Posted on behalf of Philip Parker
Like war photography, images of the refugee crisis can elicit a disorienting mix of empathy and disbelief. Photographer Nilüfer Demir’s 2015 image of lifeless toddler Alan Kurdi, face down on a Turkish beach, is a case in point. Now film installation Incoming at London’s Barbican, by Irish photographer Richard Mosse, offers an original, unsettling perspective on the crisis.
To escape some of the tropes of documentary photography, Mosse has experimented with non-standard processes such as 16-millimetre infrared film, which colourises in pinks and purples. For Incoming, he used a ‘camera’ classified as a weapon — a military-grade device created by a drone and missile designer that uses thermographic technology to detect people at 30 kilometres. Controlled by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, it was designed for use in ballistics targeting and surveillance. For the show (which finishes on 23 April, moving to Melbourne, Australia, in the autumn), the images of refugees on journeys from the Middle East to Europe are displayed across a triptych of three 8-metre-wide curving screens. Mosse has repurposed a technology of war for ostensibly humanitarian ends.
The device — capable of resolving fine detail in darkness and through fog and smoke — was ideal for capturing subjects in difficult conditions. It uses middle-wavelength infrared, with optics specially created from the rare earth germanium, and sensors made from cadmium telluride to detect heat contours. Mosse and his cinematographer had to devise a rig to carry the 23-kilogram camera, plus steadicam and computer.
They spent two years filming the routes trekked by refugees – from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan across the Aegean, through North Africa into Europe, and inside camps in Greece and Germany. The 50-minute Incoming captures the gritty realities: a rescue at sea; a lorry lumbering, overloaded with human cargo. But the imaging renders these scenes uncanny. The people are negatives, variations in skin colour evened out and noses and lips whitened; every fold in their clothes is etched, but they are rendered in shades of grey. A man appears to be washing his face in oil (water appears black). A fire in a camp billows like grey liquid. One beautifully composed scene picks out kites being flown in front of a bare mountain range, but as the imaging gives no sense of scale, the black darts resemble a fleet of stealth bombers. Mosse has slowed the footage to less than half its usual 60 frames a second, giving it a balletic aesthetic at odds with the raw subject matter.
Mosse often lingers over his subjects — we spend a long time staring at hairs on the arm of a distant policeman. In more intimate scenes, the detail serves to distort. Ultra-closeups of the postmortem of a child who drowned at sea is clinical and disturbingly unemotional, even with the high-pitched wail of a saw carving a bone sample for DNA identification. Each person’s eyes are black apertures, any sense of the individual erased.
Mosse shot almost every scene without his subjects’ knowledge. In a British Journal of Photography article on Incoming, he was quoted as saying that this allowed authenticity and “portraiture of extraordinary tenderness”. In my view, the technology renders real people with real grief and hopes into an anonymous mass – of the other, the migrant, the stateless. For soldiers, this distancing is undoubtedly an advantage; as a viewer, I became alienated.
The United Nations estimates that over 65 million people are displaced globally, more than at any time since the Second World War. With climate change and political instability ongoing, that figure looks likely to increase. In an accompanying book, Mosse claims that he wished to reconcile the camera’s capacities with the “harsh, disparate, unpredictable and frequently tragic narratives of migration and displacement”. But we know the name of Alan Kurdi, the subject of Demir’s unforgettable photograph; the unnamed, monochrome hordes in Mosse’s film ultimately become abstractions. For all the thermal imaging, Incoming left me cold.
Philip Parker trained as a scientist, worked in publishing and with campaigning organisations. He is currently Stamp Strategy Manager for Royal Mail. He tweets at @parkerpj01.
Incoming is at The Curve Gallery at the Barbican, London, until 23 April, and will travel to Melbourne, Australia, in autumn 2017. It is co-commissioned by the Barbican and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.
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