My hope was that together we would perform, and thus distil an essence… trigger events, rather than simply document them.
All the world’s a stage,” observes the melancholy Jacques in ‘As You Like It’, “and all the men and women merely players.” Life is a narrative engine in which we are the moving parts. Each player has many roles to which their performance is adapted accordingly. Some roles arise from within, many are shaped by what lies outside. To be in the world is a state so enmeshed in the negotiation of being that the very words entangle meaning. To act is both to exercise agency and to dissemble. To perform is to undertake a task and to portray. For the empowered, acting and performing are choices, while the weak and the vulnerable are all too easily cast in the role of victim; emptied of complexity, of choice, an abject walk-on role amid a pitiable chorus.
The artmaking of Carlo Ontal seeks to disrupt that simplistic typecasting. To create an alternative stage on which to discover new roles, present other facets of character. At the time he made these images he was in Central Africa working as a video producer with the United Nations – a humanitarian role with its own narratives, which he undertook with great dedication. But his personal work adopted a very different approach, one focused more on engaging the individuals involved and less on portraying them to the outside world. Eccentric, impromptu dramas set in the warlord-controlled villages of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Here, as he explained, he “covertly staged art and fashion spectacles in remote conflict areas, so as to provoke conversations around the space between journalistic narrative-making, my own role as privileged creator, and that of a people living through permanent conflict.”
Made in North Kivu province, a stone’s throw from Rwanda, these are contested territories controlled and fought over by rebel groups, local militias, and the Congolese army. Dangerously unstable. Viewed through the lens of the international community, they are politicised humanitarian spaces for which there are established conventions of representation. In stepping outside of those conventions, Carlo Ontal entered a field with few precedents. A place of imaginative freedom in which those involved could cast off the mantle of the typecast.
This was challenging work to make. It involved building relationships with the oppressor as well as the oppressed. For the artist, it was often an isolating and stressful experience. But what is achieved is something remarkable. In providing an unfamiliar setting and new narratives on which to improvise, these makeshift theatres of the imagination offered, however briefly, fresh ways of being and being seen. The resulting photographic series are complex, not easily resolved. But this is not a drama with a neat denouement. It is a form of devised theatre, unfolding in the ideas and actions of those involved. A nascent rite born of its own performance.
You were with United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa for eighteen years. How do your art projects relate to the work you undertook for the UN? They seem very different…
I’ve always made a distinction between myself and either news media and their reportage, or documentarians that may wish to create illumination. As a UN video producer for a peacekeeping mission’s information office, I saw myself as a persuader – a propagandist, if you like – for the UN’s work: disarmament, free elections, and so on.
Two things struck me: first, as guests of a member state, we were constrained by having to use a bureaucratic language in speaking with the people, thus inadvertently mimicking the language of the oppressor. Second, as someone who lived and worked there full-time – a life lived amongst the people of this region of Congo – I personally felt there was a yawning gap between even the best documentary photography and this world of contradiction and emotion emanating from the ground up.
I had always argued for more performance in my official work. Performance in terms of focus on people rather than issues. Propagating the UN ideas for peace by letting locals speak for us. For the use of music, metaphor, even poetry… especially in such an artistically vibrant society as Congo.
Creating these projects clearly meant departing from the established protocols. And that was highly problematic for the UN’s relationship with the host country, and consequently grounds for dismissal and persona non grata status. To make this work, I had to convince myself to forge ahead, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps it was the slow burn of a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. It seemed that only artmaking could account for everything… a way to bring these conflicting things out of my head.
[Left] © Carlo Ontal ‘The Police Colonel’ 2015 from the series ‘Bush Portrait Studio’
[Right] © Carlo Ontal ‘Rapper, Ugandan Border’ 2015 from the series ‘Bush Portrait Studio’
How did the ‘Bush Portrait Studio’ project begin?
It began with that idea of performance. Awash as we are in billions of images, I find the portrait studio to be the last truly photographic space, almost sacred in its concept and execution. The world is curtained out. Time and motion are held at bay.
I employed the modern photo studio as a Disturbance-Generating Machine. By intentionally mis-placing the studio in conflict zones along the border region between eastern Congo and Rwanda, I set this invasive technology of beauty fabrication, brand manufacture, and the recompilation of reality at combative odds with its environment. My hope was that both image and image-maker would illuminate fault lines of power, privilege, race, class, and history. A composite truth, if you will.
