Documentary, Exhibitions

Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin go deep into Congo

Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin’s dark portrayal of modern-day Congo is realised in a spectacular photobook after a groundbreaking Arles exhibition. 

In presenting Congo, a large-scale project published in book form by Aperture and realised as a spectacular exhibition at the Rencontres d’Arles festival in July 2015, Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin deliberately avoided credits and captions, bringing their individual perspectives together to create a single “meta voice”.

At no point are we told who took which image, but, somehow, this adds to rather than takes away from the collective strength of the work.

The goal of the project, which has its roots in Off Broadway, the first work the Magnum photographers collaborated on 10 years ago, was to have fewer constraints and therefore greater freedom of expression, says Pellegrin.

“By removing the captions, you’re asking the viewers to make an effort to engage, hopefully in a deeper way, with what’s in front of them.”

Majoli echoes this sentiment, saying: “Providing contextual information is very much related to photojournalism and the idea of ‘documenting a place’

“We wanted to leverage photography to create a place where the viewer is free to make his or her own story.”

Commissioned by non-profit charity Lynx for Hope to create a “contemporary photographic archive”, the photographers spent two years travelling to and from the former French colony, immersing themselves in all aspects of daily life.

The result is a project of epic proportions that shines a light on the diverse landscapes (encompassing beaches, shipyards, city scenes, forest, scrubland), and on the people who live there.

The project was collaborative in all senses, say the photographers. They worked with the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, who contributed an introductory piece of text to the book, the New York designer Yolanda Cuomo, who helped with the book design, and Daria Birang, who lent her expertise during the editing process and also curated the exhibition at Magasin Electrique in Arles, including the huge collage centrepiece [ref pic position] that served as an anchor for the show.

The aim was to combine multiple experiences in one dialogue, says Majoli. “Many factors and people came together to create what we see… It’s not just two photographers going to take some pictures.”

The work is about far more than documenting a place, adds Pellegrin; it’s about creating something that goes beyond the specific. “The work is not about this or that event, it’s more about the essence of a place, of a feeling or emotion… We tried to make something that is universal.”

Congo: Photographs by Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin is published by Aperture, priced £200.  For more information see here. Both photographers are represented by Magnum.