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Book Review: Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effet


Book Review Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effet By Colin Delfosse Reviewed by Blake Andrews First things first. Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effete is one of the prettiest photobooks I've seen in a while.

Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effete. 
By Colin DelfosseEditions 77, 2015.
 
Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effet
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effet
Photography and text by Colin Delfosse.
Editions 77, Paris, France, 2015. In English and French. 80 pp., 43 color illustrations, 8¼x11".


First things first. Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effete is one of the prettiest photobooks I've seen in a while. The bright blue cloth cover, canary yellow endpapers, and crimson edges set a primary tone for the colorful pictures. The interior is divided smartly by paper type. After a series of portraits on bright coated stock, the book switches to beige uncoated pages for a photojournalistic recap in both French and English. The whole package is nicely finished with a debossed yellow cover icon of the subject at hand: Congolese wrestlers. The publisher Editions 77 doesn't have much of a track record. This seems to be their only book to date, and they're off to a nice start.

If you don't follow Congolese professional wrestling you're not alone. Photographer Colin Delfosse wasn't aware of it either until a chance sighting during a 2010 photo assignment covering miners. A wrestler in full regalia stood atop a passing car. Delfosse was "hypnotized," and the hook was set. He made another trip to investigate, then several more to follow. Through perseverance he gained acceptance into the wrestling culture.

Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effete. By Colin DelfosseEditions 77, 2015.

Eventually the photographs developed into a two-pronged project. One half is a series of staged portraits of wrestlers in costume. The other half is a documentary study of the wrestling scene including fans, participants, and the general environs. The treatments are so distinct that they might have produced two separate books. But Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effete ("No Weapon Formed Against Me Shall Prosper," a slight twist on Isaiah 54:17) combines them into one. It's a slightly uneasy stasis, but ultimately one that succeeds.

Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effete. By Colin DelfosseEditions 77, 2015.

The wrestlers photographed by Delfosse are natural showman, and the resulting portraits are quite striking. Delfosse's deadpan style provides room for self-expression and variation. Dressed in exotic costume — and sometimes only in body paint — with various Kinshasa locales as backdrops, these subjects are designed to tantalize. We know they are wrestlers dressed for the stage. It's all spectacle. Yet the whiff of bizarre reality clings to these men. Who are they and, more importantly, what planet are they from?

Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effete. By Colin DelfosseEditions 77, 2015.

It's indeed Earth, a planet that unfortunately bears a history of colonialism. Like much of Africa, the Congo was subjugated in the 20th Century by a European power, in this case Belgium. So a young white Belgian photographer venturing into the 21st Century Congo, then returning to his white audience bearing strange creatures is, well, problematic. The photographs trade on a strangely exoticized fetishism, and the inclusion of visual triggers like steel chains, blunt weapons, and savage totems is quite provocative. Pieter Hugo knows this as well as anyone, and the comparison of this project with Hyenas And Other Men is probably inevitable. That project received wide acclaim, but also criticism for its racial subtext. Delfosse's project treads similarly fraught ground both photographically and sociologically.

If a white photographer exoticizing black Africa leaves one uneasy, it might be a gentle reminder that all photographs objectify. Pointing a lens at something establishes control, regardless of subject. Whether it's an African in chains or a decaying barn at sunset, the basic equation holds. If that doesn't completely defuse the colonizing dynamic, what further helps Delfosse's case is the nature of his subjects. They are actors in costume, dressed for spectacle: Congolese rock stars. Their behavior invites photography, and Delfosse complies.



Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effete. By Colin DelfosseEditions 77, 2015.

Fine. But it's unclear to what extent Delfosse has considered the post-colonial component. Is this a naive documentary project? Or a project made from the other end, a knowing re-examination of power roles? These questions get to the heart of photography, and it's probably unfair to demand answers from this or any other photobook. If a photographer wanted to tackle them, Congolese wrestling would provide plenty of material. But Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effete punts. The book's evenhanded presentation leaves the questions unanswered and the reader unsettled.

What's left is a beautifully presented book, with entertaining images, but one that feels slightly empty. It's the literary equivalent of a pro wrestler, puffed up and decked out in brilliant costume. What's inside may be more nuanced and interesting, but that world remains masked and mysterious.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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