Born in Belgium in 1988, Léonard Pongo was one of the five POPCAP 2014 award winners for his series “The Uncanny”. Here, he discusses what inspired this work – namely the need to create a bond with his father’s family and country, the Democratic Republic of Congo – plus his process of “listening to images”, his different influences, and, more generally, his conception of the photographic medium.
Q: Léonard, could you introduce yourself briefly? You started out studying the social sciences. How did you move into photography?
A: First, I went to university where I studied the political and social sciences, focusing on European Studies in particular, with a specialization in Development Studies. My interest in photography began to grow during my studies. I spent most of my final year in school photographing Eastern Europe. It was during that experience that photography became a language I wanted to develop.
Q: What was the genesis of “The Uncanny”?
A: I began “The Uncanny” series in 2011 on my first trip to Congo. Having grown up in Belgium and studying in Holland, I felt cut off from my father’s Congolese culture. My questions were often met with vague answers and I long felt the need to create a link with the DRC.
For me, photography was a tool that enabled me to change my relation to reality by allowing me to create a connection there, where I felt I didn’t belong. It allowed me to explore, in-depth, a wide range of subjects that intrigued me, while at the same time letting me develop a language to express this confrontation and to create a universe in which to translate my feelings visually.
The genesis of “The Uncanny” was the need to reconnect with an environment, but also the position of inclusion/exclusion that arose from this confrontation.
Q: How did you construct this work?
A: I’ve undertaken several projects in DRC since 2011. In my work, I’ve tried to understand daily Congolese life and to become an integral part of it. I spent several months photographing my family’s life in several towns in the country (Kinshasa, Kananga, and Lubumbashi). My photos are deeply influenced by my various encounters and the desire of certain friends, members of my family, and people I didn’t know to share their reality with me and to include me in their daily lives. It’s thanks to these encounters that I was able to access events that punctuate the daily lives of those who live in the urban neighbourhoods. By accompanying the local television stations, I was also able to access other events that are not widely broadcast internationally, but which are nonetheless important in Congolese life. My aim wasn’t to show the crises and conflicts – the most widely represented subjects when it comes to the DRC. Instead, I wanted to see what impact these conflicts have on daily life and to understand how the country exists outside these flashpoints which, while major, nonetheless remain episodic. I wanted to complete and recreate my own vision of the country thanks to my encounters. Finally, this series also includes other images that come from “The Necessary Evil” series taken in Kinshasa and the Kasaï province’s revivalist churches. I am currently editing “The Uncanny”, and other images from my last trip will be added before the end of the year.
Q: You first went to the DRC during the 2011 Presidential elections. Were the elections an excuse for you to go there, and are there traces of this political event in your series, along with the other more ordinary events that you already mentioned?
A: Perhaps the period I was taking photos in did enhance a certain electricity, which translates into the images. But I wasn’t intending to represent these events, so it’s difficult for me to judge how the viewer perceives this.
When I got there, I was thirsty for images. I felt a very strong need to see, to be immersed, to enter into what was taking place socially, and not simply to gravitate around it. Yet, I quickly realized that the effervescence of the political context would condition my work too strongly and would cause me to create images that would be overly descriptive and explanatory of a specific event.
The elections brought a flock of photojournalists who documented the events, from the very first stages to the candidate marches, to some pretty violent police crack-downs following various demonstrations. This all created quite an energy, but I wanted to adopt a different approach by choosing not to show these images. My aim wasn’t to concentrate on the exceptional, but rather to immerse myself in the daily, in an atmosphere, and to re-transcribe an experience.
My approach corresponded, rather, in looking for an intimacy, a proximity, of sharing and even depending on others so that they would include me in their daily lives. This inclusion would allow me to see, and perhaps to represent someone else’s vision even more than my own. Leaving that space and avoiding overly rigid frontiers was really important to me and that took time to construct. Each image is an encounter – a person who decided to show me something, to include me in his or her life, in a zone of intimacy, in what he or she is. The images were born of out of these encounters, these confrontations and conflicts – for they were often born out of conflict – but also out of boredom, misunderstanding, or even anger. They arise from a whole range of emotions, but I prefer this to condition the creation of an image and what can be seen in it, rather than something factual.
