When I was invited by FOMU to host a conversation for Futures Digital Festival, I think like many others the theme of ‘Reset’ resonated a lot. I do not need to restate the context of which we are all too painfully aware. From the pandemic to the global wake up call provoked by BLM, global warming, the escalade of European and worldwide nationalisms, etc. But with the word reset, the question that was raised for me was: how do we do that when it comes to images? Do we delete, do we replace, do we transform, and also, is it not too late?
As an old time devotee of James Baldwin, one of my favourite and well known quotes by him – one that has helped me tremendously lately – says “I can’t be pessimistic because I am alive, to be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So, I am forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive, whatever we must survive.” I believe the sort of images we put out in the world and the ones we look at can help us survive. Last Spring, images of intolerable cruelty and hatred had looped around the world without any filter. The video showing the murder of George Floyd by a policeman has been overwhelming, as much for its graphic nature as for its ubiquity. If need be, those doubting the power of images in a world drowned in them have been proven wrong. However, these images are also incredibly hurtful, and they reiterate a racist order that black people have been aware of for so long, and for whom the only difference was made by the presence of a mobile phone filming the scene. The images of George Floyd – and of all those of police brutality which have already emerged since then – are the most recent development of a massive archive showing black suffering.
The questions that have haunted my work as a researcher, as a writer and as a curator is: how do we derail this perverse lineage of images? How do we put an end to its repeated naturalisation? How do we make them look aberrant – not by pointing a voyeuristic finger at them over and over again? As someone working in the African context, and particularly as a photography specialist of the Congo, these are questions that have accompanied me for a very long time and have brought me to the political power of beauty. The Congo is the place in Africa that has probably suffered the most from an excess of signs of representation – the proverbial heart of darkness – and on a historical scale has been over-determined by the West.
Beauty as a tool to counterbalance the constructed image of Africa, and black lives generally, has been explored by a growing number of contemporary photographers. To mention two examples among many, Omar Victor Diop from Senegal is known for producing images that recreate moments of African and African diasporic history, in which the artist himself embodies historical characters. He makes very careful use of light, pose, fashion, style and aesthetics. In the United States, the skyrocketing career of photographer Tyler Mitchell has been propelled by his creation of images doing what he calls “Black Utopia”. He shows black joy, happiness, well-being and the beauty of young black bodies. For this discussion I decided to host a conversation with the artist Léonard Pongo. In 2019, we had the chance to work on a big project together at the 6th Lubumbashi Biennale in the DRC, an event I curated precisely as an inversion of our mental cartographies of the region. It took the Congo as a centre and exploited its geographical situation on the equator – seen as a line that binds and unites, imbricating the world – rather than one that divides and separates it. It also sought to repoeticise the Congo and develop new narratives about it.
The artist Léonard Pongo makes a resolute use of beauty in his practice as an amendment for the representation of Congolese environments and for regions that usually make the news for their scenes of war. Léonard’s series, Primordial Earth, was one of the first series I selected for the biennale and was excited to show, precisely because it encompasses these elements of displacement in our gaze on the Congo. For people unfamiliar with these images, they are striking for their ‘magic’ beauty; the colours, the enigmatic quality and tone that emanates from them is something that can only strike the viewer.
LÉONARD PONGO: I did not start shooting these images with a concept in mind – it came organically after photographing outside of an urban context for a while. For seven to eight years I worked on The Uncanny, a black and white series focused in urban contexts of the DRC. But I always wondered how I could talk about the incredible diversity of the landscape in the DRC, how I could show images of nature in a way that would be relevant for me and for an external audience. The project grew partly by attending Les Ateliers de la Pensée in 2017, which is a thought workshop in Dakar, Senegal – where writers, artists and thinkers of African philosophy and economy come to discuss current issues. There was a special focus on African ecologies that year and for the first time the organisers, Felwine Sarr and Achille Mbembe, decided to invite some artists whose work they thought was relevant and to bridge the gap between theoretical thinking and current issues of African society. They considered artists a key element in society who can – if not directly address these issues – bring them to the forefront. That was a formative experience for me and from there I started to find out where I should be and how I should be talking about the Congolese landscape.I started with going back to the photographs I had taken before the project existed to pick some to include in the work. That has been followed up over the past two years and a half by spending time in different areas of the DRC. From the Northern and Southern Kivu provinces, to Kasaï – an important place for me – to Salonga, located in the Equateur province and hosting a rainforest the size of Belgium, one of the largest in the world.
