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.
Mosse received the Deutsche Börse photography prize in 2014 for his work Enclave, which was exhibited in the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Filmed using discontinued military surveillance film which registers chlorophyll in live vegetation, Enclave captured the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in full-on psychedelic colours. This was war photography of a kind not seen before, raising questions of how successfully the medium can ever present the reality of complex and violent situations.
At the Barbican Curve, he continues these explorations, this time using advanced new thermographic weapons and border imaging technology to capture the plight of refugees in a variety of settings, including Syria, Lesvos and the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais. Mosse was first introduced to the thermographic camera by wildlife cinematographer Sophie Darlington, who recognised how it could be relevant to his work. “She showed me test footage she’d shot,” Mosse explains. “She’s a wildlife shooter so she was coming at it from a very different angle. She was particularly intrigued by this camera because it sees so far. It’s proven to detect the human body from 30.3km – it’s an awful long way.”
Darlington introduced Mosse to the company who makes the camera, which is a multi-national weapons company based in the EU. “They don’t normally cater to consumers like myself,” he says. “They generally make cruise missile and drones and things like that for military use.
“When I saw the footage, I was really blown away,” he continues. “Not simply by its power of seeing far but also its aesthetic quality, things that were really a byproduct,” he continues. “You have to remember it’s a military tool, it’s not designed for telling stories. It’s designed for detecting the enemy. So the fact that it has an extraordinary tonality … [it’s] an alienation effect almost, to push the viewer into an unfamiliar place, where they can see what happens to be quite a familiar subject in a new and perhaps refreshed way.”
Creating the work was not without its practical problems. The camera is large and unwieldly and required government permission to be used. It also limited where Mosse could film. One scene, which shows a battle unfolding in Northern Syria, was in fact filmed from Turkey. “There’s a lot of mortar fire and rockets, a lot of tracers,” he says. “That’s all totally visible on the camera, and once we were filming that you really realised that this is what the camera is designed for, for battlefield awareness. You could see artillery positions that were hidden, you could see the glow of people behind them.
“We were on a hill just on the Turkish border. Because we really didn’t want to risk our necks. Also, Syria’s one of the sanctioned countries that we couldn’t travel with the camera to. The camera is regarded as a weapon under the international treaty of arms regulations. In other words, if you don’t get the proper export documentation, you could be locked away for weapons smuggling. It’s one more annoying thing about the camera.”
At the heart of Incoming lie many contradictions and tensions. These include, of course, using a weapon to create reportage. “To use a camera that’s been designed not simply for battlefield awareness but also for long-range border enforcement – to take that and to work against that medium, to use it against itself to try and tell a story about the journeys of refugees…. That’s a not very intuitive idea but one that’s quite appropriate in the end,” says Mosse.
The camera in its nature also dehumanises the figures it captures, automatically rendering them as ‘other’. This is in part due to the innate qualities of thermographic imagery, which portrays the body in an unfamiliar way. “That’s the thing about the camera, it’s designed to detect the enemy,” explains Mosse. “It objectifies the human body in a way that almost strips the individual from the human figure. It turns them into a biological trace or ‘creature’. This is a form of dehumanisation. So there’s something deeply problematic about that.
“But in a way I felt that revealed something about how our governments represent and therefore regard the figure of the refugee,” he continues. “So potentially it could allow a space to think about that somehow.”
Mosse is also aware that the camera’s extreme telescopic nature meant they could intrude upon and record people who were utterly unaware of their presence. There are scenes of people socially interacting in refugee camps in the work but also of doctors performing an autopsy. “The almost invasive gaze of the very powerful long range capabilities allowed us to create a very honest portrait of people who were completely unaware, they were unselfconscious,” he says. “I would argue that’s not an invasion of privacy because the camera also anonymises the individual, you can’t identify anyone who is imaged by the camera because it doesn’t reveal how their face looks. It reveals how their face ‘glows’.
“There’s a lot of things going on here that we found, the longer we worked with the technology, started to really resonate and create all this tension within the work,” he continues. “That’s what I’m hoping the work will do – it will push the viewer into an uncomfortable space in which they’re not told what to think…. They don’t know what to feel and actually the score is constantly misleading the viewer and changing gears along with the edit.”
Mosse hopes that this will provoke a more active, thoughtful response in the viewer than is usually demanded by documentary film. “The constant disorientation [forces] the viewer to become the author of the work on some level and to own their interpretation,” he says. “Rather than to be like, ‘oh I saw this great doc about the refugees and isn’t it horrible?’
“But actually what I really hope people will take away, if nothing else, is this sense of uneasy complicity as Westerners,” he concludes. “This is a technology that is designed for our governments that is used against the refugees. And we are part of that problem, we are complicit. The whole system that is designed to deal with the crisis is completely inadequate.
“We’re increasingly seeing the slide of liberal democracy into totalitarianism in the West due to the refugee crisis. It’s being used as a trigger by people like Trump and by the Brexit politicans as a way to stoke and create fear amongst us when there was none and there is no need for any. So I think immigration and the figure of the refugee is somehow this figure that creates a crisis in our societies. It’s a very worrying thing because I think with climate change we’re only having the first taste of this crisis.”
Incoming by Richard Mosse is on show at Barbican Curve until April 23, barbican.org.uk. A book of the work is also available, published by MACK, priced £35, mackbooks.co.uk