Q: “The Uncanny” series has already been compiled, but you’re planning to add more images to the series soon. Can your different images be switched around to form new narratives and visions of this complex return experience?
A: My work in Congo is a constant reflection and I consider each series a new chapter. The experience shared isn’t just one of return, but rather one of meeting, of integrating a universe and sharing the confrontations that condition its construction. Coming back to a series often imposes new questions, new desires, and an evolution in language. And this language has its limits. I increasingly feel that photography isn’t an adequate language to communicate a specific message, and I’m moving further and further away from explaining images. I like to think of photography as an incomplete language where certain words and certain meanings escape. I think that this absence allows us to project stronger sensations in the images: emotions which are less defined, yet are universal. It’s impossible to know what an image can trigger in someone else, and that trying to explain the content of an image tends to undermine this force. I prefer to let the images speak for themselves.
Q: In both this series and in your others (“Diary”, “The Necessary Evil”), your images have a very specific texture. They are often grainy, taken close up, at night, at times in movement. They seem unstable. I get the impression that you are truly at one with your camera. How do you work on the ground?
A: I don’t have a specific technique when I’m taking pictures. Most of the time when I photograph, I don’t have time to think of anything other than the picture. The framing, technique, and whether a shot works or not are too much to think about on top of paying attention to the surroundings and people.
One key element for me is the interpretation of the work. The choice of images and the way of showing them really matters. I learned to take photos using black-and-white film, a slow technique that requires a lot of work on each image for it to express the best of itself. I still work the same way today, spending a lot of time on each image.
I need the selection process to clarify my vision. It’s often incredible discovering the result of a shoot afterwards.
I always need some time to understand what a project is expressing, which I don’t see when taking the pictures, but which is nonetheless present in the pictures, in spite of myself. I don’t see that while I’m taking the pictures, but it is there. Then, I rework each image to understand how to show this best. This artisanal process reminds me of film photography, where numerous failures are necessary to obtain the best image. The goal is not a perfect image, but as close as possible to what you want to express and to what it is.
Through these slow and restrictive processes, you quickly realize that it takes time to understand what we are saying with images. I don’t have complete control in this relation to the image, and that’s what interests me. I get a lot out of this process of “listening”. It is the images that reveal part of the work, independent of my will, which gives my photography – whether analog or digital – its magic.
Q: Which artists, photographers, filmmakers, writers, or intellectuals have been influential along your path and in the construction of your creative universe?
A: The list is long and inspiration sometimes comes from outside the art world – from enriching people, rather than from specific works! Literature is an infinite source of inspiration for me, even if a book never directly influences a photographic work.
If I had to cite a few references, I’d have to say Anders Petersen, Ryszard Kapuściński, Terrence Malick, Charles Bukowski, and In Koli Jean Bofane. Many of the works that have moved me these last few years are collected on a wall that I regularly update, like a kind of virtual sketchbook.
Q: What will the coming stages of your work be?
A: I’ll continue working on the images. The initial selection is really important, but once it’s made, that’s not the end of it. It’s not just about correcting technical flaws or adding a systematic filter, but rather of dialoguing with these images and managing to express the best in them, in keeping with my vision. I realize that my vision also evolves depending on the shot and that, from one series to another, there are tones that I include in the photos that weren’t there in the first or the second series. That takes time to establish, so that the images can become sufficiently present to be comprehensible, that they can be felt too by someone other than me. I also try to see if and how I can work with colour, a challenge that I set myself every time. In general, black-and-white always ends up winning, though!
I would like to return to Kinshasa next year to spend more time there. Lots of other places attract me in Congo, such as the Equatorial forest, which is huge and extremely rich culturally and in terms of fauna and flora. Congo is an incredibly rich and vast land. People don’t always realize, but the country represents one third of Europe, in just one country! That generates immense cultural wealth.
– Leica Internet Team
To learn more about Léonard and view his work, visit his website.
This interview was originally conducted in French. To read the French version, please click here.