A documentary camera followed the entire process. Not for a making-of story, but to create a theatricalised radius around the studio. The photographer had to be accounted for. Now, he and those he photographed were also actors for the documentary camera’s three-sixty-degree gaze.
How did you go about making this work in such conditions?
I knew that I would be working on my project alongside my UN assignments, subject to episodic outbursts of violence. The frontier towns and militia-controlled no-go areas of eastern DRC would be where I would find my portraits. Here, amidst obscenely fruitful red earth and melancholic highlands where aftershocks from the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda have ensured permanent insecurity.
[Left] © Carlo Ontal ‘Old Soldier’ 2013 from the series ‘Bush Portrait Studio’
[Centre] © Carlo Ontal ‘Twins’ 2017 from the series ‘Bush Portrait Studio’
[Right] © Carlo Ontal ‘Lovers in Goma’ 2015 from the series ‘Bush Portrait Studio’
As a riposte to the chaos and disorder around me, I recreated the disciplined harmony of a film set. Here, I proposed an agenda of beauty, not journalism – anything other than being captured for news coverage or having, yet again, to explain their circumstances to the outside world. This production process demanded that I divest myself of ingrained humanitarian logic and the assumed supremacy of ‘concerned storytelling’. My hope was that together we would perform, and thus distil an essence… trigger events, rather than simply document them.
Who were the people you photographed and how did they become involved?
In this environment, my presence, along with the paraphernalia of the photo studio, were already provocative. As large crowds gathered, the idea gradually took hold that here was a potentially magical photographic event. For the villagers and even the militia, to be carefully lit and photographed, even paid, and then return home with a colour print felt like something from an earlier time.
Among the many people that pressed forward to join in, several signalled themselves to me by their bearing and choice of fashion. If militia, they had personalised their uniforms and weapons. If civilian, the choices pointed towards varying levels of poverty or relative affluence; more importantly, a desire for recognition and affirmation. In the photo studio their appearance became a kind of costume as they projected themselves forward into the light. It was in that moment that a form of honesty and truth became achievable, in the confrontation between eyes and lens.
[Left] © Carlo Ontal ‘Kwame and the Fish Jacket’ 2013 from the series ‘Bush Portrait Studio’
[Right] © Carlo Ontal ‘The Warlord’s Bodyguard’ 2013 from the series ‘Bush Portrait Studio’
[Centre] © Carlo Ontal ‘Chicken-Man Suit’ 2015 from the series ‘Bush Portrait Studio’
I am interested by the sense of styling – fashion even. Did this come from the people being photographed or is it something you have introduced?
Congo has always been known for sartorial excess. For example, the cult of the ‘sapeurs’, or gentlemen of ambience and leisure. Thus, most of the portraits weren’t styled, people came as themselves. However, I wanted to go further, to transcend the idea of simply documenting ‘local colour’. To create the fashion myself. For the fish jacket and chicken suit I constructed a wire mesh to create a silhouette for the garment. The dried fish came from the local market; the chickens belonged to the man himself.
When it came to the militia, I already knew that Congo’s fighters were not as fashion-conscious as say those in Liberia, with their blond wigs and women’s underwear layered under elaborate amulets. In the DRC, dress aspired more towards respectability, hence the generic Congolese army greens and insignia. Nevertheless, the rationales for the militia are always the same. Terror through attire, and projecting strength through mimicry of the state.
I am fascinated by the man with the machinegun wearing a pristine feather boa…
This is General Lafontaine’s bodyguard. I was interested in the calm violence in his face and imagined what fearsome acts he must have had to perform. He had not only survived as a child-fighter, but had ascended, with rank, responsibilities, and the coveted PK machinegun. As a star of this ecosystem, acknowledging that status seemed important and the feather boa a necessary stylistic intervention. Simply branding others as evil has never led to deeper understanding.
Life insists upon order. Where none exists, or is deemed fraudulent, a mutated version will be created. Fashion then acquires urgency – as social armour, a hedge against threat, or simply to insist that one is still alive…
[Left] © Carlo Ontal ‘Jump Moto Driver, Jump’ 2015 from the series ‘Jump’
[Right] © Carlo Ontal ‘Jump Housewife, Jump’ 2015 from the series ‘Jump’
Tell me about ‘Jump’.
