photography of the 1980s and 1990s or ‘direct address’ didacticism.³ Infra’s reverberations, its conceptual and affective afterimages, suggest, rather, alterity, complexity, visual ambiguity. It invites questions. What happens to the aesthetic when it is faced with the imperative to witness the suffering of others? How can we remain within the realms of the aesthetic, when we are faced with the confrontation of the real and the tensions set up by the limits of representation? What are the consequences of this contact with the real of the Congo? What happens to the (human) subject in the image?

Such questions require an ordering principle. Photography’s mimetic quality – so close to the real world as to mirror it exactly – risks reducing the interpretation of a photograph to a recognition of content, seen through its Albertian window frame. John Berger provides one based on the distinction between two kinds of uses of photography, one linear, the other radial.4 A linear interpretation is limited to illustrating an argument or demonstrating something. But memory is not linear; it works through associations all connected in some way to the (photographic) event. Berger’s alternative is to construct a context for the photograph with words and other photographs, thus locating the photograph in a broader visual narrative which combines with the viewer’s pre-existing memory bank: ‘A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.’5.

Richard Mosse: Safe From Harm - North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012. Digital C-print, 71 x 89 cm, edition of 5. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.
Richard Mosse: Safe From Harm – North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012. Digital C-print, 71 x 89 cm, edition of 5. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Infra’s strident combination of beauty and suffering is troubling. We need to seek elsewhere what the image suggests, thinking, imagining, even, the kind of space described by Roland Barthes as ‘the great labyrinth’, a spatial metaphor which suggests a journey of interpretation, a quest, a puzzle.6. The labyrinth transcends the frame-outside-the-frame of war photography, by virtue of forming a broader repository of knowledge and reference. Umberto Eco develops a similar analogy referring to ‘the encyclopaedia’ of symbols; always potentially active in our visual field.7. Eco’s encyclopaedia can be adapted as an iconology of remembered or half-forgotten imagery. Photography too has its encyclopaedia; it is no different in this sense from literature or even cinema, and the visual encyclopaedias of both are what art historians resort to for their strategies of interpretation. The advantage of Berger’s radial schema is that it can serve to establish a dynamic use of the encyclopaedia. Berger defines it in this way: ‘A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.’8. In more than one sense, Berger is transposing Walter Benjamin’s concept of history as constellation, such that the present can encapsulate the past, its memory.9.

Susan Sontag observes that ‘to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude’.10. Literally, framing can mean embellishing a painting with a border or cropping a photograph. Metaphorically speaking, to interpret, as Trinh T. Minh-ha notes, we need to frame the frame.11. Judith Butler explains this dynamic well: ‘to call the frame into question is to show that the frame never quite contained the scene it was meant to limn, that something was already outside, which made the very sense of the inside possible, recognizable.’12 Part of the real is always excluded in representation. ‘Something exceeds the frame that troubles our sense of reality; in other words, something occurs that does not conform to our established understanding of things.’13

If we are faced with the representation of suffering, then the question is how is suffering presented and how does that presentation impact on our responsiveness?14 The limitation of Butler’s framing is its reductive interpretation of conflict imagery as ethical dichotomy of inclusion versus exclusion. Berger asks bigger questions: what is at stake? What other images are so closely related that they cannot be ignored? Pool at Uday’s Palace (2009), one of Mosse’s earlier photographs, lends itself to this mode of analysis: a photograph of a destroyed swimming pool, once belonging to Saddam Hussein’s son; an unremarkable image from an aesthetic point of view, but one which stands out from Mosse’s work for other reasons. No American patriot would have a problem with the photograph. But what is concealed, visually absent, yet present in memory around these ruins of opulence? What does it not say about Iraq, a military intervention which was primarily justified by doctored photos of chemical plants supposedly producing WMDs? Haunting any photograph of Iraq since 2004 is the photographic scoop on Abu Ghraib, thanks to Seymour Hersch, also responsible for the scoop on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.15

Moreover, Abu Ghraib is discussed by Sontag and Butler, not only for overcoming censorship and ‘embeddedness’, but also for the cultural impact of the digital revolution, and the use of photography as torture to fabricate false images of the Other and help impose a cultural order dialectically opposed to Islam.16


