Richard Mosse Beauty Is the Priority
The first response of viewers seeing the photographs taken by Richard Mosse amidst the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a mixture of captivation and disorientation. In his huge African landscapes and portraits of fighters, Mosse imposes a singular vision that pushes the viewer to construct their own ethical position in the current post-documentary debate. Based in New York, this Irish photographer born in 1980 started his career working for news magazines, covering conflicts in Haiti, Baghdad and Beirut. He eventually turned his back on traditional photojournalism but also on the professedly neutral documentary style and instead explored the issues of post-photographic documentary after the digital turn. In fact, this also involved an increased use of pre-digital photography. Mosse works with analogue equipment, using a specially made large-chamber wooden view camera. It was the huge pink and red photographs of his Infra series that brought Mosse to wider attention in 2011. Then came The Enclave, a series of photographs and a 16 mmfilm pre- sented on six screens at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Color, the photographer’s real “hallmark,” is generated by the use of infrared Kodak Aerochrome film, invented in the 1940s. Used by science and the military, this infrared film provokes a chromatic transformation that serves to detect, say, an enemy camouflaged in the forest. Mosse, though, uses this technology for contemplative purposes, far from any desire to speak directly of a war that killed over five million people. THE IMPOSSIBLE IMAGE The problem faced by Mosse is how to reveal an opaque reality. He is faced with the impossible image, in the sense that photography has failed to convey the complexity of an extremely tangled conflict of which we have seen few pictures, a war that is of only limited interest to Western public opinion. The question of transmitting information without visible traces and about a subject that cannot be directly shown by the camera is central for Mosse. One example is the use of rape as a weapon of war and the way it destroys individuals and even the structure of society itself, a process whose psychic impact on the victims it is impossible to film directly. It may be that this interest in representing the sequels of war has its roots in Mosse’s childhood. In an interview for Irish television, Mosse explained that he grew up in a Quaker family where his pacifist upbringing contrasted strongly with the many stories of violence in Northern Ireland.(1) His first journey, aged twenty, was to Bosnia to photograph the traces of the recent war there. Some ten years later, when trying to convey the reality of the war in the Eastern Congo, Mosse did not photograph violence but instead captured soldiers looking warily or posing indulgently for the lens. Above all, he photographed the beautiful landscapes of the North/Kivu area with their colors shifting from bright pink to deep red as the day wore on. While there is no sign of dead bodies here, the dominance of magenta constantly recalls the blood shed in the course of the war, like a reverse version of Napoleon’s color-blindness in W. G. Sebald’s micropoem: “They say / that Napoleon / was colourblind / & blood for him / as green as / grass,” which he quoted in the text presenting Infra, his show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York in 2011.(2) The powerful emotion exuded by the warm, shimmering colors hides death, which is always present. Representations of death and destruction haunt Mosse’s earlier photographs, too. The subject of his 2008 exhibition Airside was plane crash simulators. In The Fall, in 2009, debris of planes that crashed in the Canadian countryside were shown alongside the hulks of cars in the Iraqi desert and American soldiers wandering through the devastated palaces of Saddam Hussein. Here was the manifestation of ruin lust and the resurgence of a certain kind of Romanticism.