LÉONARD PONGO: Yes, I come from a background of documentary photography and I sometimes work as a photojournalist. Within that world there is always this debate about miserablism and aestheticism, especially when photographing Africa. Therefore, I found it interesting to create images that, despite being beautiful, could also bring dignity and be critical, even scary. Beauty is a powerful tool to use to reach out to an audience – as long as it is not created in a bubble or conditioned by the approaches of a dominant narrative. The places I have had the chance to see and spent time wandering are incredibly beautiful, and it is important to show that about the DRC.
Some of my images are taken in the Kivu region, this is an area of the country that is systematically represented because of its, so to say, ‘failures’. There is a lot of circulation now on social media about blood minerals, and that is a huge problem, one for which many different entities and countries are responsible. But being in this photojournalistic world I have an issue with my country being constantly represented under the light of failures, suffering and crisis. So for me it is important to address an audience in the DRC and internationally by altering their representation and providing possibilities for them to imagine the Congo as something other than what usual Western narratives focus on.
LÉONARD PONGO: I must say, I am not someone who photographs with a theoretical framework in mind. I photograph as I naturally react to the environment I place myself in. I am not driven by beauty, but intentionality, and I don’t feel I have power over how an audience reacts to my work. When selecting images for this series it was important to include ones that, despite their beauty, were intriguing, eerie, maybe a bit threatening and at times attractive or erotic. I aim to have this complexity to trigger different emotions.
The ideal way to show this series is through an exhibition, so compared to classic photojournalism where we are constructing a linear narrative, this series is meant to be interacted with through a sensitive, emotional, maybe even physical dimension.
LÉONARD PONGO: The way I conceptualised and directed this series was by basing it on Congolese traditions, which are based on the constant reminder that ‘not everything is visible’. This traditional system is evoked through the tales, symbolisms, and the craftsmanship of people who have inhabited these environments. So I wanted to immerse myself in the same environment and photograph it in a way that could help me connect with what people have observed. I did not want to illustrate it, but create with the same inspiration of what has been written, told and made.
In terms of colour use, in order to render visible what it is not, I used a full spectrum camera that perceives light outside of the human visual spectrum. That meant losing control, as this specific camera consistently failed in recording what was in front of me, instead randomly showing me things I wouldn’t see myself. The average camera doesn’t show us reality, it shows us a version of the visible that human eyes can grasp, processed by what engineers have decided is adequate limits in the visible spectral range and choice of colour. So by perverting that, I can use a tool that reliably produces random results, which is empowering because it creates raw material resembling reality, but that is often a little twisted and outside expected representations. Primordial Earth has as much to do with my imagination as it has to do with documenting these places. Moving away from the idea of objectivity of the photographic medium gives me tremendous storytelling power, and lets me immerse my audience in a world created through my intentions.
LÉONARD PONGO: I think it is an interesting choice when you use the word ‘coverage’, as in covering the country or different territories. We are talking about a country that is roughly the size of Western Europe, with areas that are extremely different. In the East, along the Albertine rift is a volcanic area that is extremely fertile, but also extremely rocky with over a thousand meters in elevation. In the West of the country you can be immersed in a rainforest where the climate is completely different. I guess when I talked about dignity I meant having respect for that land and its immenseness. It would be difficult for me to reduce the diversity of the Congo to my experience of it.
I am Belgium-Congolese, I grew up in Belgium and I have spent a lot of time in the past decade between the two countries. Reducing the Congo and especially Kivu to its crisis has been a major issue I have struggled with. When initially creating The Uncanny in 2011, my goal was to document the state of the country during the 2nd national presidential elections. But I am extremely lucky to have had a family that was constantly questioning me about my role as a storyteller, it made me question what I was doing with these images and how they were benefitting or impacting my country. Eventually, it resulted in me moving away from my initial objectives and led me to the final outcome of The Uncanny, a radically different narrative about my direct surroundings and experience of the DRC through my family and friends.