3. Mapping Infra

Infra’s most interesting aspect is its referentiality. What I mean by this is the way it draws in knowledge and associations from far beyond the photograph’s literal frame. Its interpretation requires us to return the image to the context of experience, social experience and social memory. In other words, the isolated image is not isolated at all; it belongs. It stands out for its discursive nature, creating its own relational space, as theorised by political geographer David Harvey. Briefly, absolute space is our norm (mapping, Euclidean geometry, urban grids); whereas relative space takes us into referentiality, applicable to text, image or both: a problematic space of non-Euclidean geometries in which the point of view is unstable. Relational space maps out the relationship between the object and the influences bearing upon it. A photograph of Ground Zero or Tienamen Square, for example, evokes other spaces, and the connotations proliferate.17 Berger’s radial model is relational in drawing the mind outwards, regardless of Mosse’s personal views on the matter. In what follows, Berger’s radial serves to identify Infra’s most significant elements.

Colour. All the reviews have noted Mosse’s striking colour palette. Infra’s dreamy colour effect is not the result of colour printing process. His ‘shocking pink’ is the outcome of a very unusual choice of Kodak Aerochrome with ominous connotations: (infrared) film stock was used by the American Air Force during the Vietnam War to make bombing sprees more deadly. Aerochrome brings out astonishing combinations of colour which appeal to the eye, while also making us question this pleasure, in the face of blatant suffering. The infrared filtering substitutes natural colour for painterly effect. It is also a conceptualist move, because it weakens the descriptive and mimetic nature of photography which functions by a matching exercise of fact and artefact, and provokes mental associations. Thus, what might appear as nothing more than a technical detail is a deliberate aesthetic choice, making Infra discursive. For one cannot ignore that the original function of this film stock was to aid surveillance, reconnaissance, bombing, in areas covered by dense vegetation, not the consequences of the bombing: 46 millions of litres of Agent Orange (napalm) dropped on to 20,000 villages, affecting 5 million civilians in Vietnam.18 Thus the troubling clash of colourful creativity and the cultural memory of wilful destruction.

Richard Mosse: Platon (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012). Digital c-print, AP. 183 x 229 cm. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.
Richard Mosse: Platon (North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012). Digital c-print, AP. 183 x 229 cm.
Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Box camera. The choice of a large format camera extends from its technical advantage (negative size) to symbolic connotations: namely, the renewal of pictorialism and rejection of the digital. Mosse is not the only artist working with photography who opts for large format cameras. Pictorialism, and the large format limited edition print and has its legacy, sits well in the gallery and museum, with its reconstituted aura of the unique, stretching from Jeff Wall and his framing of the everyday (drawing on Charles Baudelaire’s idea of the ‘modern painter’ whose dandy does nothing but contemplate the world with ‘an air of coldness which comes from an unshakeable determination not to be moved’), to Gregory Crewdson (small town histories), to landscape photographer Ansel Adams (landscape photographs of the Rockies), to Dorothea Lange, famously, Migrant Mother (1936), and 19th century pioneer Roger Fenton.19 To reiterate, the choice of the large-scale format and retro technology is to seek out photographic aura and make claims about craft.

