Interview with Richard Mosse
For the Foreign Art Office
Irish artist Richard Mosse has been travelling to Congo for more than a year now, creating his acclaimed Infra series in this volatile country where history and myth collide. Shot entirely on aerial infrared film, once used for military reconnaissance, his photographs perceive Congo in an invisible spectrum of light, upending received documentary forms with an inverted colour palette. Mosse’s journey has taken him to unstable rebel enclaves in the east of the country, where he has produced evocative landscapes and unsettling tableaux revealing a speculative topology that questions the assumptions of photography at a critical moment in its history. Mosse has travelled widely in the past, making work in Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, the Balkans, Pakistan and Iran. He was back in the DRC when we spoke...
Din Heagney: You’ve traveled extensively to places of conflict, and it’s the remnants of these conflicts, like the shot out car in Iraq or the bombed church in Kosovo, that figure as central subjects for your photography. What is it that draws you to this?
Richard Mosse: I found myself in Mongolia on 11th September 2001 and remember sitting at a late night bar in Ulaan Baator watching the news unfold on Russian television. I couldn’t understand a word, but watched the recurring image of crashing planes, poorly broadcast with Cyrillic headlines flashing across the screen. I thought it was a bad Soviet catastrophe movie. The following day I discovered that it was all tragically real and realised that in war, terrorism and conflict, the actual battleground is imagination itself.
I feel that perhaps all artists are engaged in a kind of performative activity—a mimetic journey in which we try to apprehend the world around us. My own performance as an artist often occurs in places of conflict or relates to the catastrophe. These sites are more commonly the concern of journalists, and indeed my work has a documentary spirit.
Documentary photography, regardless of the photographer’s concerns, arrives pre-loaded with an implicit assumption of advocacy. Yet, my work is not a performance of the ethical. I am concerned not with conscience, but with consciousness. Rather than advocating causes, I am concerned with the world around us, and the ways in which we write it into being.
You still use analogue film in much of your work, especially with the more recent Infra series where you used an old type of Kodak Aerochrome film, giving the images an infrared frequency used in military operations. How does the choice of material relate to your thinking around this particular body of work, especially when it so dramatically alters your aesthetic and the content?
The vague and fragmented nature of Congo’s conflict has made it difficult to package, therefore less visible in the mass media, in spite of 5.4 million dead in what has been described as Africa’s World War. According to Jason K Stearns: 'The conflict is a conceptual mess that eludes simple definition, with many interlocking narrative strands. The New York Times…gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, when Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly ten times the rate of those in Darfur.'
At the conceptual heart of Infra is a desire to bring a military reconnaissance technology to bear on a virtually incomprehensible conflict fought by paramilitary groups of constantly shifting allegiance. The word reconnaissance is derived from the French word reconnaître, to recognise. Aerochrome was specifically designed to locate the enemy in the landscape, to visualise a hidden battlefield.
The decision to use this medium was driven by the specific intangibility of Congo’s war—too opaque for the Western imagination. Congo’s war is difficult to apprehend on so many levels. My objective was not to explicate the conflict in the style of an analyst or essayist, but to confront this opacity, to situate the point at which representation itself has failed the people of Congo.
A key offender is photography itself. The reflexive use of an anachronistic Cold War film technology, at the moment of its obsolescence, is meant to draw attention to the rules of documentary photography. There are only a certain number of ways that Congo may be represented on film, it seems, and La Vie En Rose is certainly not one. The little strikes to the documentary conscience caused by Infra are indeed its subject. They are infractions of a moralising aesthetic totalitarianism.
The step into infrared came for me at a moment when I wished to dissolve my own previous methodologies. Central to Infra is a desire to fail as spectacularly as possible in order to find new ways forward. I wanted to go somewhere I had never been before, to a hostile environment where I have no network, where I couldn’t speak the language, where there is no tourist infrastructure.
Kodak used to deliver this film on a bed of dry ice because of its critical heat sensitivity, lasting just seven days at room temperature. While making the work, I was acutely aware of the fact that infrared light is invisible, so I was literally photographing blind. I felt like the protagonist in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, quantifying a human absence using a meticulous scientific method while engaged in a picaresque trajectory through an impossible land. These hurdles to comprehension were an integral, though exhausting, aspect of my process.
