TROPHIES OF TIME
Rudolf Grauer I Democratic Republic of the Congo 1904 - 1906
Verena Prenner I Republic of the Congo 2019 - 2020
In this work, I photograph the Republic of the Congo by following the footsteps of an early twenty-century Austrian trophy hunter and explorer Rudolf Grauer.
In October 2018 in my home in Vienna, I received a call from a friend who, while cleaning his basement, found a box with old photographs.
Being a sociologist and photographer I was immediately intrigued and jumped over to his house. Stored in an old rusty cigar box were two hundred original contact prints of large format photographs, extremely beautiful depictions of what seemed to be visions of a colonial hunter’s mission in Africa. Personal notes on the back of the photos revealed the location was Congo, dating between 1904 - 1906, taken by Rudolph Grauer.
Rudolf Grauer was an Austrian explorer in Central Africa, his main interest laid in the research and hunting of exotic mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds for European museum collections. It is believed he collected around 70,000 species of animals. Through his journeys, he used photography to document the nature and ethnography of Central Africa at the beginning of the last century.
Meditating on Grauer’s images, I was wondering to what extent has our present perspective of Central Africa changed in comparison to that of Grauer? Has it ever changed? My mind was made up, I will go to find answers in Central Africa on my own.
By accident, I received a little later an invitation to implement a photobook for the 60th anniversary of the Independence of the Republic of the Congo. That was my chance, I moved to the Congo for a total of nine months.
It was something beyond what I have experienced so far in my life. My initial plan to be “an observer” has quickly transformed to becoming a “participating test object”, confronted with cultural challenges, prejudices, and stereotypes due to the fact I was a single white woman. There were very few whites around, but the traumas of western colonization and neo-colonization are still very much present, my whiteness makes me an enemy and a cash cow at the same time. I realized I need to be much more humble regarding the goals and ideas I came with from Vienna.
Little by little I developed respect and appreciation for the Congolese people. I found people deeply grounded in nature and animist spiritual beliefs, history and wisdom are passed on orally, there are still many illiterate people and consequently very little libraries or books. And with time I understood, if I am not able to leave my European thought patterns, it will be very difficult for me to understand society onsite.
As I witnessed this collective traumatization because of former white colonialization, and with Susan Sontag's theory "On photography" in my mind, I finally found myself questioning the same question that sparked my journey: "Is there any difference between me, the photographer, and Grauer the trophy hunter?"
Work in progress.