Trace or Self-expression? The two-sidedness of photography was pointed out in the 1970s: its being both image and trace, an image which provides an extraordinary semblance of the world as well as one which is its direct imprint or index (‘directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask’).20 After Photography (2009) marks the digital revolution that has taken place since.21 In the wake of debates over the impact of the digital revolution on photography, the status of the photographic fact was questioned by the enthusiasts of manipulation, CGI, digital media, and the virtual who challenged photography’s mimetic aspect, the medium’s ability to leave a trace of the real, an imprint and tangible document of it.22 There are two camps: in one, those, such as Joel Snyder, for whom the work of artist-photographers like Jeff Wall is equated with photography, who dismiss the photograph’s indexicality altogether, arguing that photographs depart from what was photographed.23 In the other, Rosalind Krauss stands out for rejecting as simplistic the recent belittling of the index. In ‘Notes on the Index’ (1977) she applied semiotics to frame 1970s art practice, as characterised by a concern with the indexical or the actual traces of the real.24 For Hilde Van Gelder, it is a question of choice, extrapolating the chosen model from the divergent photographic practice of Jeff Wall or Allan Sekula whose practice Van Gelder calls ‘interventive’.25 What counts for Van Gelder is how an image obtains meaning through the process of interpretation, something which always involves specific cultural and ideological contexts. However, an image’s indexicality remains crucial in supporting the image’s ability to signify in a practice which is also a method that researches reality.26 Van Gelder has a point: in Infra the index remains stubborn: you cannot ignore the tangible traces of the real, the landscape, the effects of the civil war (blatantly in the machete disfigured portrait of unknown of Untitled).

Civil war and aesthetic cleansing. Undeniably, to photograph a place like the Congo is to make an intervention. Facing the camera with its reality is the Congo, a country characterised by what Guy Arnold dubs the ‘neo-imperialism of the twenty-first century’, in which conflict has been fuelled since 1999 by the mineral coltan.27 How does one reconcile Mosse’s Congo in shocking pink placed in a lush gallery setting with the Congo which has claimed 3.5 million lives in five years, ignored by the world since 1960?28 In this respect, is Infra a form of aesthetic cleansing? Is the reader faced with the whiter than white space of the aesthetics of the White Cube which collects and reifies everything? I think so.

Ineffable Congo? Integral to Infra is Mosse’s own, highly articulate, gloss about the work, for example:I originally chose the Congo because I wished to find a place in the world, and in my own imagination, where every step I took I would be reminded of the limits of my own articulation, of my own inadequate capacity for representation. On my travels in eastern Congo I encountered a beautiful landscape touched by appalling human tragedy, a people locked in an endlessly recurring nightmare. Their situation lies well beyond my powers of communication, yet I felt compelled to attempt to describe it. My photography there was a personal struggle with the disparity between my own limited powers of representation and the unspeakable world that confronted me.29

Mosse’s words and his pictorial Pop Art Congo remind us of Joseph Conrad’s subtler creation. Mosse’s touching inadequacy sets up a dialectical tension between ‘the limits of articulation’ and the ethical urge ‘to attempt to describe the unspeakable world’. Like documentary photography, Heart of Darkness also justifies itself as a witnessing, but qualified by claiming its inadequacy. Repeatedly, Mosse’s interviews mention Conrad’s novella, juxtaposing Conrad’s Congo to the post-genocidal country of today:

I knew ahead of time that my subject would elude me. Rather like Conrad’s Marlow on the steamer, I was pursuing something essentially ineffable, something so trenchantly real that it verges on the abstract. […] The decision to use colour infrared film forms a dialogue with these specifics. The poetic associations carried by the pink and red palette are a by-product of this conceptual framework, but a very fertile one. It’s an allegorical landscape – La Vie En Rose – steeped in a kind of magical realism.30

The association with Conrad triggers another relational space, colouring the viewer’s perception of the landscape and the Congolese people into an imaginary and historic dimension of the place and its tragic history, both cultural and political, in a play or dynamic of visual cross-referencing which Berger’s radial model helps chart. Conrad’s Marlow seeks out the enigmatic figure of Kurtz, ‘the apostle of light’ who exports his darkness from Europe, while Mosse seeks to paint the Congo in shocking pink, but fails to expose it to view.31 Quite independently of artistic intentions, Infra contains trace and cultural memory by virtue of the radial constellation in which Heart of Darkness coexists with Infra’s surprising, even spectacular, photography, resonating with these cultural connotations for the Western viewer.

