Léonard Pongo graduated from Maastricht University with a BA in Social Sciences. During and after a training in documentary photography, Pongo worked in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and is currently focusing on South-East Asia and Congo DR. His long term project “The Uncanny” started in Congo DR in 2011 has earned him several awards and international recognition. His work is featured in the Guardian, CNN, and several online publications. Pongo is also a tutor at Obscura festival.
Original interview published on Gomma Magazinehttp://www.gommamag.com/v6/?p=2417
Scott Typaldos in conversation with Léonard Pongo
Scott: Leo, I’d like to start talking about your photographic origins. Under what circumstances did you feel the need to start producing images?
Leo: I think photography came as a tool to alter my relationship with reality. When I started photographing I found a way to create a distance between reality and my experience of it. Photography allowed me to link with people and manage the feeling of not belonging. It allowed me to transform events, objects and people to match my understanding of them. Photographs became containers for my experiences, and emotional states.
The diary work started when I came back to Belgium. I found myself in a place I had trouble adjusting to. My work depends on that lack of adjustment. It creates the confrontation from which the images emerge. It shows a world without concrete reality or clear definitions, but of fleeting emotions, part imaginary, completely biased, and based on experience rather than reality. I try to keep this approach even though I have moved to more documentary projects.
Scott: Around the time I met you before you first visited Congo, the question of identity was very present in our discussions. Since that I’ve seen you trying to infuse your work with this theme. Can you tell me more about this process?
Leo: I grew up in Belgium from a Congolese father and a Belgian mother. Most of my cultural background is Belgian but I always felt cut off from Congolese culture. Questions about Congo were never clearly answered. I always felt uncomfortable in a monocultural environment and unable to define myself. The anger I felt for not fitting in led me to leave to Congo, hoping to get a new perspective.
The identity issue was the ground reason for working in Congo DR. However, my intention was not to use photographs to define my identity. I do not believe photography is the adequate language to describe such a complex issue. I do not understand the conceptual presentation of projects dealing with identity. These works tend to rely heavily on family archives put in relation with self portraits, family shots, house, and details of hypothetical symbolic value or other clichés. I do not understand how this method can explain such a complex theme as identity. I think photography generates more questions than it can answer.
I decided to focus on daily life in Congo and decided to do it through my family. I wanted to create images that would not only illustrate daily life, but also translate my need to connect.
I needed to become part of other people’s reality. This process was more difficult than expected. I had trouble fitting in this new family. I was constantly shifting between inclusion and exclusion but often felt like a stranger. Relationships with family were sometimes genuine and fulfilling, sometimes deceiving and interested. I had many conflicting emotions, which I tried to express by tainting my images of other peoples’ experience of reality and complement my fragmented vision.
Scott: In your work and most specifically in The Necessary Evil what is your link to spirituality or religion and how do you think your photography renders these themes?
Leo: In The Necessary Evil, I was interested in the relationship between man’s need to believe in something higher. I was also fascinated by the mechanics of control and power exerted in such places. When I started this project, I had an idealised vision of traditions and spirituality in Congo and I wanted to experience them. I think I mixed up tradition and spirituality. I believed that traditions meant living a spiritual life in accordance with a higher state of things, in deeper connection with nature and people.
I discovered that religion helped people make sense of things, and superstition still played a very important role in the pastors’ acquisition of power over large crowds of people. Seeing the pastors, smart and self-interested men, exact money from a credulous crowd was a shock and a disillusionment. Attending cults made me angry and disgusted and I felt out of place. Those cults felt like mass manipulation where a power figure was expected to perform supernatural deeds in front of a hysterical crowd and collected huge amounts of money from people in need.
At first, I focused on the exertion and abuse of power by the pastors. I tried to depict these situations while making the mise-en-scène ridiculous in order to show the absurdity of situations I did not accept. However, I kept on talking with both pastors and followers. I started to empathize more with the believers, and I understood that their faith was real, despite being exploited by a rotten system. I was afraid that the scenery would condition the images. I started focusing more on the followers’ hunger for miracle, which I tried to depict photographically. The use of long exposures and lighting techniques allowed me to superimpose more layers of reality into one image. The believers’ experience is what I eventually tried to translate.
Scott: Considering the growing amount of diary projects on photographer’s website and taking into account the everyday life recording of most people on Instagram, how do you see diary photography evolving?
Leo: I think diary work is becoming a cliché in photography. The accumulation of images on a daily basis is not always sufficient to produce a good project. An interesting element in diary works is how much comfort and control (or lack of it) one is willing to let go off. I think stepping out of one’s comfort zone is a necessary risk. It prevents you from predicting the results, but also requires more involvement. The diary and documentary approaches are moving closer to each other and the boundaries between the two are sometimes becoming unclear. Their interweaving brings something more human to the classical documentary approach. It is not always clear where the photographer stands anymore.
When looking at your work with Alistair, I see that you are biased, compromised by your relationship with him. But this very fact allows you to tell a completely different story, it is not your diary that you are telling anymore, you try to show a relationship with another human, to share his personality, his experience of reality, your relationship, in a completely biased way. And I think this is a good track for photographers to follow: by depending on the quality of the link between the photographer and his “subject”, the line becomes blurred between who decides how the story is written. This kind of project expresses more about the complexity of human relationships, the difficulty to manage intimacy, the humaneness of the photographer and at times, his lack of morality. This is an evolution for both documentary and diary photography and a rather good sign towards the field’s evolution.
Scott: Photographers working in your style spend a lot of time “editing” their projects and especially post processing their images. Can you elaborate on the importance of that process and the people involved in it? How has working together with other photographers had an impact on your work lately, can you elaborate?
Leo: Bringing a photographic project to maturity involves many doubts and requires compromises. It’s easy to lose track of what you want to communicate. It takes time to process the photographs and bring them down to an efficiently edited series. When you are too involved with your images, working with someone you can trust and who can relate to your experience helps keeping the necessary distance. It also challenges you to tell a more coherent story. The editing and processing phases are crucial. These steps allow me to deepen my relationship with my images and my subjects. It allows me to better define the experience and feelings I want to share through the images. I am not always sure how to process a file beforehand, it takes a lot of trial and error before reaching a result I am satisfied with. I feel this process is very important, as it allows something to emerge from the picture, which is not under my direct control, and is only reachable through trial and error. I feel this process is often lost today, in the hurry to publish, and show. I understand more and more how essential time is for me to understand the images’ underlying motives.
Scott: You’ve made an additional ten minute movie of your work The Necessary Evil. Why did you decide to extend your photographic language to a hybrid form made out of filmmaking and photography? What limits were you trying to break by doing so?
Leo: Editing a movie allowed me to develop a clearer narration. I wanted to assume my bias against these cults and present a more critical work, pointing the finger at the pastors’ greed. It gave me the opportunity to force the viewer’s through my questioning regarding the churches. I felt frustrated because my experience during the cults was not fully translatable into photographs. I wanted the film to convey a hectic and oppressive rhythm which the photographs didn’t. I also wanted to show the absurd theatricality in a more efficient way and give more space to the pastors’ personalities. I felt the psychological abuse and collective hysteria could be more present in the movie, while the photographic project was more empathetic.
Scott: How do you see your photography evolving in the close future?
Leo: I like the idea of experimenting with the medium’s limits, and I am very curious of the coming technical evolutions in photography and where they could lead. I see myself growing a distance from strict documentary photography towards a more experimental approach. I want to start working in the South of Europe soon, while continuing my work in Congo. I expect to spend the coming years in between these two continents.
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