Another Planet? Photographing conflict in eastern Congo

Phillip Spencer, The Conversation

In an extraordinary moment at the Eichmann trial, an Auschwitz survivor who gave himself the name Ka-Tzetnick (from the German initials for concentration camp) described the world into which millions were plunged by the Nazis as "another planet".


I had the luck to go Richard Mosse's The Enclave in its last few days open in London. A multi-channel video installation, accompanied by photographs, The Enclave immerses you in a painfully beautiful portrayal of the eastern Congo and its endless cycle of war. And it was this comment at the Eichmann trial that I was immediately struck with.


Of course there remain fundamental differences (which should never be minimised) between the Holocaust and subsequent cases of mass violence. But even so, my immediate reaction to Richard Mosse's photography was that the eastern Congo is indeed another planet. And then, the even more alienating knowledge that it is precisely not so, but all too connected to the rest of this world.


The sense of something other-worldly, even ghostly, is achieved in part by Mosse's use of a now-rare kind of film, first developed by the US military to reveal enemy camouflage. It produces here a particular colour scheme, dominated by a vertiginous almost hallucinatory pink, which is how green foliage is rendered by this film. The landscape is made almost astonishingly beautiful in this way, with stunning images of land and water and sky.


But Mosse's work also reveals areas of devastation, land ripped up by marauding rebel groups terrorising local populations, destroying (as genocidal violence always does) their means of existence, their communities and homes. The devastation here has been catastrophic. The death toll is well over the five million mark and there are staggeringly high levels of sexual violence - the DRC has been justly called the "rape capital of the world".


This extreme and sustained violence has been meted out by several competing groups in a genocide produced by what Mary Kaldor has termed "new war". This is not fought between but inside states, by essentially criminal groups competing to plunder accessible resources. The result is the mobilisation and hardening of ethnic identities, and there are no limits to the levels and scale of violence they are prepared to commit.


The minerals of course are stolen for sale on a global market. This is one of the crucial ways in which eastern Congo is entirely interconnected with the rest of the world. If the films and photographs do not really register this central dimension of the conflict, they do make other, more direct connections. Both perpetrators and victims are unflinchingly portrayed. And both, perhaps especially in this ghostly environment, are all too recognisably human.


The militiamen engage in macho posturing (always so central to the genocidal process) without any effort to hide from the camera, secure in their sense of absolute power. And while the perpetrators raid and destroy, the victims gaze with a suppressed but still visible anxiety at the roaming camera. Sometimes they scatter and run from it.


In one memorable sequence, they collectively dismantle a whole wooden dwelling to be reassembled somewhere else. Other sequences tell us that they are fortunate to have erected anything so stable in the first place, as we look on burnt out hulks, and corpses left to rot. This is a deeply disturbing depiction of the human experience of what genocide scholars and activists struggle to convey through the written word. Mosse succeeds in imparting the utter imbalance of power that makes genocide the "crime of crimes" (as the Rwanda tribunal defined it).


In the Congo, as in every genocide, there has been for decades first and foremost mass killing. But genocide is also, as is however imperfectly defined by the 1948 Convention, the inflicting of "serious bodily and mental harm on members of the (here, ethnically defined) group", and of "conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction in whole or in part". It is also the imposition (in part in DRC through mutilation) "of measures intended to prevent births" or (effectively through mass rape) "to transfer children to another group". This is all viscerally portrayed in Mosse's work.


The genocide portrayed here does not happen everywhere or all the time. But we are constantly reminded that it happens so much more often than we may bear to contemplate. Leaving, I am caught again by a sense of how little progress has been made in generating the international co-operation promised by the Convention to liberate victims from this "odious scourge". It inflicts such loss both on the victims and, as Hannah Arendt famously argued, on humanity itself.


But I feel motivated too by by my immersion in this chamber of screens, surrounded by the sound of overt and covert violence, compelled to look and listen and respond. In Mosse's work, we are taken to another planet that is still and all too often our own. When we leave, the images and sounds stay with us in ways that perhaps the printed word cannot, and may hold us faster to our shared responsibilities in the face of this distinct but always catastrophic crime.


Because of all this, I hope he wins the Deutsche Börse photography prize on May 12.

25 April 2014