What do photographers make of vulnerability in documentary? Léonard Pongo ruminates
on this and other questions with Candice Jansen in conversation about his award-winning work, The Uncanny.
© Leonard Pongo. Untitled, from the series The Uncanny. Courtesy of the artist.
Léonard Pongo is all about the art of documentary. His photographic work, The Uncanny, explores a Congo that only he could. His work is boldly subjective and gives us a sensational look at the country’s ordinary realities. In our conversation, divided into four chapters, entitled ‘Words about a Photograph’, ‘Thoughts on Documentary’, ‘A Break from Reality’, and ‘In Black and White’ the word, ‘emotions’ came up often and charted Léonard’s fragmented experiences of documentary through photography in
his Democratic Republic of Congo.
Candice Jansen | Léonard your virtual journal conveys a sense of your cerebral, eclectic influences as a thinking photographer. I also saw your work in film and print. I am curious how would you translate your artistic sensibilities into language? Would you be interested to write a brief textual accompaniment to a chosen image of yours? I am not asking for anything didactic, but as a kind of “opening shot” for readers to The Uncanny? Before you answer this, tell me, why have you titled the series The Uncanny?
Léonard Pongo | The uncanny, (das Unheimlich), refers to the feeling of “homeyness”, a feeling of discomfort and lack of safety in a known but distorted environment. It relates to my experience of the Congo as an encounter between a world of conflicts that partly resonates in me as homey, but constantly challenges me in my condition that is part-alien, part family. It refers to my feeling of being an uncanny stranger whose presence disturbs, but is still tolerated.
About your first question, I usually avoid “explaining” images, as I believe photography is not the best tool to tell clear stories and talking too much undermines the evocative power of images. Photography allows this sort of atmospheric shots, where an image translates a certain way of looking at the world, a certain emotional state, without being too specific about it.
You’re right but m
aybe, I wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean for you to explain the image, rather to interpret it. Guess I wanted you to write from a position like the one you described in response to my request…“I love photography for its flaws, it opens up possibilities for interpretation, both by the photographer, and the spectator… and it is precisely in this interpretation that I try to position myself. Not delivering a specific truth, but shaping my message to make it faithful to my experiences”. Do you also write?
Writing is always part of my larger process when making a photographic project. I usually keep some kind of journal, digital or analog. I would not call this “writing”, as it is more of a way to digest events. Watching, re-reading, re-writing, helps me understand where a project took me…. because photographs are failures at retelling the world truthfully. They abstract the world into a loaded atmosphere, without explanation. I try to bring forth a representation of the world based on experience, not facts, creating a faithful lie.
What about documentary photography? You’ve studied it (alongside the social sciences) and you consider your work documentary. Why? A conventional understanding of documentary would assume a process of recording, or creating a visual record of the world yet you’ve talked about your work in photography as “… –a tool that alters my relationship with reality…allowing me to transform events, objects and people to match my understanding of them. Photographs became containers for my experiences, and emotional states…. I had many conflicting emotions, which I tried to express by tainting my images of other’s experience of reality and by complementing my fragmented vision”. Is this what your documentary is?
From studio work focusing on specific people to part-staged images–the range of “documentary” is evolving to include great latitude of approaches. I consider my work documentary because it is based on reality. My raw matter is the real, and my interaction with it. Using photography allows me to digest, process that interaction, and translate it into another medium, turning it into something visual. I do not believe in the objectivity of photography–all photographs are small lies. I try to be as faithful as possible to my relationships, emotions and experiences in order to create images that despite being small fabrications, are true to those. Are you familiar with Antoine d’Agata’s work? He is a French photographer from Marseille and his work on prostitution in South East Asia, especially in Cambodia has a very subjective approach to documentary. A few years back at a talk he gave, d’Agata described how he works and it interested me especially when reflecting on my experience in the Congo: a very complex country with many ways of looking at the truth…. I noticed that from outside, I could be quick to make judgments and to decide what was good and what was not, but people have various experiences of life that actually are justified maybe not by a discourse, but by a course of action that they had to take. How that would influence my own experience of the country was what I was trying to convey in the images.
What about your experiences of pursuing a career in photography? Do you think the field has changed in ways that go beyond the possibilities open to photographers because of technology and new avenues for funding?
