The Irish photojournalist on making the ‘invisible’ Congo conflict visible
“I think I need to take six months off after this, I’m burnt out,” Richard Mosse tells me. For the past couple of years, he’s been constantly on the move. “I’d just like to stay in one place – I’m like one of those pinballs. I’d love to get a dog.” Mosse lives in New York but he’s at Berlin airport the first time we speak. We’re cut short as his plane is boarding and when we catch up again, a few days later, he’s at the Barbican in London, where his immersive, multi-screen video installation, Incoming, has just opened at the Curve gallery.
Incoming will be shown together with Heat Maps, a series of stills from the same project, which have been nominated for the Prix Pictet. Like Infra and The Enclave (the unforgettable, hot pink-hued photographic images and film that saw him represent Ireland in the Venice Biennale in 2013, win the Deutsche Börse prize in 2014, and score a Magnum nomination in 2015), Mosse’s latest project again takes a rare technology – this time a heat-sensitive, military-grade camera – and applies it to a subject in a way that radically shakes up our visual vocabulary. “We all have our fixed opinion about immigration,” Mosse says. “Some of us, the liberals, will want to welcome the refugees, will want there to be no borders. Others will say, my parents built this nation, my job’s been stolen by someone who will work for less, why can’t we regulate this?
I was always into photography but my parents are both artists and they told me not to go into art because there’s no stability in it and you turn into a raving lunatic. They’re probably right.
“To create an artwork about that is very different to creating one about Congo. That comes across as a mythic conflict that doesn’t really touch us – even though we are implicit in it. The refugee crisis is really incendiary.” Though serious when speaking about his work, there’s a lightness to Mosse’s manner which is immensely likeable. He’s self-effacing, warm and witty. Born in Ireland in 1980, he took a BA in English Literature and an MRes in Cultural Studies, before doing a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art at Goldsmiths and later an MFA in Photography at Yale School of Art. “I was always into photography but my parents are both artists and they told me not to go into art because there’s no stability in it and you turn into a raving lunatic. They’re probably right.”
How did you make the move into photography?
I left boarding school at 16 and went travelling on my own, around India and Nepal. It was great. I fell in love with travelling. I did my last two years of secondary school at Leighton Park, a very arty school in Reading. They had a darkroom so I spent all my time in there. I got the bug. Because I didn’t initially study photography at university, I was able to develop other faculties. I read Shakespeare, I got a degree that pushed me intellectually. After that I was unemployable. And I realised I was creeping into academia, which I didn’t really want to do, so I left and then took the decision to go to art school. Of course I was excommunicated from the family... [laughs] I did it all off my own steam but it was a big leap and it was stressful. The Goldsmiths postgrad
programme was quite critical to say the least. It changed me as a person. Art school’s good fun for the parties but in terms of learning, you don’t get a sweet ride, particularly if you’re any good.
You mean because of how the teachers critique your work?
Precisely. To be fair, the Goldsmiths teachers didn’t see much talent in me.
What was the course like?
We were given studio space and told to work it out. We got minimal access to lecturers. I found it all a bit of a con job, really. Later I made it into Yale, which is a great place to study photography. The class was small, nine people I think, and it’s more expensive than Goldsmiths but I took huge student loans. I enjoyed it because I’d struggled to find my niche before. I had all this academic training, I just wanted to learn about technique, to be tutored and critiqued in terms of my abilities with a camera. The Yale course was run at that time by Tod Papageorge, it’s run now by Gregory Crewdson. It emerged out of the street photography world.
That’s interesting because where you’ve ended up couldn’t be further from that world.
Well, them too. It’s much more contemporary art now. It’s a kind of mainline for the gallery system in New York, which is only two hours away.
New York’s been your home ever since: why?
I found that the whole culture of photography was more residual there than it was in London or Paris. You still have great labs in London but a lot of them have shut their doors, whereas in New York there are enough photographers in different genres still printing analogue that actually the price for 8 x 10 sheet film is still quite affordable – or at least it was when I was at school. Whereas in London, it was three or four times the price, especially with the currency exchange back then. It just didn’t make sense.
And do you see yourself there for the foreseeable?
Oh yes, now I’m totally committed. I have a real problem with Mr Trump so I’m kind of screwed but there’s nothing I can do…
Do you say sidewalk instead of pavement?
No, I still don’t say sidewalk!
Going back to your literary background, you write eloquently about your own work. Is the writing aspect of your work something that gives you pleasure?
