Photography has long been seen as a powerful tool to help bring a human element to stories of war and suffering. Perhaps the most affecting are those images perceived to be the least ambiguous. The terrible shot of three year-old Alan Kurdi lying on a beach after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, for example, offered a stark portrait of what was at stake for those escaping the war in Syria. The photo galvanised, for a time, strong reactions from the public in support of refugees.
But seemingly ‘simple’ images of the refugee crisis can be used to manipulate public opinion in other ways too. Nigel Farage’s infamous Breaking Point poster, released during the run up to the UK’s EU referendum vote, featured a long line of refugees and migrants above the statement, ‘The EU has failed us all’. The ad garnered comparisons to Nazi propaganda but still struck a chord with many enraged about immigration.
A new work by Richard Mosse, on show at the Barbican Curve, presents an entirely different approach to documenting the crisis. Mosse worked with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten to create the three-screen installation, which is filmed in monochrome and set to a specially composed soundtrack by Ben Frost. The 52-minute-long artwork features footage of refugees from around the world and is an intensely compelling though ambiguous piece of documentary, which challenges the viewer to find their own narratives and understandings within it.