African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews.
Born to Congolese parents in Liège, Belgium, it’s no surprise that Léonard Pongo feels a connection with the country of his origin. He has long wanted to work in the DRC, but in fact had never visited before he started his first documentary project ‘The Uncanny,’ back in 2011. “I wanted much more to see, live and understand the country than give a specific opinion about it. More than trying to convince people of seeing Congo in a certain way, I wanted to complete my understanding of what life in the country was like.”
Pongo doesn’t see himself as a journalist and though he considers himself a documentary photographer, he is critical towards the use of photography to convey specific or complex ideas. “Photography is a very flawed medium which seldom delivers any obvious truth or translates any clear reality without the use of additional tools. The camera transforms reality, it is both limited and incomplete in what it can show to convey a complex reality. It works better to create abstract containers than informative objects.” His Congo project ‘The Uncanny’ is heavily influenced by his subjective experience and personal relationship to the country and the people. As such, he gives more credit to emotional truthfulness in this work than to informative value. “I therefore see it more as a biased and partial view of life in the country than a social analysis of the country. My work related more to using photography to convey experience, emotion and sensation, than to deliver ‘truth’.”
Pongo’s long term project required a lot of energy and time, and he wanted to develop his own visual language to tell stories that are relevant to his experience in the DRC. The documentary project was conducted in the provinces of Kinshasa, Bas-Congo, Bandundu, Kasaï and Katanga after the political elections of Autumn 2011. Léonard photographed family members, political personalities, religious leaders and local TV presenters in order to document the events that give rhythm to the lives of the country‘s inhabitants. By doing so he tried to understand Congolese society and recover part of his own identity.
“This story tries to show the collateral impact of the war instead of the direct hits. My need to see my country from a different point of view than the so often depicted crises, combined with the openness of people to share their most intimate moments with me and my willingness to be accepted as part of their lives, allowed me to depict my country intimately and subjectively, not trying to deliver a truth, but striving to understand people‘s realities and to reconstruct my own.”
During his work in Congo, Léonard Pongo didn’t try to follow a political agenda. His work is not an attempt at settling scores or reclaiming anything. “I believe people will define themselves for, rather than against, fashions, or values, and I think the Congolese art scene has enough to say on its own, without the need to justify it against history. I think artists can convey more powerful works when they don’t try to justify them through a discourse of guilt or shame.” Befittingly, Pongo’s work is the result of many interactions in chosen places where he has been able to work. It’s not manufactured to serve a specific claim or to support a specific image of Congo.
“What transpires from the series is a certain energy of strangeness, a feeling of being observed as much as observing, and a certain tension. Conflicts have been very definitive parts of creating connection with people and that also transpire in the series.
This work does not rely on a clear narration but rather a loose discovery of a world filled with various characters who shared their lives with me.
Pongo, who now lives in Brussels, thinks his photography is greatly influenced by western values and western tastes. He believes that bringing different values together produces conflict, but this conflict also generates content. “In that sense, my conflict has more to do with the fact that I am shared between identities that I cannot really bring together. I don’t define my identity as ‘African’ or anything else, but the mixing together of elements is what drives me. In the future I definitely want to do more projects in Congo, however, digging deeper and continuing to live through and digest more of its reality.