Thank you, that’s nice to hear. I find it very difficult, actually. For the essay in the Incoming book I had to lock myself in a small cottage in the west of Ireland with no distractions. I spent two years making this piece, during which I faced a lot of resistance technically, logistically, financially… I deliberately chose not to write about it until right at the end, and even then I was procrastinating.
You reference Giorgio Agamben’s philosophy in the essay. Had you come across his ideas before working on the project?
Early on I was trying to read around the subject and there was a reference to this idea of “bare life”. I thought, ‘That’s what this camera does. It strips individuality, it turns the human being into a biological trace.’ Those notions seemed to me to make sense in relation to Agamben’s idea. Whether he agrees or not, I have no clue. But he did agree to let us publish an extract from his book Homo Sacer
and the Rights of Man. The theory’s there for anyone who wants to read it. The work speaks for itself, it doesn’t need explaining. Some art does but not the kind I make.
With Infra, you took a particular process – Kodak Aerochrome film – and then decided to use it in the context of the Congo. Was it a similar method this time, or were you already looking to do something on the refugee crisis before you discovered this particular camera?
I wish I could say it was the other way round. I wish that I could say I was moved to make some work about refugees before I employed the camera. But actually, I’m primarily a photographer who struggles with photography and with technology. I have ambivalent feelings about photography: I love it and I hate it. The Kodak Aerochrome was used by lots of people but this rather sinister camera isn’t accessible to the consumer, it’s marketed and sold to foreign governments.
It’s classified as a weapon?
It falls under what’s called ITAR, the International treaty of arms regulation. So according to law, yes, it’s a sanctioned weapons technology. I encountered the Kodak Aerochrome through Sophie Darlington, who works for Planet Earth. She’s one of their leading cinematographers, and her specialism is long lens stuff. She came up to me at my London opening and said, “It’s good to meet you, you don’t know me, but I’d like to talk to you about something…” We met up the next day and she showed me a shoot she’d done with the camera on her laptop. In the end she couldn’t convince her producers to use it because it’s not able to do a wide-angle shot. So it can’t set the scene for the viewer in conventional documentary television terms. She wanted to find somebody that was stupid enough to do it.
And you were that man.
I ran with it. We were dying to work together on the project, but she’s so busy. We wanted to make an
episode in the film portraying migrant animals, but what would that say? If you’re portraying humans fleeing conflict alongside animals that really doesn’t send the right signal. So we buried that idea. But she was always there in spirit and we’d meet up in London in-between shooting for a few pints. She’s kind of the guardian angel of the project.
But you were back working again with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and composer Ben Frost? Does collaboration come instinctively to you?
For sure. When I was younger, I loved the solitude of being on the open road. I’m sure that a lot of photographers will understand that. But over time I’ve realised that collaboration in art is special. Something emerges through good collaboration that’s more than the sum of its parts. I’ve been collaborating with Trevor Tweeten since 2008. We worked all over the place: in Iraq, Gaza, Oklahoma, Thailand, New York. We know each other so well, we barely need to talk any more. Ben Frost contacted me in 2012, so I invited him to Congo and that became The Enclave. He has a visceral understanding of music that grabs you in the body, rather than the mind.
Like with your Congo work, this latest project combines stills, ‘Heat Maps’, and a film
installation, Incoming, at the Barbican. Since your early work, Airside and The Fall, you’ve always shown pictures large-scale. So was multimedia a natural progression for you?
The Enclave sort of emerged. We were shooting with this 16mm Aerochrome film and that was a huge risk. There are fewer and fewer labs that will process movie film. The ones that remain in America are these bigger labs that deal with Hollywood, and they’d just bleach the crap out of the film; they simply refused to do it our way. We eventually found a fella up in the mountains who was able to do it. And then we had to scan the bloody thing… Before we knew it, we were up on the opening date and we had to install it in the space across six screens. I was surprised at what we’d created. It was something I’d never imagined doing. It was very powerful. People would spend the full 40 minutes in there, sometimes longer. It’s a different experience to presenting photographs on the wall. You can take them or leave them. With film, video, sound, it’s timebased, so you’re captive to something.
You mentioned earlier your ambivalent relationship with photography. Is this what you’re referring to when you describe documentary as a “broken genre”?
