As a young boy growing up biracial in Belgium during the late 1980s and 1990s, Léonard Pongo felt a profound pull to a world he had yet to see: his father’s homeland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In 2011, Pongo traveled to the Congo for the very first time, amid the frenetic chaos of a presidential election. Journalists descended on Kinshasa to chronicle the violence unfolding before the vote but the photographer and visual artist chose to go another route, living among the people to develop a new visual language of photography.
“This was a trip in a wide sense and certainly altered my sense of self and connection with the land and my family, who were resolute to question my presence and project as much as I was to create work that connected to the Congolese realities,” Pongo says.
As he engaged in deep, sometimes difficult conversations, Pongo began to connect with the reality of their lives. As time progressed, he recognised his vantage point as insider/outsider was a gift to the creation of the photographs themselves.
“I realised that my position gave me an incredible freedom to also be myself and sort of playfully dancing around this space,” he says. “Embracing this meant losing a lot of decision making power upon what happens or when — letting go of my focus on documenting and letting circumstances guide and influence images.”
The process also guided Pongo to deepen his intuitive receptivity to the moment, allowing the photographs to be aligned with the emotional energy unfolding both in the people and within himself. Recognising the limitations of photography as a medium of “truth,” he delved into the emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual landscape of daily life inside the Congo.
Travelling through Kinshasa, Kananga, and Lubumbashi from 2011–2017, Pongo spent time among close relatives, family and friends to create The Uncanny (GOST Books), a layered and complex portrait of the Congo that appears as scenes from a dream: hypnotic, fragmented, compelling and intense, yet detached from the requisite context that offers a sense of familiarity.
Drawing upon photography’s ability to simultaneously document and distort the sighted world, The Uncanny is at once surreal and sublime, evoking an overwhelming feeling of magnificence and awe that came as a result of Pongo’s experiences of the land itself.
Eschewing captions and titles, Pongo allows the images to speak for themselves, transcending the limits of the spoken word, whether French, English or Lingala. Without words, attendant hierarchies of meaning vanish and what remains are Pongo’s photographs, equal parts poetry and documents of an invisible presence in the visible world.
“It wanders among animated and inanimate worlds and occasionally rustles,” French philosopher Nadia Yala Kisukidi writes in the afterword. “This rustle is the uncanny. In Léonard Pongo’s photographs, each of the images unveils its possibility as a secret: in order to exist, one must sometimes allow oneself to be vanquished. To let what is here take place while the essence of subjectivity is noiselessly extinguished.”
Léonard Pongo’s The Uncanny is out now, published by GOST Books.
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