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Richard Mosse’s 'Displaced' breathes new life into documentary photography

Irish photographer Richard Mosse's retrospective exhibition, Displaced, is a visual walkthrough of the difficult terrains to talk about migration, conflict, and climate change.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Sep 13, 2021

The humanitarian emergency of displacement and dispersion has received a swift response from artists and cultural practitioners alike. The deluge of images, a representation of the displaced, floating on both print and digital platforms often run the risk of repeating a similar kind of visual language. In the face of hackneyed representation, making an exception are the photographic works of Richard Mosse. His photographic works do talk about the pertinent theme of migration of the many kinds – promoted by war and environmental upheaval, but ‘displaces’ the conventional techniques of documentary photography to capture the occurrences of enforced migrations. Highlighting the same is Mosse’s retrospective exhibition, Displaced, running at the Fondazione MAST, Bolongo, Italy. Curated by Urs Stahel, the latest exhibition is at the intersection of documentary photography and contemporary art pinned with the motifs of migration, conflict and climate change.

Of Lilies and Remains, Congo | Displacement | STIRworld
Of Lilies and Remains, Congo Image: Courtesy of Richard Mosse

The Irish photographer, holder of an MFA in photography from Yale School of Art, New Haven, at the latest exhibition showcases 77 large format photographs including his recent work, taken from the series Tristes Tropiques, which was shot in the Brazilian Amazon. Along with this the two large-scale immersive video installations, Enclave and Incoming, a large 16-channel video wall, Grid (Moria), and the video, Quick are part of the exhibition. To showcase the widespread trajectory of Mosse’s practice, the exhibition features earlier works from the conflict zones such as Bosnia, Kosovo, the Gaza Strip, Iraq. Interestingly, even if shot at perilous locations, the works refrain from featuring human faces, to underline the aftermaths of the war: defeating the purpose of political wars. Making an exception is the series Breach with the central focus on the occupation of Saddam Hussein's imperial palaces in Iraq by the American army.

Infra, Installation View | Displacement | STIRworld
Infra, installation view Image: Courtesy of Fondazione MAST

Mosse travelled to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, named North Kivu, to create the six-part multimedia installation, Enclave, for which he won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2014. The history of Congo is punctuated by civil wars, a genocide that has led to a deep humanitarian crisis. The rich repository of mineral resources, Congo has been incessantly mined for minerals used in the electronics industry and smartphones, especially coltan. For this series, Mosse used infrared-sensitive military reconnaissance film, once used by military surveillance teams to identify the camouflaged subjects. The expanse of rainforest is rendered red and pink with the film that captures chlorophyll in vegetation. The landscape largely peppered by the civilians, soldiers, and makeshift tents is metamorphosed into surreal pictorial photographic work. The visual narrative of the work once more bends the conventional framework of war photography to underscore the many possibilities available to defy the formalities of documentary photography.

Thousands are Sailing I, II Congo | Displacement | STIRworld
Thousands are Sailing I, II, Congo Image: Courtesy of Richard Mosse

In an interview with STIR, Stahel gives a detailed account of how Mosse transcends the boundaries of documentary photography to breathe new life into the genre, “To break it out of the dead ends in which it finds itself constrained, he retains the principle that the image has its unique force, but generally dispenses with classic documentary photography. Instead, he presents the circumstances, the context, the past and future of the scene for the viewer’s inspection. In this sense, he dispenses with what is understood to be the indexical-iconic relationship between a photograph and the event it depicts. After a century of photojournalism, this field has become somewhat tiring,” he feels.

Incoming, Video Installation | Displacement | STIRworld
Incoming, video installation Image: Courtesy of Fondazione MAST

The series Heat Maps by Mosse got him the Prix Pictet in 2017. To visually translate the binary of “open and closed borders'', “compassion and rejection” running at the refugee camps in the series, the photographer travelled to the Skaramagas refugee camps in Greece, Tel Sarhoun and Arsal in the north of the Beqa' valley in Lebanon, the Nizip I and Nizip II camps in the province of Gaziantep in Turkey, the refugee camp in the area of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, to name but a few. The thermal imaging camera allowed Mosse to record the heat differences in the infrared range rather than seizement of the light reflections. Irrespective of the hour of the day or night, this technique could make a human body visible, close to the distance of 30 kilometres. Used frequently in the Korean War, this method represents an abstract rather than a sharp vision of the human or the object. If photographs carry a theme of displacement, Mosse also re-examines the tools of military surveillance as a way to subvert the conformist definition of documentary photography.

Hombo, Walikale, Congo | Displacement | STIRworld
Hombo, Walikale, Congo Image: Courtesyof Denver Art Museum

The audio-visual installation, Incoming, is the result of the same technology as used in the Heat Maps. Along with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and composer and sound designer, Ben Frost, Mosse created the three scenarios. The first part of the series highlights the preparation process undertaken by the military jets to occupy the open sky of the Mediterranean. This is followed by the group of migrants embarked on the overcrowded boats, in anticipation of either being rescued or destined to the fate of death. In the last part, the everyday life of refugees in the camps is showcased. With the multi-spectral orthographic photographs for the latest work, Tristes Tropiques, in the exhibition, Mosse represents the mass deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. The photograph documents the decline of the ecosystem by human tribes, which has extended its effect on livestock farming and illegal excavation of gold and minerals. While the exhibition is running at the Fondazione MAST, Mosse has already begun a new project for which he is once again travelling to the Amazon basin.

Ultra, Installation View | Displacement | STIRworld
Ultra, installation view Image: Courtesy of Fondazione MAST

Talking about the importance of a spectrum of work presented in the exhibition Displaced, Stahel mentions, “If the pictures have impressed the viewers so much that they can neither forget the conflicts in Kosovo, Sarajevo, the Gaza Strip, Iran, nor the disaster in the Congo, the topic of migration and climate change, and if the pink of the Congo pictures won’t let them go, nor the unbelievably haunting sound in the video installation Incoming, then the exhibition has not only made a show event possible but perhaps also initiated a thought process. And we have to take all people with us and convince them, if we want to change the world, maybe even save it for the future.”

Artist Richard Mosse | Displacement | STIRworld
Artist Richard Mosse Image: Courtesy of Fondazione MAST

The idea of displacement is not limited to the title or the theme of the exhibition or a means to reorient the rules of the documentary style of photography, but manoeuvres the viewers to 'displace' their understanding of what constitutes the representation of migration from a regular to a unique perspective.  

The exhibition ‘Displacement’ runs at the Fondazione MAST until September 19, 2021.

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