The room was dark, but inside the rectangle of images projected onto the screen, I hurtled through a pink jungle. The images flipped back and forth as the soundtrack blared and then dropped to a hum. Now, a coastline: the water all pristine blue ripples, the land gradients of bubblegum. Back to the forest: crimson foliage and blood-red tree limbs in tangles, closing in from all sides. The camera follows a man in military fatigues with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. Next, a landscape shot of mud huts and thatched roofs and scarred hillsides and people living in a cotton-candy hued world.
Richard Mosse, ART ’08, is an Irish photographer and the Yale Poynter Fellow in Journalism—although, he’d tell you, “I’m just sick and tired of photojournalism.” On Wed., Feb. 5, Mosse came to Yale to give a talk about his time at the School of Art and his work photographing and filming in warzones. His most recent project, The Enclave, is a multimedia installation produced over six months in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo using a method of filming that builds upon his work with discontinued Kodak Aerochrome film. Kodak Aerochrome, a type of infrared film, makes invisible green hues register as shades of pink or red.
“I am interested in the points of failure of documentary photography itself, where it breaks down or is inadequate to tell very complex stories,” Mosse told his audience on Wednesday, adding that he turned away from documentary photography to focus his work on contemporary art, which draws on what he calls “the sublime.” But now that his work has taken off—after his 2011 photography show, Infra, he represented Ireland at the 55th Annual International Art Exhibition in Venice, and has since garnered international acclaim—Mosse said that, sometimes, he wishes he could return to the time when he was the only one who cared about his work.
“Nowadays, I’m answering so many fucking emails that I don’t have time to take pictures,” Mosse said, with a chagrined half-smile. “This is what I dreamed about. But it’s not much of a dream.” If he is not working on a project, Mosse will never have his camera with him; he described having “two lives”—one, as a photographer, and the other (which he is growing into) as his own manager and businessman. “Being an artist these days is really challenging,” he explained. “You’ve got to be good at art marking; you’ve got be a bit of a business man. You’ve got to be able to forge documents, and lie through your teeth, and write press releases, and tell everyone you’re great even though you know you’re not. You’ve got to act suave and social.” Finally, he said, “You have to deal with interviews. Everyone wants an interview. It’s so boring! But if you don’t do it, the world will leave you behind.”
A few hours later, I talked with Mosse over a cup of coffee in a cramped café around the corner from the School of Art. He wore a black V-neck, black pants, and glossy black shoes, and spoke with a thick, lilting, and invariably charming Irish accent. In between heavy-eyed blinks—he had flown in from Berlin the night before, and repeatedly and apologetically told me he was still jet lagged—he stared intensely as we talked, and grinned in what seemed to be a mixture of disbelief and self-deprecation any time he told a story especially out of the ordinary (“I spent the Christmas in Congo. Should’ve been more fun, but we drove off a bridge, unfortunately.”) Before Berlin, Mosse had been in Dublin, where he opened an exhibition, and then, before that, had made what he believes will be his last visit to Congo. “I went back for myself, to get some closure,” Mosse said. “It was really just to say goodbye to the country, to the people.”
While he is known primarily for his work in Congo using Kodak infrared film, Mosse’s exposure to photography stretches back to his childhood. His parents are both artists who had staunchly opposed their son’s pursuing a career in the arts (“Over their dead bodies, kind of thing. I was basically threatened into taking anything else”), so he took his interests elsewhere. Mosse said that his love for “big, anonymous cities” drove him to go to London for his undergraduate education; he earned his B.A. in English literature from Kings College London in 2001. After college, he worked in an Irish pub in Berlin, and, at the age of 21, traveled to Bosnia with his savings to photograph about the missing persons’ crisis in the wake of the Bosnian genocide. The next year, he returned to London, where he earned his Masters in Cultural Studies at the London Consortium and then attended Goldsmiths College for a year before dropping out. “It was a very self-conscious bastion of hypercritical, interdisciplinary art making,” Mosse said. “I really wanted just to make photos. Call me old-fashioned. They didn’t respect what I wanted to do, so I left.” By the next fall, he had enrolled at Yale.