I was talking about photojournalism, I suppose, but journalism throughout has become increasingly broken. Social media is changing our attention spans and the way we interact with narratives about the world. Photojournalism was always a limited sort of language, though. You’re trying to communicate urgent things to as many people as possible on the front cover of newspapers, so you need it to be simple and direct. You’re also dealing with editors, who put their mark on your work. The photograph that you take goes through various groups of people and comes out the end slightly compromised. There’s this ethical code written into photojournalism: you don’t over-aestheticise
conflict or human suffering. No form of human communication is objective, though. That’s where the Congo work came from. To challenge those rules. As a result, that work’s quite upsetting to some people. To others, it’s transgressive in a way that’s liberating. People either love it or hate it.
Why do you think it upsets people?
I hope the work puts the viewer into this compromised space where they feel their own viewership, their own participation in the image, they feel they have to push back against something and they feel a little bit violated, maybe. Good art is not something that makes you feel good. People need to be shocked to feel something. There is something in the art world that’s all about shock for shock’s sake. I’m not trying to do that, I’m trying to meditate on what photojournalism is, to question the way it communicates and possibly then transcend that.
In writing about the Congo work, you talk about “making visible” an invisible conflict. Obviously to the people involved it’s not invisible. Who is your intended viewer?
I made it for a Western audience. It’s about Western subjectivity. There’s a certain objectification of the Congolese rebels and exoticism in it. I did bring The Enclave back to Goma in Congo, though, at great expense. We had all these projectors and screens and amps and media players. We had to hire a venue that had extra electricity generators and security.
What was the response like there?
People had really interesting things to say; completely different from a Western audience. In Goma there’s no art museum. You can watch the football on a little screen on the side of the road, but it’s not like they have arthouse cinemas. It’s been overrun for more than a century by missionaries and, more recently, NGO and UN workers. These people come with quite an instrumentalising approach: it’s all ticking
boxes and getting results, objectives and goals. Art is about asking questions, rather than answering them. People struggled with that. They’d come out and say, ‘That was amazing, but why did you do that?’ I found that the film was being interpreted in a political way that I hadn’t anticipated. There’s one scene in which a group of rebels shout something in Swahili about killing the Tutsi and as a result some people thought it was an anti-Tutsi propaganda film. Other people brought all this religious stuff to it. They thought the colour pink was about God, which I found interesting. There was also a contingent of more educated Congolese people who were concerned with portraying a positive vision of Congo as a place to visit rather than this negative world which, unfortunately, was the world I encountered. We saw horrifying things... a child who’d been stabbed repeatedly through the nose, massacred with his mother and other women and children on the side of a hill. How can you witness these things and then make a tourist video? But I see what they mean. And it’s really important that Congolese people fashion the image of their country themselves instead of all these Westerners, photojournalists like myself, who go there and portray it as a hopeless place, full of death and sexual violence. Ultimately that’s not fair on Congo. The Enclave is what it is, and it will be criticised, but you live and
learn and you move on. And I brought all this experience to the new piece, Incoming.
The images produced by the camera you used for Heat Maps and Incoming are dehumanising. How does that challenge the way we’re used to seeing refugees portrayed?
The camera reveals us not as individuals but as a glow of heat. Bertolt Brecht came up with the idea of alienation: you force the viewer into a place where they haven’t really worked out what they think yet. The language is completely new to them. They’re in this raw space where they can start to see in a fresh way. If you imagine Incoming shot on a normal camera, it wouldn’t be in any way as challenging. For years, there have been huge numbers of photojournalists taking these often beautiful, powerful pictures, of boats
I found this quite a traumatic piece to make, but it’s not something I tell people because the narratives of the refugees themselves are profoundly more traumantic... There was this one disabled man on the boat who was being forgotten in the rush. His family hadn’t even got him a life jacket.
crossing into Greece, brimming with refugees, in the early morning or the sunset. I was there myself and I bumped into James Nachtwey. We were among scores of photographers, walking up and down that beach. As a result, the imagery is totally saturated. I don’t think we see those pictures for what they are.
Looking at the pictures, they look almost unreal but what was it like on the ground?
