In 2012, a Swiss foundation commissioned two award-winning Magnum photojournalists to document the Brazzaville (formerly French) Congo — as distinct from the larger, far more photographed former Belgian Congo. Paolo Pellegrin had covered Lebanon and Palestine, tsunamis and screen idols. Alex Majoli had documented the fall of the Taliban, the Iraq invasion, series on harbor cities and a Greek insane asylum, among many assignments. These guys had been around and were at the top of their game. They had enjoyed an earlier collaboration, which was in large part what made them relish taking on the project. In 2004, they had conceived a slide exhibition in New York called “Off Broadway” with two other photographers, meant as a way to create “a meta-voice coming from these difference voices — a dialogue amongst us but at the same time disappearing as authors.” For Congo they decided to expand on that idea.

Rather than focus on a particular event or theme, Pellegrin and Majoli set out without preconceptions or target subjects, following a more random course of finding interesting moments of life in 21st-century central Africa. “We did draw from our experience in the way we navigated the landscape,” says Pellegrin. Over a two year period, they went to labor sites and disco clubs, jungles and ports, cities and villages, public streets and private homes. They produced panoramic black-and-white images and intimate color portraits, and their curator (Daria Birang) ventured into collage. Liberated from the usual editorial strictures, they were able to seize upon a spellbinding array of styles and locales; the only mandate that drove them was a desire to capture a deeply layered, more elusive sense of place. Very quickly as one turns the pages of their sumptuous large-format book (released by Aperture), one discovers that what most sparked their effort was their rapport with the Congolese people. As seasoned veterans of global hotspots, the duo were well versed in inserting themselves inconspicuously into their subjects’ lives. In the faces and gestures they captured are a gamut of human emotion and rich character, a complex and welcoming society rescued from the gray abstraction of news reports. Some of the images are of such heightened dramatic tension that they seem almost staged. (Majoli in particular responded to “theatrical” happenstance.) Many are as poignantly expressive, and gracefully composed, as those of the great street photographers who hang in museums.

Most of the time, on-the-ground you-are-there photojournalism lets the hard-edged reality that is confronted tell the story, unembellished and unambiguous. A news headline or caption is all the image needs to be deciphered. And a simple photo credit IDs the shooter. In Congo, the images are not always obvious and in some cases almost willfully puzzle the viewer, challenging us to turn impression into narrative. Rather than describing tragic historical disruptions, Pellegrin and Majoli often seem to go off on explorations — “experiments” as they like to say — of portraiture, landscape, urban flux. There are no captions, and no sign of who shot what (“privileging the work over ourselves, in a sense,” says Pellegrin). Their complementary series are interwoven into a celebratory labor of love — of Africa as a kaleidoscopic realm and of documentary photography as an expanding and elastic art. Hardened by their intrepid careers, they do not avoid the grimmer aspects of Congolese life, but they make it clear that it’s a zone of infinite human potential. The project is also very much about the beauty of collaboration, and longtime friendship; the two men are effusive about their mutual admiration.

Congo, by Paolo Pellegrin and Alex Majoli (Aperture). The exhibition will open at Art Twenty One in Lagos, Nigeria on October 31. 

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More from the Photographer Spotlight Series:

MILES ALDRIDGE

AMBROISE TEZENAS

JULIE BLACKMON

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SERIES PRODUCER / MICHAEL KURCFELD