Arguably, some of the most powerful images from Infra are the landscapes—works such as Men of Good Fortune and Nowhere To Run—where the conflict is removed, a respite from the dense foliage of the jungle, which offers both concealment but the potential for surprise attack. There are also the village photographs, where the human suffering from war and poverty become visceral. Then there are the rebel images, presented as portraits and vivid tableaux that also have historical connotations. How do you see the subjects of Infra in relation to each other?
Infra has several voices. There are aerial photographs, referring to the specificity of the Aerochrome film on which the work was made. There are detailed large format landscapes showing the topology of eastern Congo. There are architectural notations, archiving the forms of buildings in various states of construction or abandonment along the shifting front lines. There are cultural footnotes. There are confrontational portraits of the rebels, the subject glaring accusatively back at the photographer. I use the word accusative in the sense of accusation, but also in its linguistic sense, reminding the viewer of the photographer’s objectification—a sort of aggressive revocation by the subject of the camera’s gaze. This stylistic diversity enumerates disparate modes of documentary photography, many of which seem insolvent in a place like Congo.
In the work Vintage Violence, there is a young rebel surrounded by white flowers, his AK-47 held passively while he looks directly at the viewer. Does the act of transposing the colour spectrum subvert the inherent threat of violence in the images, allowing the viewer to consider the work in a different manner than if it had been shot on standard film?
How many different ways can we read a photograph of a child holding an assault rifle? The gesture carried by the infrared 'false-colour' palette seems to open up this field of potential signification by stepping across a threshold into fiction. Joseph Conrad followed a similar strategy in Heart of Darkness, representing the specifics of a major human rights disaster with a deeply personal and highly aestheticised work of fiction. Vintage Violence is enlarged to six by eight feet in scale, bigger than life size, achieving a somatic intimacy with the subject as he stares blankly into the lens.
How does placing yourself in high-risk situations inform the experience of producing your work?
Rebel-held jungle enclaves are an unusual place to find a large wooden camera loaded with aerial surveillance film. That interface—the work’s incongruous conceptual undertaking in a place of hard realities and its dislocation from instrumentality—is my catalyst. I suppose I have checked out of documentary photography in the same way that Kurtz had abandoned the Great Game in pursuit of an insidious personal project. In Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola cast Conrad’s Harlequin character as an unhinged press photographer decked with Nikon F cameras.
The films made by Armand Denis in the 1930s romanticised the Belgian occupation of the Congo, an artificial construct that was later conflated through a physiognomic mythology and by the powerful cultural intervention of his documentary films. This attempt at colonialist exoneration led to the attempted genocide and ongoing border warfare that the peoples of the DRC and neighbouring countries now struggle to control. As this is where you have positioned your art practice, or at least the source of it, how do you place your ideas within this historical context?
My journey is largely a retreat into my own imagination, constructing my own symbolic order as a way of unpacking Congo’s representation. My documentation of Congo’s conflict operates as a kind of conceit, a frame in which I attempt to confront the problems of photographing in a place like this, and meditate on the precipitation resulting from past representations. In the course of my work, I have become very interested by the landscape itself, which has been carved and shaped by local and colonial mythologies over the years.
I write these words from Goma on Congo’s border with Rwanda. Fighting currently unfolding in a territory to the northwest of here is primarily a conflict over land. Tutsi paramilitaries, who have been integrated into the ranks of the Congolese army, are battling for control of Hunde villages. This week they managed to wrest control of a particular jungle village. According to UN intelligence, these government troops are already herding the cattle of Tutsi pastoralists into this land. Very soon, the topography will be radically altered. The Tutsi will clear the primeval jungle to make way for pastureland, and cows will be herded illegally across the porous Rwandan border.
Further north, Belgian colonials also cleared the jungle, constructing grand European style structures on hilltops as showpieces overlooking their plantations. These buildings have since fallen into ruin, but you can see how Belgian nostalgia has formed the landscape—how dreams are a driving force in this conflict. The farmland around Butembo, with its pathways and picket fences, looks a lot like the rolling hills of northern Europe. Belgian myths have become entrenched and elaborated by a vicious history in a state of eternal return.
