Striking Infrared Photographs of a War-Torn Congo

A military village emerges from the hills of hot pink. A soldier lurks in a crimson jungle. A man with a face erupted in scar tissue from a war trauma pauses for a portrait. Photographer Richard Mosse has captured the Congo using Kodak Aerochrome, a discontinued military surveillance film used to detect an invisible spectrum of infrared light, warping the hues of green into a landscape of lavender and revealing much more than an image shot on typical film would.

The Ireland-born photographer’s striking new series Infra — on view through December 23 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City — documents a land of turbulent, shifting politics, systematic massacres, and unrelenting physical and sexual violence. These photographs are devastating in their reality and hauntingly beautiful in their creative form. Click through to read a brief interview with the photographer, and see some additional work from the series in our slide show.

Vintage Violence, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2011. Photo credit: Richard Mosse

Why the Congo?

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. I wished for this to happen in a place of hard realities whose narratives urgently need telling but cannot be easily described. Congo is just such a place. Its war seems essentially intangible. It is a protracted, complex, and convoluted conflict, fought by rebels with constantly switching allegiance. These narratives, though brutal and tragic, are not tales that are easily told. Across the border, for example, Rwanda’s extraordinary economic development is a testament to the successful international marketing of its terrible genocide. Yet Congo’s conflict, as Jason Stearns [former Coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo] writes, “is a conceptual mess that eludes simple definition, with many interlocking narrative strands. The New York Times… gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, when Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly ten times the rate of those in Darfur.”

What has been your experience shooting in Kodak Aerochrome?

I felt Aerochrome would provide me with a unique window through which to survey the battlefield of eastern Congo. Realism described in infrared becomes shrouded by the exotic, shifting the gears of Orientalism. The film gave me a way of thinking through my role as a white male photographing Congo with a big wooden camera. By extension, it allowed me to begin to evaluate the rules of photojournalism, which always seem to be thrust upon me in my task of representing conflict, and which I wished to challenge in my own peculiar way.

Which elements of your photographs are staged and which are spontaneous?

None of the work is staged in the grand sense, a la Gregory Crewdson. But if asking someone to pose for a photograph is staging, then perhaps there are a couple of staged photographs. It has been a very spontaneous project, in my mind, in spite of the halting and difficult process of working in the Congo.

Untitled, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2011. Photo credit: Richard Mosse

Who was your most memorable subject?

My most memorable subject was perhaps the bulletproof Mai-Mai warriors of Masisi, who were convinced that the bullets would literally bounce off their skin. They were very eager to demonstrate.

Have you shot any video pieces in Congo, like those on your Vimeo profile?

Yes, I am half way through an Infra video. So far, footage has been captured on a digital Red One camera that has been modified to shoot infrared. I wish to punctuate this footage with a very rare supply of color infrared super-16mm cine film, which will reveal a moving image version of Congo in the same lavender, teal blue and hot pink palette as the still photographs. I return to Congo in January 2012 to shoot this film on an Arriflex camera with the help of talented cinematographer, Trevor Tweeten.

Aperture Foundation and Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting have published a monograph of Mosse’s Infra with 75 color plates and an essay by Adam Hochschild. Click through below to view more images from the series.