Art & Photography / Culture Talks

The Photographer Finding Beauty in Political Devastation

“I always say beauty is the sharpest tool in the box if you want to make people feel something.” We speak to documentary photographer Richard Mosse as his new film installation, about the refugee crisis, opens at Barbican's Curve

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13. Richard Mosse, Platon, 2012
Richard Mosse, Platon North Kivu, D.R. Congo, 2012© Richard Mosse. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and carlier|gebauer, Berlin

“We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled,” writes Joseph Conrad in his vital 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness. In the current political climate Conrad’s words cut close to the bone, ominously capturing the dissociation and dismemberment from reality that has come to characterise much of the Western world’s perception of war and suffering. It is this rupture that Irish photographer Richard Mosse seeks to highlight in his art. In his early 20s, while a struggling grad student living in New York, Mosse began to feel frustrated by the limitations of his medium, wishing to eradicate the confining notions of documentary photography.

His most famous body of work, produced in the Congo from 2010 to 2015, documents a landscape consumed by insidious, systemic violence that has taken the lives of over five million people since 1998. The series of photographs, entitled Infra, are shot on discontinued Kodak Infrared film, originally used by the U.S. military for camouflage detection in the second world war. The film is able to register chlorophyll in live vegetation, thus rendering the lush landscapes of eastern Congo in saturated and saccharine pinks. Lurid and visceral, his photographs create surreal dreamscapes out of war zones; spawning subtle and sinister oscillations between the seen and the unseen, the beautiful and the tragic.

For his new exhibition, entitled Incoming and held at the Barbican, Mosse has been working with a new, powerful telephoto military camera to create an artwork about the migration crisis unfolding across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. The camera detects human bodies from great distances using thermal technology, transforming them into glowing avatars, cut loose from any defining identity. Stripped of colour and detail, the films become bizarre dreamlike iterations of reality, lulling the viewer into a subliminal awareness of their complicit voyeurism. Mosse’s work forcefully debunks the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’, reminding us of art’s potential not only to open our eyes, but to advocate new ways of looking.

On why he employs the use of military-grade camera technology...
“They are very cold and brutal tools, designed for the battlefield, and so to use them aesthetically is really working against them. I used a military-grade camera in an attempt to see refugees the way our governments see them. I wanted to use the technology to create an immersive and humanist art form so as to upend mass media narratives and approach the migrant crisis in a much more emotive and visceral format.”

“I used a military-grade camera in an attempt to see refugees the way our governments see them” Richard Mosse

On the thermal camera’s portrayal of its subject...
“The camera is designed for border control, for tracking and identifying. So it’s in no way about the individual, the camera strips the individual of its identity and turns it into a biological trace, this thermal radiance of a human body, this corporeality. What I also found, was that the camera also had this potential to re-humanise due to the ability of the lens to telescope in on people, which is maybe slightly invasive, but allowed us to capture these honest moments because people just aren’t aware that you’re filming.”

On the relationship between photojournalism and contemporary art...
“Combining documentary photography with a more artistic practice opens up a whole field of possibility. Contemporary art is unburdened by the instrumentality of photojournalism, so you have the freedom to create your own symbolic order. With my work I am able to record and document as a photojournalist would, with the freedom of an artist.”

On the politics of aesthetics...
“I always say that beauty is the sharpest tool in the box if you want to make people feel something. It raises an ethical problem when you have a beautiful photograph that tries to communicate human suffering, so photojournalists are often scared to go too far into that register, towards the beautiful. Aestheticising human suffering is always perceived as tasteless or crass or morally wrong but my take on it is that the power of aesthetics to communicate should be taken advantage of rather than suppressed.”

“I always say that beauty is the sharpest tool in the box if you want to make people feel something” Richard Mosse

On the impossible image...
“The idea of the impossible image is one that I’m always chasing in my practice: a narrative that is beyond the reach of language. I try to find a means of expression for those that the philosopher Giorgio Agamben would refer to as ‘stateless people’.”

Richard Mosse: Incoming is open now at The Curve, Barbican Centre, until April 23, 2017.

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