Essay in Prefix Photo: Chromophobia–Race, Colour and Visual Pleasure in Richard Mosse’s “The Enclave”

by | Nov 17, 2015 | Photography | 0 comments

After many months of research—spent either slack-jawed in awe or infuriated over catalogue essays, image captions and formulaic exhibition reviews—and writing and editing, my first effort at unpacking Richard Mosse’s photographic work in the Democratic Republic of Congo is now out in the latest issue of Prefix Photo. Spoiler alert: the images are pink.

In many ways, this feels like only the beginning of an analysis on the role of colour, racial difference and visual pleasure in Mosse’s work, which I could easily write about for another several thousand words (and probably several thousand more on the politics of sexual violence that are (un-)represented in the work, along Ariella Azoulay’s provocative question about whether anyone has ever seen a photograph of a rape). But I am incredibly grateful to Jayne Wilkinson and the rest of the Prefix team for allowing me to try some of these ideas out in public:

If The Enclave does anything to change how we represent war, it is by bringing it to us in technicolour. Through his use of Kodak Aerochrome, a discontinued brand of surveillance film that registers infrared light as it is reflected off the chlorophyll in plants, Mosse transforms the landscape of the DRC, turning foliage that would normally appear green into shocking shades of pink. Yet, while every review, interview and essay about The Enclave describes this radical transposition of colour—often in vivid prose—there is little analysis of just what his use of colour does to the viewer’s experience of the work. The colour, these commentators announce, is unexpected, even unsettling. It makes a real-life scenario seem artificial, lurid, other-worldly. But this fixation on the appearance of pink in the film and photographs obscures a more complicated set of representational issues. The critical response to Mosse’s work has been overwhelmingly positive, but it has also been remarkably one-dimensional, seemingly stuck on the novel way in which Aerochrome depicts the Congolese landscape, so much so that it is nearly impossible to find a review that provides even a cursory account of what the film and photographs actually show, never mind a consideration of how Mosse draws on, and diverges from, historical precedents for picturing racialized bodies and colonial violence. My aim here is to unpack the critical and affective function of colour in The Enclave, and to consider how Mosse’s use of Aerochrome might complicate our understanding of the relationship between photography, race and visual pleasure. Extending David Batchelor’s diagnosis that Western culture is plagued by chromophobia—a fear and devaluation of colour as “surface-oriented, impure, and deceptive,” associated with the feminine, the primitive, the queer and the vulgar—I want to ask what it is that seems dangerous about the deployment of colour in The Enclave, and whether this danger might lie in Mosse’s use of visual (and auditory) pleasure in depicting both race and violence. How does Mosse’s manipulation of colour draw attention to the ways in which photography has made race into a visible category of difference? What kinds of racialized bodies are made strange and beautiful in The Enclave? And which other bodies remain invisible despite the film’s highly stylized mode of visual storytelling?

I’m hoping that having this text out circulating in the world will help prove me wrong and alert me to all the writing about Mosse’s work that goes beyond the facile observations and misgivings about its pinkness that I may have missed. Or that it at least begins a new kind of conversation about how this work is not so different from what came before it, and that thinks about what kinds of questions about race might be opened up by thinking about it as part of a long history of documentary photography traditions that always already manipulated our sense of what the world looks like and the colours that things—and bodies—are “supposed to be.”

A huge thanks to my students in the Photographic Practices, Theories and Criticism classes at OCAD University for helping me think through this work.