Certainly, documentary photography is opening up to a myriad of free, authored approaches, because of technology, the talent of photographers, and maybe the unlimited access we have to viewing works. While there are (paying) opportunities for photographers to show their work, photographers in most fields are still having a hard time finding opportunities to fund their work. I find it quite striking that it seems there are more places to show one’s work, but less chance for photographers to work in decent conditions: Many photojournalists are being laid off; and the chances for securing sustainable support from an institution are slim. I am ambivalent about the current trend, where photographers often must already spend lots of money to produce work, and then pay for people to see it. While I feel quite uneasy with this state of things, the fact that there are institutions that still respect and support the work of photographers does encourage me.
In the making of The Uncanny, you collaborated with local news channels. What was that like?
Working with news channels in the Congo was challenging, but very rewarding. Trying to conduct a project that was not clearly journalistic took some explaining. It took me a while to climb the necessary hierarchy and convince those at the top about my project. Many people were afraid I might photograph things in a negative light (be critical of the country’s leader) and get them punished for it. I felt journalists were often afraid of reporting for fear of being blamed or punished. Journalism in the context of the Congo is a very challenging profession. It requires a lot of flexibility and knowing on whose toes NOT to step. Nevertheless, the hard work of some professionals, and their willingness to help me understand their environment allowed me to see and process as much of daily reality.
Ironic that you set out to produce work that was not journalistic yet the only way to create it was to navigate this world as a journalist…
Photographing openly in any situation can lead to funny altercations with police forces…. In Koli Jean Bofane–a talented Congolese writer–describes life in the Congo as one constantly evolving in a grey zone. No truth holds for too long, things, opinions, and people are constantly subject to change…. Roaming into this space freely demanded that I learn to navigate it by letting go of control and accepting dependence.
I noticed a strong presence of women in The Uncanny… given the journalist and non-profit reports on the Congo and the consequences for women in its on-going conflict. Wondered if you thought about your work in relationship to this? Do women have a particular place for you in the visual world you have created?
I do believe journalism is very important, especially in the Congo where an incredible amount of events go unreported. But I needed to move away from that vision and try to construct one (in The Uncanny) that was grounded in a more “unremarkable” reality. I arrived in Kinshasa before the elections. This was a time of unrest and I often ended up shooting in the same places as other photojournalists. Portraying a candidate voting at the poll, a crowd demonstrating … but I felt uneasy coming to this country I did not understand, and recreating images I had seen before. I chose not to show these images. I wanted to redefine my language, to focus on common people and small-scale events. And so, the presence of women in my work does not come from a conscious choice to photograph women only, or to photograph them in a particular way. My interactions with women (as with others) are what transpire in the images.
You’ve admitted that colour photography is a challenge for you but that black and white often suits your point of view. Why do you prefer the absence of colour in your work?
I do not consider black and white images as lacking colour. The absence that you mention feels more to me like a difference in language. I am always drawn to colour, it attracts me, but when processing images, black and white always imposes itself.
OK but if you say: “… choosing to work in black and white makes images speak in a different way, and this language would not translate into colour.” How are you then speaking with black and white in your photography?
It is important in my work to abstract images I make from their contexts. It helps me bring the spectator into a different realm, away from a familiar reality and into boundaries I can establish–though they remain unclear. Working in black and white gives me the latitude to interpret reality with a lot of freedom, while still feeling truthful to my experiences. The texture of images is very important to me. A black and white universe of photographs allows me to create certain intensity…it allows me to match the emotional texture of what I want to convey, which would not translate into colour.
Léonard Pongo (b. 1988) graduated from Maastricht University with a Bachelors Degree in Social Sciences. With his documentary photography, Pongo has worked in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and is currently focusing on South-East Asia and The Democratic Republic of Congo. His long-term project The Uncanny started in Congo DR in 2011 has earned him several awards, most recent: POPCAP ’14 Prize Africa. His work has been featured in print and online publications such as The Guardian, CNN, and several online publications. Pongo teaches at the Obscura festival, Penang, Malaysia.
This article forms part of an interview series with the winners of POPCAP’14 prize for contemporary African photography.
Written by Candice Jansen.
All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.