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Photobook Review: The Uncanny by Leonard Pongo
Published8 Aug 2023
- Topics Contemporary Issues, Daily Life, Documentary, Photobooks
What happens when you return to the country of your heritage, when you immerse yourself in the daily life, the culture, the festivals, the dance halls of that country. In The Uncanny, Leonard Pongo does exactly that.
The Uncanny is a book through which Pongo asks us to suspend our disbelief on what his representations might mean, on the who, what, where, and why of it all. Instead, we should linger on the otherworldliness of the scenes that appear before our eyes, and ‘try to connect with an experience of Congo DR as a complex and polysemous environment.’
There are multiple meanings apparent in the work, multiple readings, all of which are delivered through the psychodrama of Pongo’s blurred and grainy black and white vision.
The book starts with the cover, an inverted images of bud-like flowers shining silver ink white against a matt-black background. Open the book and you enter a flash-filled world of religious ecstasy set against the excess of a wedding reception.
New-born goats follow a wall of cockroaches , there are litter-strewn streets walled with sheets of corrugated iron, all photographed at night and reproduced here in high contrast black and white.
Bargirls meet barboys, newlyweds dance against backdrops of fairy lights and a concrete floor. Interiors are stripped down in this book, the sofas of guest rooms set next to tables covered with lace clothes, and curtains that block, divide, and open space to a variety of possibilities.
There’s a break in black when the cover version appears in non-inverted form, the flowers dark against an overcast white sky. That’s the relief, and then the book develops in intensity as it goes, the rhythms of the interior moving into the deeper basslines of burnt out trees and night time country paths.
We are never quite sure what is happening or where it’s happening and that is intentional. The statement at the back tells us so. It tells us that the gaze has broken down, that ‘wrong questions collapse’, that the question of the point of view, the relationship between Europe and Africa, the journey between the two continents, collapse on the trip that Pongo takes us, the defining oddness of his peak uncanny.
That idea of wrong questions collapsing is interesting. Can these considerations be discounted in the photographically and politically charged arena that is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a test case both for devastatingly effective photography-centred campaigns (Alice Seeley-Harris) and the repetition of Conradian cliches. Heart of Darkness? Don’t even tread one step in that direction.
The question of whether photography can serve any purpose, can ask any questions is one that Japanese photographers of the 1970s posed, Takuma Nakahira in particular. Pongo’s photography shares some similarities with Nakahira’s high contrast, grainy images (a style that Nakahira deemed redundant in his book, For a Language to Come), a style that has become emblematic of the idea of the stream-of-consciousness photobook.
Can our immersion in the stream of Pongo’s consciousness override our inclination to analyse, to hypothesise, to contrast and compare. What are the conditions for this to happen. And more to the point, as Pongo points out, who are we to analyse and hypothesise in the first place.
Pongo is a latter-day beat-poet in this sense, inviting us into his stream-of-consciousness. It’s a stream which emerges at the end of the book, rising out of the paced depths to return us to a grounding of Pongo’s journeys to the DRC in a simple family portrait photographed inside a house during the day, the faces of three women and a child staring into Pongo’s camera. Who they are we don’t know. Where they are we don’t know. But they undoubtedly are and that we do know.
Essay by Nadia Yala Kisukidi
165 x 218mm
192pp, 111 images