Thursday, September 9, 2010

Irish Eyes: Richard Mosse

Image from the series 'Nada Que Declarar' by Richard Mosse Copyright 2010

The latest in the series of interviews with Irish photographers sees us catch up with the globetrotting photographer and filmmaker Richard Mosse. Only two years since finishing his MFA at Yale and already an emerging international name in the photography world, Mosse has been vigorously producing work that manages to combine the political and intellectual subject matters that he is interested in while managing to make his work a visual feast, a rare feat by any standards.

His photography is a divergent mix of large format projects with each of body of work not quite a photojournalistic photo essay and not quite a fine art series but inhabiting a space in between these crumbling genre boundaries of the contemporary photography world.

Producing images that deal the legacies of conflict, the geopolitics of space and the pliable nature of history, Mosse’s work has it’s roots with contemporary image makers such as Paul Seawright, Simon Norfolk, Luc Delahaye and Edward Burtynsky.

Image from the series 'Breach' by Richard Mosse Copyright 2010

Image from the series 'Nomads' by Richard Mosse Copyright 2010

For me his images differ from what has come before him as Richard seems happy to revel in the practice of the photographic act of devilish suggestion. Fact and fiction are merged at a level where straight-faced truth is normally the order of the day. Whether it’s in war zones, at the sites of natural disasters or in lonely airplane crash sites, the viewer of Mosse's work is never quite able to orient himself in his world but is able to recognize it as something that normally infers grave seriousness.

Image from the series 'The Fall' by Richard Mosse Copyright 2010

With Richard’s work however, we are left to make our own conclusions about what the seriousness of these ‘situations’ is, rather than being told what to think by a newscaster, a narrative or the cliches of Hollywood soundtracks that inevitably open their war stories to the tune of helicopter blades whooshing and the sound of a Muezzin's daily call to prayer.

Memories of images that never existed dance through our unconscious like a kind of photographic déjà vu that calls to mind our own experience as consumers of and subscribers to the 24 hour news cycle, pop culture and the silver screen.

After Kanye West felt the need to big up the work from Richard’s latest series from the Congo on his blog it was clearly time to put him on the spot. Our focus was on this same body of work.

Image from the series 'Infra' by Richard Mosse Copyright 2010

Tell us a little bit about your latest body of work from the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Infra is a photographic foray examining the conflict in Eastern Congo using colour infrared film, a technology originally developed for military reconnaissance.

The images seem to focus on one particular event the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) rebel group’s integration into the FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo). Was this series intended to be a kind of interpretation of a single ‘news’ event or is it part of a larger body of work?

I wanted to find a new strategy to represent Congo’s intangible conflict. Though some of the subjects that interest me often appear on the ‘The News’ my work is not intended as a commentary or critique of journalism. It’s simply that I tend to arrive at some of the same destinations as photojournalists. What we notice while we’re out there tends to be extremely divergent.

Image from the series 'Infra' by Richard Mosse Copyright 2010

Tell us a little about your approach to this series, specifically with the use of infrared film. Was there a motivation behind it? The pink is lovely but I’m wondering if there’s a meaning to it all.

I was first turned on to colour infrared photography by Florian Maier-Aichen, a German artist working in California. He has produced some extraordinary photographs of the American west. I’m not sure how they’re made (I’ve heard that he composites them in Photoshop rather than using infrared film). But when I first saw them, I fell in love with the form and wondered how it would operate, exported to a more volatile and loaded landscape.

While I was in the Congo, in early 2010, Kodak announced the discontinuation of this infrared film. I was dealing with an abandoned media which I wanted to use reflexively, to employ this military technology against itself in the hopes of revealing something about how photography represents a place like Congo, a place so deeply buried beneath its representations.

I was especially interested in how Aerochrome perceives and reveals an invisible spectrum of light. In almost all of my work I have to struggle with the challenge of representing abstract or contingent phenomena that are virtually impossible to see, or at least very difficult to put before a camera lens. This is especially the case in Eastern Congo, where my subject was inherently hidden.

The rebel fighters that I hoped to photograph are hunted by the Congolese Army, by rival rebel groups and by the local Mai Mai. They emerge from the jungle to loot and slaughter – this is how they survive – disappearing into the foliage just as quickly. Because it’s possible to exhaust the civilian populations that they prey upon, these groups circulate nomadically in the region. They live by bivouac, constantly moving.