There is clearly a need for images that document the events happening in the world, but as a visual artist I do not feel it is my place to focus on that. I would like to produce what I want to see of the Congo. I want my images to be informative, but I don’t want to condition the vision of the Congo in a specific direction. My aim is rather to focus on the beauty and depth of traditional tales that are equally relevant as they were hundreds of years ago.
LÉONARD PONGO: I put an emphasis on stories from Kasaï, which is where my family comes from and I have been immersed in that visual culture and symbolism for a long time. For me it was so relevant to see how a person who has a vision of the land, where there is a clear hierarchy, would place man’s position at the same level as other animals. It is interesting then to see the symbols these animals are given – for example a leopard is not to be killed in the forest because it is considered an equal, as it has a role in the food chain and a rank as high as a chief in some respects. That creates an understanding of your environment where you don’t have a vision of mankind at the top, but another set of inter-relationships. These relationships are constantly expressed in the symbology, the myths and tales – and are more ecological than a lot of the stories we have been hearing for a long time. They are extremely relevant internationally today – and though I am not willing to illustrate them directly, I rather base the way I observe my surroundings on these stories because that creates a relationship to the environment and ultimately affects the images produced.
LÉONARD PONGO: Yes, there is something extremely powerful to be learnt about humility. The Western conception of man, with the linear idea of time promotes this image of humans being in the centre – and from their action flows everything – thus making it their responsibility to take charge of everything. So it is relevant now to base oneself in a Congolese or African context where that view is irrelevant. You’re right, that is why there are so few human figures in my series. It was a pun to the irrelevance of mankind. Whatever happens nature will prevail and though we are a part of it, it can prevail without us.
LÉONARD PONGO: There is this debate in conservation about the impact it can have on the local population – meaning also on the subsistence of local culture. Historically, conservation is the follow up of a colonial intention, therefore in protected parks in Africa there is a history of relocation of people who have traditionally lived there for generations and who have a sustainable relationship to that environment. These people have sometimes been relocated to best accommodate the needs of the flora and fauna, which are considered essential to preserve. That can create a lot of tension for people who live on that land and who feel there is less incentive to preserve their way of life. It’s not that the conservation world doesn’t care, it is trying hard to address these issues, but it’s still a point of tension.
LÉONARD PONGO: I am very supportive of artivists, and of political activism especially fighting for change in a Congolese context. But I do not necessarily want my work to be reactive to just what is current. Black activists have received some space for today, but these same people have been battling for that space for years. I don’t locate my work at that point. I am working on issues that are connected to political stances, but these are issues that are long lasting and run deep, in the way that stories are told about the Congo, in the way that the country is considered, in the value that people place on what the Congo is. I would position myself there and outside of my artistic practice, where I am a supporter of other artists and initiatives. It does not all have to be in my images.
LÉONARD PONGO: I am interested in working with different media because the idea of tangibility is quite important to me. This project is also about traditional crafts, objects that carry those traditions while they express an understanding of the Congolese environment. Recently I feel more and more attracted to using different materials such as rugs (part of the traditional crafts in Kasaï, which informed this project) as an opportunity to create distance between the audience and the conventional understanding of images. I see the images I create as ‘pictures’, in the sense that they are not meant to be taken as direct photographs, but to elicit a reaction. If that happens better with a veil that is lightly printed, or with a collage of images, or by bending images to attract an audience into what looks like a portal rather than a photograph, or by using extremely large formats, then so be it.
This conversation was organised by FOMU (Photo Museum of Antwerp) as part of Futures Digital Festival in October, 2020. This article was originally edited for the publication RESET: Questioning the Image, the Market, and the Role of Representation. The book is going to be launched on March 18th at an online event hosted by The British Journal of Photography. More details in how to purchase the book will be released soon.
The project Primordial Earth is being exhibited at BOZAR in Brussels (Belgium) until March 21st.