Richard Mosse photographs the invisible

Summary

“Enclave” shows the hidden side of war in Antwerp’s FotoMuseum

Life in the pink

Richard Mosse’s shocking pink images of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are highly distinctive, a challenge to conventional war photography and the way we are used to looking at Africa. Created with the last reels of an obsolete film stock, they may even be unique in the world.

The film, which is sensitive to infra-red light, was originally developed by the US military as a way of identifying enemies concealed in the landscape. Vegetation appears bright pink, while other materials remain dark, thwarting attempts at camouflage. The film was subsequently used by geographers and archaeologists to reveal landscape features and during the 1960s to produce psychedelic album covers (think Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats).

But it is not a film stock that any serious photographer would use, which was one of the reasons Mosse was drawn to it. The Irish-born, Berlin-based photographer had become dissatisfied with his work in documentary photography, dealing with subjects such as war and conflict in Iraq and the Middle East. Working with this bizarre, unfashionable film would take him out of his comfort zone.

Breaking out of the mould

The choice of the DRC came afterwards. The conflict in the east of the country, around Lake Kivu, has claimed millions of lives since it began in 1998. It is a complicated situation, with conventional forces, rival militias and the United Nations all struggling for advantage in a tangled web of political, ethnic and territorial conflicts. The media tends to respond to this complexity by ignoring it altogether, but it was just the kind of challenge that Mosse was looking for.

I wanted to throw my genre up against the wall to see how it would break apart

“It’s an opaque conflict, and that was why I became fascinated by it,” he said in a talk opening the show of his work at Antwerp’s FotoMuseum. “There is this problem of representing it: as a documentary photographer, I need to get the subject in front of the lens.”

Using a film designed to make hidden things more visible seemed an appropriate choice, both to reveal something about the conflict and about documentary photography. “I wanted to throw my genre up against the wall to see how it would break apart,” he explained.

Beginning in 2010, Mosse made several trips to the region, getting close to the militias and taking photographs of what he saw. He also worked with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and sound artist Ben Frost to produce a multimedia installation that forms the centrepiece of The Enclave

The unreal world

Filmed images of the conflict unfold across six screens, forcing viewers to keep shifting their attention. The smooth, gliding movements of the steady-cam, a technique rarely used in conventional reportage, are particularly striking. Following a soldier through a field of tall, violently pink elephant grass or winding through the paths of a camp for internally displaced people, the effect is breath-taking.

There are also militia rallies, ceremonies to magically protect soldiers from bullets, rehearsals for attacks, actual attacks and aftermath. Some of this is real, some of it staged by the militias for the camera. There are people playing dead, and people who are clearly not playing at all.

The pink brings an otherworldly feeling to everything, a jolt that stops the viewer being lulled either by over-familiar images of men with guns or by the natural beauty of the landscape. However unreal, everything feels more present than in conventional images.

The colour also proves to be revealing in more subtle ways in the still photographs. For example, in a landscape where Tutsi herdsmen have forced out indigenous subsistence farmers, the dark specks of their cattle now stand out clearly in the sweeping pink pasture.

Until 11 November
FotoMuseum
Waalsekaai 47, Antwerp

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