Many of these groups have recently been integrated into the Congolese army – becoming legitimized and uniformed. These killers have simply evaporated, becoming immanent and entrenched.

Where fighting has occurred, it’s trace can be difficult to perceive. Instead of bricks and mortar, Eastern Congo has provisional shacks and a rapacious vegetation that swallows history. Instead of hellfire missiles and military barracks, there are “white” weapons, machetes that kill silently, and rebel militias concealed not by concrete and camouflage, but by the jungle itself.

The decision to use colour infrared film forms a dialogue with these specifics. The poetic associations carried by the pink and red palette are a by-product of this conceptual framework, but a very fertile one. It’s an allegorical landscape – La Vie En Rose – steeped in a kind of magical realism.

Image from the series 'Infra' by Richard Mosse Copyright 2010

There’s a perception in my mind and perhaps for others too that the Congo, the country itself and its history has these powerful cultural connotations of madness attached to it. From ‘Heart of Darkness’ to modern representations of it’s ongoing conflict and the recent saga of General Nkunda, there’s a dark insanity to the whole place more so than perhaps anywhere else.

Do you feel your images are in some way playing into that cultural dialogue or are they commenting on it in some way?

I was deeply affected by Congo’s literary and cultural baggage, by what the name evokes in Western minds which are largely ignorant of the place. This made my journey in Congo extremely stimulating, placing my imagination ‘in the zone’, so to speak. Almost nothing seemed banal to me in the DRC because of these popular mythic associations. My work there couldn’t help but be a product of these cultural undertones.

While making the work, I was acutely aware of the fact that infrared light is invisible, so I was literally photographing blind. The whole process seemed preposterous. I felt like the protagonist in Gogol’s Dead Souls, quantifying an absence using a meticulous scientific method while engaged in a picaresque trajectory through an impossible land.

Does ‘Infra’ represent part of a larger theme you’re trying to address with your work or does each project represent a standalone series?

It’s all related. I am generally drawn to disparate sites around the world that show how the past is constructed by the present, how history is in a constant state of rewriting – rather like the hard disk in your laptop, constantly spinning. I am fascinated by spectacle, myth and monumentality when they relate to politics. I’m also drawn to the limits of representation, to the problems of revealing.

You seem to be working at a frantic pace just now, tell us about how your photographic work has been developing over the last couple of years?

I suppose that’s a result of the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship which Robert Storr awarded me upon graduation from Yale in 2008. This two year fellowship comes with so much cash that it is a real stimulant for producing, as well as being a huge pressure to produce. The Yale Photography MFA was also a bit of a helter skelter in terms of production, so I’ve had four years riding shotgun, making work aggressively.

Image from the series 'Airside' by Richard Mosse Copyright 2010

There seems to be a burgeoning group of photographers working in the spaces between art, photojournalism and documentary photography. Are these definitions redundant? Or do we need to have some kind of genres in photography to help audiences identify with the context of the work?

I don’t think we make genres. Genres are made in the same way that pathways are beaten into the landscape, they are an unconscious result of collective usage.

I feel that there's nothing new about photographers working in the interstices between these fields. What's new is the divergence between the disciplines and the insidious sense that art photography has to look a certain way and photojournalism has to look a certain way, and the twain shall never meet. It's a pointless stratification of the medium. Paul Graham wrote eloquently about this in his seminal essay, 'The Unreasonable Apple'.

I sometimes become confused when my work gets too close to photojournalism. When this happens I try to see what I'm doing as a writer would, imagining my work reflected in a literary mirror. I try to think that instead of taking pictures, I'm writing a novel or a short story or a poem in a place where foreign correspondents hard-boil the facts into succinct dispatches to send down the wire. These are wildly different enterprises, but for some bizarre reason it's hard for us to perceive that difference when it occurs in photographs.

Your images always have a great power to them that connect with viewers. What drew you to the photographic process rather than following your initial interests as a writer?

Writing is an endless lonely journey into the darkness of your own ego. Photography is an endless lonely journey into the darkness of your own ego with air miles.

Image from the series 'Airside' by Richard Mosse Copyright 2010


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