I found this quite a traumatic piece to make, but it’s not something I tell people because the narratives of the refugees themselves are profoundly more traumantic: how dislocated they are, how they’ve lost everything, how they’ve had to flee conflict to get to a place that doesn’t welcome them. They’ve lost their state, their citizenship, their homes. We were shooting in Lesbos and there was this boat that arrived in rough weather, with a large Afghan family aboard. Human traffickers charge more for a ticket on a boat sailing in good weather, so if you’re bringing your whole family you’re going to get the cheapest ticket, travelling at the most dangerous time. There was this one disabled man on the boat who was being forgotten in the rush. His family hadn’t even got him a life jacket. Presumably because if the boat went down, he’d have little chance of surviving. We put the camera away and took him in the car to the next volunteer’s post, where they offer dry clothes and tea. I don’t know what happened to him. Although the piece was a bitch to make and my collaborators and I had some tough moments, we kept it together and we’re still great friends and very proud of what we made. It’s an honour to be able to tell these stories to a wider audience – and an ethical imperative as well. Rachel Segal Hamilton
Doyle wasn’t always a photographer. Despite having studied photography and painting at IADT in Dublin, for 20 years he barely touched a camera, having found himself unexpectedly thrown into a career in the music business. He travelled around the world DJ-ing, mostly in Europe and Asia, and ended up founding and running the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival as well as a record label and a recording studio. He was all set to be in music for the rest of his life, but then the recession came. “In late 2008, the crash hit in Ireland. We got hit first and worst. So I packed it in and bought a camera. I bought a Leica M7, although I’d never had a rangefinder before. And I pretty much just picked up from where I left off after college, just walking around the streets.” Doyle has lived in the same street in Dublin since 1992, in a building bought by his father “for about ten pounds”, in a derelict and desperate area. “I was one of two people living in the street when I moved in,” he says. “It was basically decimated by heroin and drugs. It still kind of is, but it’s now one of the most densely populated parts of the city; there was a huge wave of immigration in the 1990s and 2000s. When I started taking photographs again, the whole city had changed. It felt like the whole world had come to Dublin.” In those 20 years, photography had also changed dramatically. Doyle’s influencers at college were ‘the Magnum greats’; classic black and white social documentary work. But while he was away, the great surge towards conceptual photography and increased respect for colour work had taken hold. He describes having trouble ‘finding his feet’ at the beginning. “I was shooting black and white film with the M7, tentatively – enjoying the prints and the darkroom, but not getting anywhere in particular. And then I bought the M9, the digital version of the same camera. I decided to make some really simple changes. I’d never shot vertically, ever. And I’d never shot in colour. So I figured, I’ll just do that and see what happens.” What happened was his first photobook, which came out in 2012. It was a collection of tightly cropped images of people in the street: women walking with shopping bags and headscarves, men sitting in suits, faces often hidden from the viewer. At the same time, he’d begun shooting a black and white collection, which became his second book published six months later, ON. This work is very different. It’s all black and white, it’s harder, harsher, more confrontational, while maintaining the
intimate distance that characterises Doyle’s interactions with his subjects. He, and by extension the viewer, cannot know these people; they will always be ‘the other’. “What I like about it is the unposed nature of photography. If someone acknowledges the camera, it becomes a very different kind of image. On the level I’m working on, the picture completely dies. In some of them though, it’s the very, very start of the acknowledgment that can be interesting.” Shortly after ON came End., the final book in the trilogy, which includes both colour and black and white – this time with a very obvious (and for some, objectionable) design element. There are brightly coloured pages, there are illustrations, there is a cacophony of people and places and textures. All three books were shot in the same 18month period, in the same few Dublin streets, and yet each has a distinct character, each distorting the city through a different lens. There is an over-arching sorrow running through the work, which Doyle is very aware of. “With photography there are a lot of things happening. You’re stopping time, you’re holding onto things, and there’s a sadness to it. I definitely feel that when I’m out on the street; that’s where I feel a lot of my emotions. Most of the human interactions I have are out on the street, mainly because that’s where most people are. So whether it’s feelings of love, or lust, disgust, or I feel really sad and desperate about something or somebody – having the camera, you’re just kind of holding those moments. I take a lot of photographs of things that I know aren’t going to be photographs that I want to have as pieces of work – but I just don’t want to let them go.” Doyle’s approach appears to be without purpose, but it’s somehow directed by the streets themselves. He admits to a “slightly unhealthy obsession” with Samuel Beckett over the past 10 years, and his photographic wanderings have more than a flavour of a Paul Auster character, tracing patterns in the street, being pulled by circumstance. “I have an urge to express myself, like lots of people do, but I don’t have anything specific that I want to express. So it’s nice to be able to walk out into the street and see what the world gives you. It’s like the opposite of a blank canvas, I guess. It’s about noticing something when it happens, and honing in on it and paring it back. I’m drawn to certain things, like textures of clothing, or lines and shapes. I wouldn’t like to over-analyse it. But I do feel that sometimes, something happens in some images that can be quite beautiful; something really wonderful is going on. It’s a really beautiful way to work.” He is aware of making decisions, of directing his camera at particular things, but
All three books were shot in the same few Dublin streets, and yet each has a distinct character, each distorting the city through a different lens.