Richard Mosse: Suspicious Minds - North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012. Digital C-print, 122 x 152 cm, edition of 2. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.
Richard Mosse: Suspicious Minds – North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012. Digital C-print, 122 x 152 cm, edition of 2. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Infra is framed by a reading of Conrad which has more affinity with Apocalypse Now as metaphor of unknowable evil than with Conrad’s subtle denunciation in what passes off as fiction, but is rooted in experience: his Congo Diary. Heart of Darkness is the literary trace of a real journey into the Congo of nineteenth-century imperialism. If Conrad constantly shifts the viewpoint, he does so by problematizing the narrative with ‘the posture of uncertainty and doubt’.32 But it is a posture which suggests to his readers, through epistemological doubting, unpalatable interpretations of the colonial world offering hints and clues to aid the understanding of a controversial contradiction: the eloquent heights of Victorian moralism glossing over unspeakable depths of exploitation. Conrad’s resistance to European imperialism takes the form of Marlow’s oblique narrative, mediating between author, the imaginative faculty, and the real. But the imagination has an ethical purpose: to provoke thought and do so by expressing epistemological doubts about mainstream views. In a Victorian context, the objective state of affairs of British and Belgian colonial greed can only be signalled by Conrad, through delayed decoding.33

The ineffable refers to a philosophical term with roots in Romanticism and the aesthetic of the sublime. Jacques Rancière argues that today’s understanding of the sublime in contemporary art derives from Jean-François Lyotard’s misreading of Kant in The Inhuman (1991), for whom the inability of the faculty of the imagination to picture or fathom what it has been shown gives way to the moral imperative to understand through the higher faculty of reason.34

Ethical frames. Infra forces questions: what does it mean to witness suffering and aestheticize it? Can an artist cease to be an observer? Have I been framed, implicated, and how? Such ethical discomfort is tackled by Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2004) which cites the contrasting of beauty and suffering in Susan Meislas’s and Gilles Perres’s photographs of the World Trade Center and Eugene Smith’s Minemata. True, Minemata cannot but remind us of a Renaissance Pietà, however tragic its real context.35 Michelangelo’s Pietà is integral to the Western gaze as a collective visual memory. Sontag’s journey ends with what she admires most: Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk (1992), exemplary in her view for its thoughtfulness as a response to suffering.36 Ultimately Sontag settles for the rhetoric of parody as final solution.

The denunciation of documenting spectacles has a long history, from Tertullian to Debord.37 Luc Boltanski’s Distant Suffering (1992) argues instead that while the media contributes to pacification and apathy, we can respond in several ways, one being the silent wonder of the sublime. But the sublime involves a suppression of pity, resulting in a transformation of feeling through ‘sublimation.’38 Boltanski singles out and historicises our modern concept of viewer, as one which equates with passivity, conveyed by the ‘spectator’ metaphor (Debord, Baudrillard, Virilio). By contrast, Boltanski recovers a range of responses to suffering, ranging from nihilism and relativism, to a critique of the hypocrisy of the world, an emphasis on its illusory nature, a comparison of its unreality to the authentic reality of the next, a distancing effect, or detachment.39 Suffering can be perceived as touching, sublime or even plainly unjust.40 This latter reaction, within a public sphere, enables a critical response of indignation leading to an impetus toward remedial action.41

What Boltanski’s analysis exposes is Sontag’s determinism. Free will is an option. One example is Nick Ut who took the iconic photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc trying to escape the rain of napalm dropping onto her body from the sky on 8 June 1972 in Vietnam. He took the child to a hospital and looked after her.42 Magnum photographer Philip Jones-Griffiths was also exceptional because he photographed the Vietnam war at his own expense and on his own terms, learning Vietnamese to understand and empathise. His anti-Vietnam war book, Vietnam Inc. (1971) homes in on the tragic everyday: for example, a housewife washes her front yard stained with human blood; an American soldier gazing at his future victim who is cradling her baby; a man takes a rest after burning down a village. The caption reads: ‘EXHAUSTED GI overcome by the heat (it was over 100 degrees and hotter still for the ‘Zippo’ squads), takes time off from burning homes for a smoke while a wounded girl, one of the few casualties during the operation, awaits medical help.’43

Jones-Griffiths used irony as a weapon to undermine the horror with cutting wit. Out of solidarity with the subject, he ceased to be a voyeur of suffering and became the Same, by learning the language the Other.44 Thus, Sontag’s argument (voyeurism and the media spectacle) falls prey to determinism which Boltanski counters with free will.

