Leonard Pongo’s photographs of Congo are raw and guttural. They radiate with the sort of unease that comes with discovering a long-sought-out place — one that forms part of the photographer’s heritage, despite the fact that Pongo had to wait until his early 20s to experience it for himself.

“Having grown in Europe, my relations with the Congo had always been a proxy relationship,” said Pongo, whose mother is Belgian and father is Congolese. “Confronting myself with the reality of the country had a great impact on me and my photography and was a starting point to start this project as a less analytical way of photographing.”

He called the work “The Uncanny,” after the Freudian concept that refers to something being strangely familiar, creating feelings of uneasiness and, said Pongo, “a shift in perception” that led him to “develop a visual language based on experience.”

The resulting images, which won him the 2017 Visura Grant for Outstanding Personal Project, document his confrontation with a family he had, for the most part, never met, and a country he was slowly discovering. He was “relying on friends and siblings to introduce me to their visions of this environment,” he said.

Pongo’s goal is simple. “I want to learn what it means to be Congolese. I want to catch up to a life I only experienced remotely and which I want to make part of myself, to replace theory with experience. Photography is a tool, and an excuse to do that. It allows me to justify my presence in places where I wouldn’t have any reason to be otherwise.” And it’s by exchanging with these new friends, new family members and strangers that Pongo can access that reality, he said. “The link I can create with people defines the content of the pictures and thus these people condition what I do. My work only happens at the interface between these experiences and the making of a ‘truthful’ image, one that materializes this encounter visually.”

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