Art & Design

January 25, 2017

Richard Mosse: Photographing the Refugee Crisis

The visionary photographer will present a new body of work in London and New York

  • Written by Iona Goulder

Irish conceptual photographer, Richard Mosse, rose to prominence with his Deutsche Börse prize-winning series The Enclave. The lucidly-coloured body of work in the Congo was shot using infrared military cameras to document the African country, where an estimated 5.4 million lives have been lost to war-related causes since 1998 (as documented in a mortality report from 2007).

Next month Mosse will present a new body of work in London and New York, with both shows confronting the refugee crisis unfolding across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Heat Maps is a new body of photographic work on show at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York next month, and Incoming is a 52-minute film opening at the Barbican. Both shed light on the humanitarian crisis that has divided countries and continents, and pose new questions about governments’ roles. Amuse caught up with Mosse to learn more.


RICHARD MOSSE ‘Helliniko’ 2016 ©Richard Mosse. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Can you tell me about your new body of work?
The project charts the refugee crisis unfolding across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa using an extreme telephoto military-grade camera that can detect thermal radiation – including body heat – at great distance. I wanted to use this special camera – which can detect the human body from a distance of 30.3km – against its intended purpose of border and combat surveillance, to map landscapes of human displacement.

Reading heat as both metaphor and index, I wanted to reveal the harsh struggle for survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, while investigating one of the sinister technologies that our governments are using against them.

By attaching this camera to a robotic motion-control tripod, I scanned refugee camps across Europe from a high eye-level, to create detailed panoramic thermal images. Each artwork has been painstakingly constructed from a grid of almost a thousand smaller frames, each with its own vanishing point.

Seamlessly blended into a single expansive thermal panorama, I was surprised to find that some of the resulting images seem to evoke the spatial description, minute detail, and human narratives of certain kinds of classical painting, such as Breughel or Bosch. Yet they are also documents disclosing the fence architecture, security gates, loudspeakers, food queues, tents and temporary shelters of camp architecture. Very large in scale, these Heat Maps disclose intimate details of fragile human life in squalid, nearly unliveable conditions in the margins and gutters of first world economies.


RICHARD MOSSE (film still from Incoming) 2016 © Richard Mosse. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

How does it relate to The Enclave – and how does it differ?
Well, they are really very different bodies of work. But they were both made with military surveillance photographic technologies — technologies designed to locate and target the enemy. My work from Congo employed older, discontinued analogue surveillance technologies that had originated in WWII, and which were phased out in 2009.

The new body of work, the video installation Incoming, and the series of photographs titled Heat Maps, all employ a type of military-grade digital thermal camera that is so advanced it feels almost sci-fi. So there’s a kind of looking-back and a looking-forward, around the time of a threshold moment in documentary photography, as the indexical certainties of analogue photography are replaced with synthetic digital forms.

Formally though, the two projects couldn’t be more different. In terms of the subject too, they are really quite removed — my work in Congo was hyper-local, all of it was made within a few hundred kilometres distance, while the new project about the refugee crisis was made across three continents in many different countries. In spite of all these differences, and perhaps because of them, you could probably see these two bodies of work forming a kind of dialogue.


RICHARD MOSSE (film still from Incoming) 2016 © Richard Mosse. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Your London exhibition, Incoming features a 52-minute video with a score by Ben Frost. Can you tell us a bit about what to expect?
Incoming is a film installed across three 26-foot wide screens with Ben Frost’s 7.1 surround sound score. It’s extremely immersive and visceral, portraying narratives of the journeys made by refugees and illegal migrants captured on the special military-grade thermal camera. Ben Frost’s score is comprised of ambient field recordings recorded on highly direction microphones, which are then synthetized in studio.

Ben wrote three entirely separate scores, composed independently, one for each of the screens, which we then played back in sync, creating all kinds of accidental, experimental relations.

The Heat Maps that are showing at Jack Shainman Gallery are the photographing prints from the same body of work, and were produced with the same camera and they will be shown alongside framed stills from Incoming.

How important is this work for you for recognising the current refugee crisis?
My approach is clearly not attempting to represent the refugee crisis in a seemingly ‘transparent’ or objective way – in the way classic photojournalism does. Instead, it attempts to engage and confront the ways in which we in the west, and our governments, represent – and therefore regard – the refugee.

This is a work about the refugee crisis which was made with a border surveillance weapons technology at a moment in history when, for example, Frauke Petry, the chairwoman of the German extreme-right party AfD (Alternative for Germany), has said that police should shoot migrants entering their country illegally.


RICHARD MOSSE (film still from Incoming) 2016 © Richard Mosse. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Heat Maps at Jack Shainman Gallery will run from 2nd February to 11th March.

Incoming at Curve Gallery in the Barbican Centre, London will run from 15th February to 23rd April.


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