Alternative paradigms. Renzo Martens highlights how suffering in the Congo and elsewhere is exploited by photography and film.45 In his debut treatment of filming in a war zone, Episode 1 (2003) made illegally in Chechnya, Martens played the part of a TV viewer, interviewing refugees, UN employees and freedom fighters about their feelings, asking them if they are happy and thereby showing how media reporting brings news home.46 His question referenced the ground-breaking cinema verité film Chronique d’un eté (1961) by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin in which a Holocaust survivor asked Parisians the same question. Episode 3 (2008) could not be further removed from Mosse’s work – imagine providing the Congolese with cameras to film their own atrocities, in exchange of payment by the press and art galleries. A crowd in a Congolese village sings and chants while Martens sets up a large neon sign: ‘enjoy poverty’. He then interviews a villager who says he knows perfectly well he is oppressed by the West and that he is providing a spectacle of his reification for the camera. His symbolic interventions are reminiscent of eighteenth century humour, in the sharp irony of Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal (1729) or the sarcasm of Voltaire’s picareque novel Candide (1759). Instead of claiming the Congo to be sublime and ineffable, Martens employs a performative strategy to expose behind-the-scenes Western duplicity of photographers and journalists cashing in on the pain of others.

Closer to Mosse’s Infra is Congo Democratic (2006), by white South African Guy Tillim, and made before the country’s first free elections since 1960. Exhibited at Documenta 12, Tillim’s eighteen photographs might be mistaken for photo-journalism, if there were more to coincide with its fundamental aesthetic (Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive’ moment).47 For example, in Jean-Pierre Bemba, presidential candidate, enters a stadium in central Kinshasa flanked by his bodyguards, the candidate is just about to address the crowd. The play of gazes says it all: look ahead to the elections, but watch your back.

The postmodern aesthetic of the ineffable and the sublime of the real is rejected by Alfredo Jaar’s photographic installations about Rwanda. Jaar tackles the problem of the trace of the naked image and what to do with it, when it is the documentary basis for art. Real Pictures (1995-2007) is an installation of black boxes each containing a photograph of a murdered Tutsi, which we are barred from viewing. Such work disrupts what Rancière calls ‘the ordinary regime’ (the typical viewing of photographs of suffering and death).48 Jaar conceptualises visually the ethical problem of bearing witness, whilst avoiding voyeurism. He alludes indirectly to that which, for ethical reasons, cannot be directly represented.49 His intervention advances our knowledge because it redistributes the sensible.50

Allan Sekula’s Fish Story (1999), years in the making, functions through an aesthetics of delay and research.51 The association between labyrinth, encyclopaedia and images is made explicit, exploring people’s lives and the impact of global capitalism in multiple ways. What’s lacking in Infra can be found in Fish Story and Waiting for Teargas (1999): empathy.52 ‘I was fully aware that the work demanded time and effort from its audience, not the sort of at-a-glance reading that we associate with the advertising model. In fact both the theme and the structure of the work are very much dedicated to a slower notion of time’.53 Sekula prefers to Mosse’s ‘ineffable’ an aesthetic practice of getting to know people over time. That’s ethical, political even.

4. Conclusion

Infra presents itself as an immersive exhibition, drawing one’s attention inward, by means of a powerful sensorial experience. It is fascinating for how it attempts to (an)aestheticise the Congolese everyday into a spectacle to be enjoyed in the gallery. Its colour manipulation triggers cultural memory: other alien jungles, other eras. It produces estrangement by drawing the gaze away from the literal tragedy of civil war, towards a dreamy subjective fiction, one which overlaps with layers of the West’s own cultural history and an appropriation of Conrad’s Congo, assimilated into visual culture via Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), where Heart of Darkness overlaps with Vietnam, and the denunciation of Europe’s rapacity towards ‘black Africa’ is replaced by a generic denunciation of madness and evil, obscuring genocide and Vietnamese victory against all odds.

