Richard Mosse has investigated displacement throughout his career: of people fleeing war-torn countries, and more recently, natural landscapes and ecosystems. He is also known for his use of advanced technology to push the boundaries of documentary photography. As his retrospective opens in Italy, he reflects on his life’s work so far
Last summer, when Richard Mosse read about the magnitude of the forest fires in Brazil’s Amazon basin, he felt compelled to travel there and capture the deforestation. According to Amnesty International, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research estimated that 63,000 fires were detected last year up to the end of August. The 2020 fires were the worst the Latin American country had seen in a decade, with the number of blazes up by 61 per cent in September compared to the same month the previous year. Richard Pearshouse, Amnesty International’s head of crisis and the environment, said it was “abundantly clear that the Brazilian military doesn’t have the expertise or experience required to stop those torching the forest and illegally seizing protected land”. In a statement, Greenpeace Brazil’s Cristiane Mazzetti said, “Brazil is on fire”.
Before embarking on his trip to the Amazon, Mosse considered the challenges of how best to represent the degradation aesthetically. He decided to purchase a drone. Upon arrival, he travelled extensively along unpaved roads to find swathes of torched land. Whenever he came across a place that fascinated him, he launched the drone. It carried a multi-perspective camera which allowed him to capture the scale of destruction. Later, back in the studio, Mosse harnessed satellite technology through GIS mapping software to reassign the narrow bandwidths of spectral data to red, green and blue. In total, the photographer created 298,000 images from which he made his works.
“The artworks are very painterly and, if you step back, they almost appear like a colourfield or abstract painting, whereas up close you can see the details,” Mosse says on the phone from his studio in New York. He likens the photographs to “local maps of the environmental crisis”, each one carrying an incredible amount of depth and detail. “There have been amazing [aerial landscape] images by Edward Burtynsky but those photographs have one single vanishing point. What I’m doing is different. We’re capturing tens of thousands of images of each environmental crime site. And back in the studio, we’re working with very powerful computers over several months to flatten the space into a two-dimensional map.” The photographs attest to how land in the Amazon has been deliberately burnt in rainforest fires.
Mosse talks earnestly about this catastrophe, from the “rapacious, destructive scale of gold-mining and illegal logging”, to how the hydroelectric damming of rivers is depriving indigenous tribes of fish and forcing some to resettle. The biggest culprit, he says, is the meat industry. “We’re sacrificing the rainforest so we can eat cheap beefburgers,” Mosse laments. “I wanted to show the pain of the Amazon. The fascinating thing for me is that these cameras [which can be attached to drones] are available to farmers and the international mining industry. So my work strikes the viewer on an aesthetic, metaphorical and forensic level.”
The colossal amount of images taken on the trip culminated in the photographer’s new series, Tristes Tropiques. The striking, colour-saturated works now feature in his retrospective, Displaced, on show at Fondazione Mast in Bologna until 19 September 2021. The exhibition, curated by Urs Stahel, assembles 77 large-format works from Mosse’s early foray into photography, when he travelled to Kosovo, the Gaza Strip and the Mexico-US border, up to his latest explorations into the Amazon.
Born in 1980 in Ireland, Mosse earned an MFA in photography from Yale School of Art after initially studying English literature. In 2014, he won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for his multimedia installation, The Enclave, portraying the war-torn landscapes of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) using infrared, discontinued military surveillance film. Mosse spent several years photographing the DRC’s eastern region of North Kivu, commuting back and forth from Berlin, where he was based. In 2017, Mosse was awarded the Prix Pictet for his series Heat Maps. Using a military-grade thermal-imaging camera that could detect body heat, he photographed refugee camps in the Middle East and Europe, such as the so-called Jungle in Calais, which was bulldozed in 2016. The Enclave and Mosse’s other series made in the DRC, Infra, are included in the retrospective, along with Heat Maps and the accompanying video installation, Incoming.
Mosse has been capturing geopolitical situations while bending the parameters of documentary photography for nearly two decades. This duality of his practice is concisely evoked in the exhibition’s title. “I was trying to think about the consistent thread that binds all this work together, and a lot of it deals with a form of displacement,” explains Mosse, who flew to Italy to install the show. While this applies literally to the lives of migrants, his photographs of the Amazon convey the “displacement of the environment and of the indigenous population whose land has been encroached upon”.
Considering the visual aspects, he observes: “There is a kind of displacement of the documentary form too, from the journalistic to the literary and artistic, so there’s a double sense in the title.” The name also encapsulates Mosse’s change of direction after he left Magnum Photos, spurred on by his desire to create contemporary art.
Back to the Amazon basin. Mosse’s work on the rainforest is twofold, considering it on both a micro and a macro level. Prior to Tristes Tropiques, in 2019 he made an entirely different series, Ultra, in Ecuador and Peru. Using ultraviolet light, he photographed plants, lichens and mosses up close at night with the aim of capturing a microscopic level of bioluminescent detail. He risked damaging his eyesight, he admits, because he neglected to wear protective glasses on the first few nights of shooting. “I was looking at a form of aesthetic beauty and capturing that was doing me personal harm,” he remarks about the series, which was loosely inspired by José Saramago’s novel, Blindness.
The large, fluorescent-quality images are otherworldly and bewitching; the sci-fi writing of JG Ballard comes to mind. The series – first unveiled in an exhibition at the gallery Carlier/Gebauer in Berlin last spring – marked a dramatic shift in Mosse’s work following his documentation of harrowing scenes of refugee camps and conflict zones. The work was born of his reflections on climate change, and the chance to make something more personal and intimate. “I wanted to show that what we stand to lose is biodiversity,” says Mosse, who used an ultra-high-resolution camera and macro stacking. “With that level of resolution, you realise that there’s a galaxy of life in every square inch of the rainforest.
What shocked Mosse was the extent to which plastic pollution had reached the forest’s depths. “Sometimes I’d be photographing a stick insect and it would be dragging microplastic filaments from shopping bags,” he recalls. Mosse’s work about the Amazon is ongoing. Days after our telephone interview, he was due to return to Brazil to start shooting again. He is in the process of making an immersive film about the destruction of the rainforest that will be “the third part in a trilogy”, along with The Enclave and Incoming. On all three projects he has collaborated with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and composer Ben Frost. “The projects relate to each other as they’re all investigative and unpack the subject matter in a meaningful way,” Mosse muses. “They’re a careful examination of the photographic medium and technology, and carry a role in some of the subjects that I’m trying to depict.”
Mosse indicates that, looking ahead, his work might pursue a slightly different approach. “I’m not sure if I’ll be making a fourth [immersive film],” he says. “I’m 40 now, and we’re not as nimble as we used to be. You need to be very energetic and to work extremely long days.” Mosse is at the midpoint in his career, which makes the Displaced exhibition so timely. “It’s a strange, cathartic process to see these 77 huge, framed photographs together,” he ponders. “I’m seeing all my babies in a reunion.”