I simply wanted a cathartic good time, for them and for me. So much of my eighteen years with the UN was about movement: helicopters and planes; heaving camps of 70,000 refugees in the rainy season. And for the Congolese, whether still-armed fighters rioting in their disarmament camps; or the displaced jumping over barbed wire to get to food aid; or skittering to and fro in daily life to avoid rebel checkpoints… A jazz-like improvisation of survival.
I set up my photo studio under a tree and waited for the villagers to come around. I explained that there would be no interviews about the war. They would be paid to fly off the chairs onto a pile of mattresses. Hilarity ensued. More people came down from their fields. The sound of laughter and flash of strobes popping continued until dusk fell over the hills. I sometimes wonder about my faded 4×5 giveaway prints stuck to mud-hut walls. Do they remember the smiles and laughter of that one strange day?
[Left] © Carlo Ontal ‘I Want to See Heaven’ 2013 from the series ‘Happy Days’
[Centre] © Carlo Ontal ‘I Want to See Big-City Lights’ 2013 from the series ‘Happy Days’
[Right] © Carlo Ontal ‘I Only Want Meat’ 2013 from the series ‘Happy Days’
Which leads us into your next series, ‘Happy Days’. How did that begin?
I wanted to go against yet another grain. The usual pattern in media reporting is the who? what? why? of suffering. I hoped to discover something else and asked: what is your idea of your happiest day ever? I explained that I would be making the photographs against a green screen. This would allow me later to superimpose a visual equivalent of their imagined happiness into the background of the final image. Much was lost in translation, and they were clearly surprised to be asked. Nevertheless, they considered carefully, understanding that they were responsible for what would represent them on the green screen. That, for now, the war was beyond the studio. Here would be only hopes and dreams.
And so… The warlord’s deputy saw a city with lights, planes, cars… A woman with her two children wanted heaven, which she imagined as clouds and a cross… A labourer simply wanted meat…
How do these warlords arise and how do they maintain their territory?
The collapse of the Zairean regime following the genocide in Rwanda encouraged neighbouring African states and business interests to create fiefdoms run by their proxies, and that legacy continues. These warlords, these ‘generals’, arise out of the internal vacuums created within a failing state. They may have their ethnic constituencies, but they are instigated and supported by neighbouring states through local business interests. Ironically, they end up mimicking the language and appearances of the deposed regime. Nevertheless, the modus operandi remains the same: domination through terror, and enrichment through taxation and theft.
How did you go about working within such a dangerous regime?
Through contacts, I chose a mid-level warlord and made my pitch. I explained that the work would be very different from the flash-in-the-pan approach of news media. We would interview him and film his soldiers training. I offered some cash and promised that I would employ most of his people for the shoot, emphasising that this would reflect well on him. While I held up my end of the deal, and was civil and respectful, I did find it ethically and emotionally challenging. But it was the only way to acquire his assent and protection for the two weeks we would be working there.
© Carlo Ontal ‘Father, Forgive Them, the International Community’ 2015 from the series ‘A Jesus for Congo’
And so began ‘A Jesus for the Congo’. What were you exploring here?
As a child in the Philippines during the martial-law era, I had been a Roman Catholic altar boy. I had always been entranced by the story of Christ and the rituals of the mass – the Theatre of Suffering and Redemption with the faint aftertaste of blood-drinking and cannibalism. I’d also observed how ecstatic the practice becomes, especially in vulnerable populations. And, despite having left that faith years before, it was these memories I fell back on during moments of reflection as one or another crisis unfolded in the life of the UN mission.
Yet, how many times had I filmed stories of rape and deprivation, only to be cut up into B-roll clips, or as fragments in an eternal stream, signifying nothing? How does one square a simple man’s Buddhist-like teachings of love and forgiveness with a global Church that has so often acquiesced to systematic violence and collaborated with dictatorial regimes? Information. Documentary. Outreach. None of these felt any longer able to encapsulate the inexplicable fact that a life of permanent suffering and violence is all that’s available to millions of those who are already most vulnerable.
© Carlo Ontal ‘Ministry of Health’ 2015 from the series ‘A Jesus for Congo’
How did you approach those concerns in this narrative series?
I’d been working with a Congolese UN staffer named Bernard in our outreach efforts. This mercurial man had survived the Rwandan genocide, lost family members and, while in the UN, had possessed both a deep faith in the peace efforts and, on a traumatised existential level, a destructive cynicism.