My position here is that of a foreign white male artist representing this conflict with an American Cold War military reconnaissance technology at a particular moment in photography’s history. One thing that I try to remain conscious of in my work is to avoid speaking for my subject. There seems to be a certain impulse among Western photographers to give the African subject a voice. They have their own voice and can speak for themselves.
You told me when we first met that some curators had accused you of a kind of cultural imperialism or ethnocentrism. I don’t really see that in your practice but I’m wondering how you respond to those kinds of claims?
When we first met I had just been invited to Kara Walker’s studio in midtown Manhattan. Kara Walker was not present, but she had given her space to a group of artists, critics, curators, and academics, which met up on a weekly basis to discuss a given art work. That week, my work General Février was chosen. I thought it was a drinks party so went along with a bottle of prosecco. Arriving slightly late, I discovered people already seated in a circle. The atmosphere was studious and intense. I was the only white man in the room. Throughout the evening, I clutched that bottle of prosecco like a talisman.
What began to reveal itself was a curious confusion over the proprietorship of Congo’s representation. It was as if African American culture held some originary claim or title of representation over Congo. I was being accused outright of Orientalism. In my defense, I stated that nobody owns representation. In order to illustrate the point, I referred to Steve McQueen, a black British artist from London who made a film called Hunger about the Northern Irish Troubles.
‘Who does this black guy think he is,’ I asked, ‘coming up to Belfast to make a film about my Troubles?’ I embellished the metaphor. ‘The troubles are only allowed to be represented by Fenians and Orangemen, in murals, ballads, bonfires and marching. The world will not tolerate any other forms; particularly by an outsider who might bring a fresh perspective or—the Lord save us—violate the old clichés. Representation of Ireland’s Troubles is owned exclusively by the Irish.’ I thumped my hand against my lap for emphasis like Ian Paisley. ‘Ulster says no!’
Have you noticed any differences in the way the Infra images are perceived by Congolese and people outside Africa?
Congolese viewers tend to ask simply, why? Western viewers usually ask the same, but sometimes in an affronted tone. It’s revealing that colour palette alone can cause moral provocation. Congo’s representation is truly an ethical minefield. Bringing a large camera to Congo has been an endless masquerade with bureaucracy, corruption, and theatrically offended sensibilities, which are almost always assuaged by hard cash. But the real battle begins after these images have been exported to a Western audience, smarting from a confusion of documentary morals and post-colonial responsibility.
If the Aerochrome stock is now discontinued and your remaining stock is highly volatile, how to you plan to continue with future series? Will you look at other materials that inform the work through the history and choice of medium?
It’s a fascinating moment for photography, a medium in technological and philosophical transition. I am interested in opening spaces of dialogue in contemporary global narratives by reading them sideways, in the mirror of photography’s crisis of faith. The remaining unexposed Aerochrome stock that I have is some of the last. Once this is finished, it’s over. It has been incredibly stressful working with a medium in such immediate proximity to extinction. As I approach the finishing line, though, the process becomes cathartic.
Infra was produced through generous fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Leon Levy Foundation and the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund for the Performing and Visual Arts. Infra will be exhibited at Jack Shainman Gallery Nov 18-Dec 24 2011. The Aperture Foundation, with assistance from the Pulitzer Center of Crisis Reporting, will launch the monograph, Infra, to coincide with the Congolese elections in November 2011.
Richard Mosse, b. 1980, Kilkenny. Lives and works in New York. Mosse graduated with an MFA in photography from Yale School of Art in 2008 and a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art from Goldsmiths in 2005. He has exhibited at venues including Akademie der Künste (Berlin), Barbican Art Gallery (London), Dublin Contemporary, Fotofest Houston, the Kemper and Nelson-Atkins Museums (Kansas City), Kunsthaus Munich, MCA Chicago, Palais de Tokyo (Paris), and Tate Modern (London). Mosse was awarded a Leonore Annenberg Fellowship (2008-10) and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011. He is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.
Noted in The Enclave by curator Simon Maidment for NGV, October 2015.