Richard Mosse: A photographer at war with the conventional

Sweeping fuchsia landscapes filmed by the military in the Congo in World War 2 have made Richard Mosse famous in the art world.

His film, The Enclave, and still photographs from the series, ‘Infra’, were selected as the Irish representation in the 2013 Venice Biennale and are on a nationwide Arts Council tour.

Mosse has been documenting conflict zones since his early 20s, when he travelled through Bosnia after the 1990s war. “When I was about 15, I knew photography was it for me,” he says. But his artist parents steered him into an English undergraduate degree. He formalised his photography training at Yale University, in the United States.

There are two overarching themes in the ‘Infra’ images, says Mosse. “One was Congo itself, and the other was the generic conventions of war photography. I wanted to challenge war photography and rub it against the grain, and find a new way, an alternative strategy, to represent conflict.” That the Congo is an overlooked conflict attracted Mosse. “It’s a humanitarian disaster, which has claimed, according to the statistics, 5.4m lives since 1998,” he says. “Which is enormous. That is nearly as many Jews as Hitler killed, but we just don’t hear about it. It doesn’t get a look-in in the mainstream media.”

Mosse was “on the threshold of bankruptcy” when he returned to the Congo for what he considered his last project. “I wanted to really self-destruct. I don’t mean self-harm, what I mean was that I wanted to throw my chosen genre, which was war and documentary photography, really hard against a wall and smash it open and see how it responded to that... try to subvert the conventions.”

Mosse uses the term ‘documentary photographer’, not ‘journalist, and investigates the codes of war photography. “As an artist, you are not part of any institution,” he says. “You are not answering to anyone. No photo editor telling you what you have to talk about, or what you have to think about. The facts are definitely one aspect of what I do, but I am also embracing imagination. Human experience is much wider and more expansive than facts alone.”

The distinctive fuchsia colouring is due to Mosse’s use of special Kodak film, now discontinued. “I’ve taken very heat-sensitive film medium into the sub-Saharan desert, where there are very few freezers and, even when you find a freezer there’s a power cut. And the landscape is sometimes very hot out there. So you’re really asking for it.”

Using infra-red light to reveal camouflage in the landscape gives the work its power. “I was just fascinated, on almost a metaphorical level, with the ability to register the unseen. To peer into the invisible spectrum and reveal the conflict that couldn’t be seen.” The audience is seduced by the beautiful imagery and shocked when they realise they are admiring “a landscape of human suffering.”

* The Enclave runs at 6a Rutland Street and Ormston House, Limerick City, until May 5.

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