he is wary of digging too deeply into his process. “I’m conscious of making choices, but I’m not sure what they are. I’m not sure how much it might direct it, but I might be reading a book, or have just watched a film, or seen something online, and that will absolutely determine the mood, or the zone that I’m in. “It might only last an hour but you just feel it when it’s happening. Everything feeds into what you see. You walk down the same street and depending on your mood, it’s a completely different street. I can walk down the street and I’m kind of in love with everyone. And the next day, I hate everyone. If you have a camera in your hand, you’re going to take two completely different sets of photographs. You’re giving yourself over to circumstances; who might be walking round the corner, what they might be wearing.” He describes a walk in Dublin, and it could be an excerpt from Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. “I’ll go downtown, and say I’m walking down to my camera shop to get a battery or something, but I have the camera in my hand. I see someone in a red coat and I end up wandering, following them up the street there, and I’ll see something else, and then I end up five miles in the opposite direction. It will be two hours later, and I won’t have taken any good photographs, and then something will happen there. “That’s what I love. I think, ‘Jesus, this is so random, and so amazing. I was supposed to be the other side of town, and for some reason I’m up here, and this photograph happened.’ It’s not something you can preconceive or plan or anything. But there’s always the question in my head of ‘What about all the other photographs I’m missing right now?’ I’m here, and this happened and it’s a good photograph, but there’s an infinite amount of photographs to be made if you just stand in the same place, you know, for a year.” The poignancy of Doyle’s work might be in the fleeting nature of half-made stanzas and snatches of conversation. He is reluctant to look too closely at the how or the why, but that’s not to say nothing is going on. His photographs are moments that if analysed or described too closely might somehow be drained of meaning. “I just want to hold on to moments because everything is really fucking sad. That’s my over-riding emotion. It’s an amazing thing, what photography does at its best, at it’s most essentially photographic. You’re always aware, or mindful, that everything’s going to be gone anyway, and disappear – we’re all going to be gone, the physical books will be gone, everything will be annihilated at some point. Nothing is permanent, which makes it even more sad. It’s just devastating, the whole thing, really. You’re just holding onto something for a little bit longer.” Lottie Davies
[Previous spread] Safe from Harm, South Kivu, eastern D.R. Congo, 2012. Member of Mai Mai Yakutumba posing in a camouflage headdress made from foliage, near Fizi on Lake Tanganyika, South Kivu.
[Left] Still frame from Incoming, 2015–2016. Three-screen video installation by Richard Mosse in collaboration with Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost. Co-commissioned by National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and Barbican Art Gallery, London.
[Right] Men of Good Fortune, 2011. Farm near Bihambwe, Masisi Territory, North Kivu. This rich pastureland is fiercely fought over in an escalating territorial conflict. Originally owned by indigenous Congolese tribes, who subsist by growing crops and hunting bush meat, this landscape was seized by pastoralist tribes, such as the Tutsi, who have cut the primordial forests to create pasture for their cattle. Farmers and their families are dispossessed through intimidation and human rights violations.
[Above] Indomeni, image from Heat Maps, 2016. © Prix Pictet Space
[Right] Platon North Kivu, D.R. Congo, 2012.
[Above] Moria (detail), from Heat Maps, 2016. © Prix Pictet Space
[Right] ‘Vintage Violence’, 2011. Young rebels from Alliance des Patriotes pour un Congo Libre et Souverain (APCLS) posing in foliage, Lukweti, Masisi Territory, North Kivu. APCLS are an armed group composed of Hunde tribesmen who have rebelled against Kabila and the national government, who they believe is aligned with the Rwandan Tutsi. They are at war with the National Army (FARDC), and the UN Mission in Congo (MONUSCO).
[Left] Still frame from Incoming, 2015–2016. Three-screen video installation by Richard Mosse in collaboration with Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost.
All images courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and carlier|gebauer, Berlin.
Richard Mosse’s Heat Maps will be part of the ‘Prix Pictet: Space’ exhibition at the V&A, 6-28 May.