Pinkish red trees and a violet sky is not the typical aesthetic you would expect in a photo of a refugee camp. But that’s what you get through Richard Mosse’s lens.
The Irish photographer, born in 1980, has dedicated the past 20 years of his life to reassessing conventional photojournalism. By experimenting with contemporary conceptual art, he aims to make the complexity of humanitarian and ecological catastrophes around the world more tangible.
More than 70 of his photographs and a video installation are now on display at the Kunsthalle Bremen.
Going beyond the limits of conventional reportage photography
At the age of 21, Mosse traveled to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war had ended seven years prior to his trip, but the wounds of the conflict were still fresh. Thousands of soldiers remained missing, which meant that many families were left without closure.
The photographer wanted to capture the missing persons crisis and the scientific efforts to identify soldiers in mass graves.
At first he proceeded like a classic photojournalist and took pictures of grieving relatives. But over time, he grew more and more critical of that method. Conventional reportage photography seemed reductive to him. So he turned to art.
He traded in his classic Nikon camera — a popular choice among photojournalists at the time — for an old-fashioned German camera called Linhof. His new gadget was bulky and required him to use a tripod and a cape or dark cloth. Basically, it forced him to work very differently, adopting a much slower and more meditated approach.
“I started to think about how I can express the absence of the missing soldiers metaphorically, through the built environment,” Mosse told DW. He is not sure whether his first photographic project was successful. But in any case, he regards it as a turning point in his career: “I was coming to a new set of questions, which still serve as a basis for most of my work today.”
He has since used various unconventional photographic technologies to depict other international crises. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the European refugee crisis, as well as the ecocide in the tropical rainforests of the Amazon are some of the topics he has dealt with in his work.
Technology inspires his stories
When asked how he decides on a subject, Richard Mosse explains that he is “first and foremost a photographer. The medium itself fascinates me. I am almost obsessed with the various forms of documentation.”
This means that it is often the discovery of a new technology that inspires him first. After spending some time studying it, he looks into the topics that could be covered effectively using the selected medium.
For example, he mentions discovering thanks to documentary filmmaker Sophie Darlington, who works at BBC Planet Earth, a special camera that kickstarted one of his most important projects.
At the opening of one of his exhibitions, she talked to him about infrared thermal imaging cameras, which were developed for military purposes. They are registered as part of a weapon system and are typically used by governments for border surveillance and defense.
Darlington put Mosse in contact with a weapons company that provided him with one of those cameras. Despite receiving a technical introduction and license, the photographer could not get started right away. First, he had to hire an export attorney to obtain all the necessary paperwork to legally travel across borders carrying the camera. “It was a long, complicated process,” Mosse said, one that allowed him to experience first-hand the burdens of European bureaucracy, well aware that the bureaucratic hurdles faced by refugees are even more consequential.
From 2014 onwards, the artist spent several years intensively examining the consequences of migrants’ movements in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. For his “Heat Maps” series, he used the thermal imaging camera to document the architecture of refugee camps, displaying their inhumane conditions.
The images produced by the heat camera are rather strange. People’s features are reduced to patches of black and white. Through the uncanny aesthetic of these photos, Mosse aims to highlight and criticize the de-humanizing attitude of the EU governments: “I want to hold the camera up as a mirror to the failing EU migration policy,” he says.
According to the photographer, the mere existence of that camera is part of the problem, as one of its main intended uses is to keep refugees out of Europe. Mosse criticizes the costly technology, pointing out that the funds used to produce it could have rather been invested in building better refugee camps or in improving the asylum system, for instance.
Environmental crimes in electric colors
Richard Mosse’s current project, “Tristes Tropiques,” is one that particularly moves him.
It focuses on the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a man-made crisis that is accelerating climate change. Illegal deforestation and other environmental crimes are causing a total ecocide.
To do this, he is working with multispectral imaging. The technology is actually used by scientists to locate ecological damage and determine its rate. But the agricultural and mining industries also use it to exploit the land in a way that maximizes profit.
Mosse decided to use that same multipurpose technology to depict the many faces of this complex issue.
From a distance, the large colorful images produced by the satellite cameras remind of abstract field paintings. At the same time, the “Tristes Tropiques” photographs can be read as scientific maps that reveal a wealth of information and details when viewed up close.
The first retrospective of award-winning artist Richard Mosse in Germany is on show at the Kunsthalle Bremen until July 31, 2021.