“Yale, for me, was the holy grail,” Mosse recalled. The two-year program, which he described as a “super intense, crazy experience,” had a total of eighteen students enrolled at once, and, like it does today, centered on critiques, every five weeks, of each student’s body of work. Mosse described these critiques as “like being on a firing squad.” But, he said, “Eventually you realize that the only thing that matters is whether you like your own work.” While he recalled doing a multimedia project with the fraternity DKE while at Yale, he soon moved on to more serious work.
He travelled to Iraq, where he photographed Saddam Hussein’s abandoned compounds; then, he continued to Ireland, Ghaza, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Ethiopia, the Far East, and, finally, eastern Congo. He had been at a creative standstill when he discovered Kodak Aerochrome film, the infrared-sensitive film that Kodak and the U.S. Military collaborated to design for use in WWII. Mosse explained that the film was particularly applicable to what he sought to capture in the Congo. “There was a whole history there of the invisible, the unseen,” Mosse said. “It relates, quite specifically, to eastern Congo’s conflict, which is entirely overlooked in the media.”
For his latest work, Infra, much of Mosse’s focus was on photographing Congolese rebels. Many of them, he said, had been indicted war criminals and were almost always resistant to having their photo taken. “It’s a face-off,” Mosse said. He uses either a wooden, eight-by-ten camera mounted on a tripod—which takes up to three minutes to set up—or a Mamiya 7 camera. “They look down the barrel of the lens, and they don’t want me to take that picture.” He takes the photographs anyway, with the knowledge that the film will transform the visual palette of the image. “They don’t know it, but I’m portraying them in a field of pink flowers. They are shimmering in this very campy scene. So it’s a violation of that posturing masculinity. It’s a way of undermining these evil people, or at least complicating them,” Mosse said.
On the first trip to the Congo, Mosse said that he pretended he was doing charity work and stayed in Catholic missions so he could travel within his budget. “Frankly, I went to places that western people hadn’t been to for a while,” Mosse said. He would travel by car, and then, when the car could go no farther, walk for days on end into the depths of rural Congo. According to Mosse, people were often suspicious when he would first arrive in a village. “But,” he recalled, “when I explained I was there to tell their story, one way or another, they were really appreciative. A lot of people paint these rebel groups as monsters. They do carry out war crimes and horrible acts, but they also have a narrative. Every side has a story.”
For Mosse, while his work started primarily as an experiment in contemporary art, it has turned into something much more concrete. “I started it more as an aesthetic exercise, or a philosophical experiment,” he said. “This art project trickled down into raising awareness about the Congo situation.”
“The infrared film allowed me to become the thing that I feared the most, which is to become a photojournalist,” Mosse said. “But it had a life, eventually, as true documentary photography. It didn’t begin this way. The work has evolved, and now it’s really about communicating, about raising awareness, about advocacy, in ways I never would have imagined.”
Mosse not only occupies the space in-between two genres of photography—he also finds himself in the physical in-between. He has travelled to Congo eight times, and acknowledges the gaping difference between that world and New Haven. “It’s very confusing, jumping between these two worlds. It’s very, very difficult, sometimes,” Mosse said. “I remember waking up at dawn in a rebel enclave, surrounded by rocket launchers. Then, I walked for days to get out of there, and got on a plane and flew to Miami Basel, which is a total art world circus,” he told me, rubbing his eyes. “It’s the hardest part of my life, to make those jumps. If you are not careful, that can affect your sanity. But it also gives you perspective on the world. A lot of us don’t step out of our realities. I think I feel very lucky to be able to do that.”
He chuckled to himself one last time, and rubbed his eyes again. “Sorry, I’m not being articulate.” With a camo-green backpack and two smaller bags resting against his spindly chair in the coffee shop, Mosse was packed, and heading out of New Haven in a few minutes. “I’ve had a long day, talking and talking, and I’m jet-lagged.”