In an interview about Infra, Mosse describes his work as allegorical, a concept as laden with its literary and philosophical legacy as the ineffable.54 But allegory is a sustained narrative and hardly applicable to Infra which glosses over harsh reality with its pink patina, resulting in an unresolved ambiguity which is allegory’s opposite. On reflection, this clash of colour and feeling remains troubling; the oxymoron of art where no art belongs; the lingering discomfort within gallery space; framing pain in expensive books. What sticks is the stubborn visual fact, the trace of the real in its dramatic presence peering at us despite the aesthetic varnish.

The immersive pink hides, constrains, and glosses over, but fails to prevent our own encyclopaedia from being evoked. Infra marks a conflictual, relational space, allusive – not allegorical – playing on the metonymic strategies of antithesis, oxymoron and of catechresis or incongruity. When Infra is placed in context, the impact of its shocking pink and the sensuous appeal of the sea of artificially tinted landscapes, anonymous crowds and individuals set against an indifferent backdrop of Congolese war, dwindle markedly.55

1. Geoff Manaugh, ‘Leviathan: An interview with Richard Mosse’, BLDG BLOG, 21 December 2009, <>, accessed 26 November 2011.
2. Mary Panzer, Things As They Are. Photojournalism in Context since 1955, World Press Photo, 2006, p. 243.
3. Barbara Kruger, in Karen Raney (ed.), Art in Question, London and New York: Continuum, 2003, p. 118.
4. John Berger, ‘Uses of Photography’ in Berger, About Looking, London: Bloomsbury, 2009, pp. 52-67.
5. Berger, ‘Uses of Photography’, p. 67
6. ‘The great labyrinth of all the photographs in the world’. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, London: Vintage Classics, 2000, p. 73.
7. Umberto Eco, Semiotica e Filosofia del Linguaggio, Turin: Einaudi, 1997.
8. Berger, ‘Uses of Photography’, p. 67.
9. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Benjamin, Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt and trans. Harry Zohn, London: Harper Collins, 1992, pp. 245-255
10. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, London: Penguin Books, 2004, p. 41.
11. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Framer Framed, New York: Routledge, 1992, cited in Judith Butler, Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? London and New York: Verso, 2010, p. 8.
12. Butler, Frames of War, p. 9.
13. Butler, Frames of War, p. 9.
14. Butler, Frames of War, p. 63.
15. A detailed account of the press’s resistance to publishing Haeberle’s photographs in Seymour M. Hersch, ‘The Massacre at My Lai’ in John Pilger (ed.), Tell Me No Lies. Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, London: Jonathan Cape, 2004, pp. 85-119.
16. Butler, Frames of War, p. 130.
17. David Harvey, Social Justice and The City, London: Edward Arnold 1973, p. 13. More recently, cf. Spaces of Hope, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. David Harvey, Social Justice and The City, London: Edward Arnold 1973, p. 13. More recently, cf. Spaces of Hope, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
18. Philip Jones Griffiths, Agent Orange. ‘Collateral Damage’ in Viet nam, London: Trolley Ltd, 2003, p. 4.
19. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, cited in Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering. Morality, Media and Politics, Graham Burchell trans., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004, p. 117. Cf. Jeff Wall, Selected Essays and Interviews, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 283.
20. Sontag, On Photography, London: Penguin Books, 2002, p. 154; pp. 122; 123.
21. Fred Ritchin, After Photography, 2009, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.
22. See W.J.T Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992 and objections: Lev Manovich, ‘The Paradoxes of Digital Photography,’ Photography After Photography , Hubertus v. Amelunxen, Stefan Iglhaut, Florian, Rötzer (eds), G+B Arts, 1996, pp. 57-65. For simulacrum, cf. Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy’ in The Logic of Sense, Mark Lester trans., London and New York: Continuum, 2004, pp. 291-320.
23. Joel Snyder ‘The Art Seminar’ in James Elkins (ed.) Photography Theory, London and New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 134.
24. Joel Snyder ‘The Art Seminar’ in James Elkins (ed.) Photography Theory, London and New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 134.