It seemed to me that re-enacting moments in the story of Jesus through the performed life of a tormented African man could provide a structure through which I could contain both our histories. I was left with an allegory to be staged and performed onsite. There would be no external audience for this. My hope was that the fact that my Jesus was an actual victim and survivor, and that the work was staged among a public of victims, might implicate me and them in an act of imagination that would provoke reflection.
© Carlo Ontal ‘Bread and Fish’ 2013 from the series ‘A Jesus for Congo’
That is a complex idea. Can you give an example?
The first image we shot was ‘Bread and Fish’ – the feeding of the five thousand. It was deeply symbolic for me since a large part of the job of a peacekeeping mission is to create secure conditions for food aid to be distributed to displaced masses fleeing violence. In this context, a simple man feeding a multitude felt almost ecstatic.
What will be evident in the film made in parallel with this project is that the UN sheets used to construct the relief tents were bought in the local market. The warlord watched as his soldiers were paid to build the camp. The actors playing the displaced people were villagers under the warlord’s control and had certainly been victimised themselves.
© Carlo Ontal ‘The Washing of Feet’ 2013 from the series ‘A Jesus for Congo’
As the project developed, I had wanted an image that, in my mind, would shame all the perpetrators I had ever encountered. In ‘The Washing of Feet’, the woman in rags lived alone in the warlord’s village, and his deputy and security officers watched as our Jesus performed the most Christian action possible.
The scene interests me as a tableau of life under permanent conflict. The state is nowhere. The warlord’s fighters have appropriated the uniforms of the Congolese police. The people have long since relaxed into the futility of their captive situation. The rebel colonel (in sunglasses and civvies holding a walkie-talkie) and his troops felt validated in having permitted this albeit strange form of circus entertainment.
© Carlo Ontal ‘The Arrest’ 2015 from the series ‘A Jesus for Congo’
How much did these images flow from you and how much are they the result of a collaborative process?
Someone once said: the first condition of the photographer is to be solitary. I have come to some acceptance of that, along with some shame. A detachment, a spatial fluidity, feeling for the right angle… I’m not a war photographer, but certainly in eighteen years with the UN, I’ve had my share of intense moments. Yet, how does one make art in a humanitarian situation? While my peacekeeper’s role was to be selfless, how do I selfishly insist on the right to create these art images? Yet surely some good will come out of this…
I have certainly tried my best to explain my innermost motivations to my collaborators, and to find ways by which those intentions can be communicated. And yet I know that huge gaps always existed between my drive as a photographer and their comprehension of it. It has not been easy. Battling the elements, difficult logistics and cost, navigating this personal work with my superiors – in the end, I had to fight for my photographs to be realised.
© Carlo Ontal ‘Resurrection (as a dandy)’ 2013 from the series ‘A Jesus for Congo’
What are you working on now?
I’m getting the work out there. Winning the Rhonda Wilson Award and the subsequent support of Klompching Gallery [in New York] has been invaluable. There is also a series of short films being edited. These were shot concurrently with the photographs and will serve as moving-image equivalents, moments that balance the photograph’s inadequacies.
Eventually, I’d like to close the circle and return to Asia, there to continue this exploration of performance as a form of portraiture.
What comes next?
I treasured my time in the UN and can honestly say I gave everything of myself in my devotion to peacemaking.
That is now a past life. Looking forward, I am keen to explore making images my way, for myself. In an increasingly fast-streaming world, I hope to return to being a photographer. One who slows time and frames the image to take on pressing issues through visual poetry and metaphor.
Carlo Ontal was born in the Province of Negros Oriental, Philippines, in 1961. His family emigrated to the USA in the 1960s, but he remained in the Philippines where, from 1972–1981 the country was under martial law. This was a formative period in his young life as he became acquainted with authoritarian systems of governance and state propaganda masquerading as public communications. His response was to escape into an art practice embracing film and improvisational theatre. In 1981 he received a bachelor’s arts degree in mass communication from De La Salle University, Philippines.
He emigrated to re-join his family in the USA in 1985, where he worked in film production and freelance photography in New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. Then, in 1997, he joined the United Nations, serving as a principal video producer for UN peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo until 2018. In 2015 he received a Creative Capital Artist Award for his moving-image project ‘Persona non Grata: in a Floating World of Radiant Sorrows and Perfumed Warfare’ and, in 2022, he won the Rhonda Wilson Award for new talent in photography. He currently lives in Jersey City, USA.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.