25. Hilde Van Gelder, ‘The Theorization of Photography Today: Two Models’ in Elkins, Photography Theory, pp. 299-304.
26. Van Gelder, ‘The Theorization of Photography Today’, p. 303.
27. Guy Arnold, Africa. A Modern History, London: Atlantic Books, 2005, p. 901.
28. Arnold, Africa, p. 901.
29. Richard Mosse, Infra, New York: Aperture, 2011, pp. 129-133.
30. Joerg Colberg, ‘A Conversation with Richard Mosse’, GUP Magazine, Issue 128
(2012). See also: Jessica Loudis, ‘Richard Mosse’s Infra’, Bookforum (April-May) 2012 and Christian Viveros-Faune, ‘The New Realism’, Art in America (June) 2012; Aaron Schuman, ‘Sublime Proximity: In Conversation with Richard Mosse’, Aperture Magazine, 203 (Summer) 2012.
31. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary, Robert Hampson ed., London: Penguin, 2007, p. 28.
32. Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. xxvi and Ian Watts, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, London: Chatto and Windus, 1980, pp. 276 and 279.
33. Watts, ibidem, pp. 276 and 279. Edward Said rescued Heart of Darkness from being instrumentalised as a trope for the ineffable and alterity. Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures, New York: Vintage Books, 1994; Abdirahman
A. Hussein, Edward Said. Criticism and Society, London and New York: Verso, 2002. 34. Jacques Rancière, ‘Lyotard and the Aesthetics of the Sublime: a Counter-reading of Kant’, in Aesthetics and Its Discontents, Cambridge and Malden MA: Polity, 2009, p. 88-105.
35. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 67.
36. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 111.
37 Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering. Morality, Media and Politics, Graham Burchell trans., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 22.
38. Boltanski, Distant Suffering, p.115.
39. Boltanski, Distant Suffering, p. 26.
40. Boltanski, Distant Suffering, p. 114.
41. Boltanski, Distant Suffering, p. 81.
42. Denise Chong, The Girl in The Picture. The Story of Kim Phuc the Photograph and the Vietnam War, London and New York: Penguin, 2001, p. 69.
43. Philip Jones-Griffiths, Vietnam Inc., London: Phaidon, 2001, p. 71. The village was later wiped out by US bombing.
44. For the Same in opposition to Levinasian Other, see Alain Badiou, ‘Return to the Same’ in Ethics. Essay on the Understanding of Evil, London and New York: Verso,
2012, pp. 25-27.
45. ‘I find it a very hypocritical situation. Not because journalists and photographers would be just a gang of profiteers exploiting others’ poverty by turning it into attractive or impressive images and making piles of money, but because none of the profits that these images generate return to the people that deliver the raw material: the poor allowing themselves to be filmed. This makes the exploitation of filmed and photographed poverty a perfect double (analogy) for rubber, coltan or slave labour’. Els Roelandt, ‘Renzo Martens’ Episode 3: Analysis of a Film Process in Three Conversations’, A Prior Magazine No. 16, February 2008,
46. Roelandt, ibidem.
47. Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.
48. Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott, London and New York: Verso, 2009, pp. 83-105; p. 96
49. Rancière, The Future of The Image, London and New York: Verso, 2007, p. 137. 50 Rancière, ‘The Distribution of The Sensible’ in The Politics of Aesthetics, London and New York: Continuum 2008, pp. 12-19: ‘The dream of a suitable political work of art is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle.’ Ibidem, p. 63.
51. See Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second. Stillness and the Moving Image, London: Reaktion Books 2004, pp. 123-143. Mulvey’s delay builds on Neorealist aesthetics.
52. Allan Sekula, Waiting for Teargas. White Globe to Black in Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St. Clair, 5 Days That Shook the World. Seattle and Beyond, Photographs by Allan Sekula, London and New York: Verso, 2000,p. 122.
53. Sekula, in ‘In Conversation with Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’, in Sekula, Performance Under Working Conditions, Sabine Breitweiser (ed.), Vienna: Hatje Cantz, 2003, p. 46.
54. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Trans. John Osborne, London and New York: Verso, 2003. Craig Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in Theory 1900-2000. An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford and Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005, pp. 1025-1032.
55. Berger, ‘Uses of Photography’, p. 67.