Richard Mosse on Using a Military Grade Camera to Find Signs of Life in Refugee Camps
The photographer on repurposing a camera made for long-range battle surveillance
The refugee crisis is one of the most photographed events in recent memory. From boats on the Mediterranean to the shores of Greece and all through Europe, photographers have been there every step of the way taking images that we have all become very familiar with. The photographer Richard Mosse, however, wasn’t interested in conventional reportage.
On a tip from a friend, Mosse bought a military-grade camera meant for long-range battle surveillance that doesn’t see visible light. Instead, this camera sees heat and produces crisp black-and-white images that are exposed based on the relative warmth of everything in the frame. Mosse then used this camera, intended to track and target, as a way to document displacement and the daily fight for survival by the refugees living in camps across Europe for a new project called Heat Maps. The work is on view at Jack Shainman Gallery through March 1.
The exhibition is made up of sprawling black-and-white panoramic images, which are stitched together from nearly 1,000 smaller frames, as well as stills from a immersive film called Incoming. Incoming, which Mosse created in collaboration with Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost, will begin screening at London’s Barbican on Feb. 15 and is also being released in book form through MACK.
Mosse spoke with American Photo about what makes a good documentary project, the importance of seeing with fresh eyes and the inherent difficulties of using a military-grade thermal camera.
How far away were you while shooting these scenes?
This one of Idomeni (above) is the nearest. Idomeni is one of the flatter refugee camps. I tried as best I could to take a high eye-level perspective in order to create a much more detailed, almost like a Breugel effect. But with this, I couldn’t because there was no elevation. This would’ve been only a couple hundred feet. And these guys down here, they didn’t want to be pictured, so they came over and were like, “Are you taking our picture?” And I said, “Oh, no, no. I’m monitoring the pollution levels of the swamp.” Because the camera doesn’t look like a camera.
What was the planning process for each image?
In this case, I went in without the camera because the camera’s super heavy and conspicuous. It’s a drag. I would wander around, and I would scope out a vantage point that I liked. When I worked out where I thought would make an effective heat map, I went and got the camera. I had a buddy working with me, Waseem, who is himself a Syrian refugee. He’s an artist based in Berlin. He drove down with me. He helped me carry all the crap. It involves the camera, all the peripherals, another suitcase full of cables and media recorders, laptops and then another suitcase with the robotic motion control tripod system. What I’m doing is I’m compositing many, many still frames. This would’ve taken 40 minutes to capture, and in that 40 minutes, the robotic arm would rotate the camera on an X-Y axis.
Does the camera follow a program, like a code?
Yeah, I just used the software, and I’d tell it to start here and do 30 individual discrete cells and maybe 15 this way. The camera would track and it would rest on each cell—you want to get rid of the vibration. You see little errors in the focus that I quite like sometimes. Then because people are moving sometimes their legs get chopped off; he’s missing a torso and he’s a floating head on his own. I left all that in because I like the way it reveals how things are constructed. It unravels itself like a puzzle. This would have been 900 separate frames we blended in Photoshop. So it’s 900 layers.
How long did the blending process take?
This one of Idomeni would have taken 150 hours. If we do that in a normal retouching studio, that would cost about $30,000. I do it in-house, so I don’t have to pay those sorts of rates. Otherwise, I’d never be able to afford it.
Where did this idea come from? How did this all coalesce for you?
I had a show in London in 2014, and art openings, they’re like mad affairs. Everyone’s buzzing around. This woman came up with her boyfriend, and she’s like, “Richard, I’ve really been meaning to talk to you about something.” Her name’s Sophie Darlington, and we’ve since become good friends. She is one of the leading wildlife cinematographers in the world and she shoots for BBC Planet Earth. She heard about this camera made by a weapons company that makes drones and cruise missiles and things. She had an introduction with them. She said, “Look, I’ve been trying to get Planet Earth to work with this for me.” It turns out that her producers didn’t want to commit to this particular technology because it’s so tunnel vision, it doesn’t set the scene. It doesn’t give you the establishing shot, which in conventional television storytelling, you really need that wide angle, otherwise viewers are completely decontextualized and confused.
We went to the place where they build these weapons, and on the left hand side there’s a cruise missile and on the right there’s the virtual war simulator. And all these guys in white lab coats come out with clipboards. They took us up onto the roof, and demonstrated the camera for us there. They showed us there were these two builders at a far distance—I couldn’t even see them with the human eye and they were welding something. It was a nice summer’s day in England, so they had their tops off and you could see the flame from the welding gun reflected on the solar plexus, the beer belly of one of the welders. I had never seen an image like that in my life. Just the way it was articulating an invisible spectrum of light. I immediately fell in love with the technology. Of course to acquire it was another process because that was just a prototype, and they hadn’t really put this camera into production at that stage.
It was designed for battlefield awareness and for long-range battle surveillance. It’s designed to detect, track and target the enemy. It took them about eight or nine months to produce because they have to grow the optical elements. You can’t use glass to focus this type of spectrum. It’s medium-wave infrared. It doesn’t transmit through glass. So they have to grow these optics from germanium, which is a rare earth mineral. And it takes quite a long time to actually grow the crystal and they polish it into the optical elements. The sensor itself is made from cadmium telluride, and it’s quite interesting from a photographer’s point of view.
The normal consumer digital cameras all register red-green-blue, in other words visible colors through the Bayer color filter array. This creates pixels of red-green-blue, and we didn’t need that on this camera because it’s seeing contours of heat. So they don’t add that to the sensor. As a result, the sensor produces a very crisp image. It’s not being blurred by the sensor array. It is a very oddly sharp way of seeing the world because medium-wave infrared travels very directly. The camera’s been proven to detect the human body up to 30.3 kilometers, which is gobsmacking, you know, considering with the curvature of the earth at sea level, you can only see about three or four kilometers. That’s why I’m trying to incorporate elevation into this.
Which camp was the above photo taken in?
This is Moria, on the island of Lesbos. This is Turkey in the distance, and this is Lesbos. All the refugees would’ve crossed from Turkey with an inflatable dinghy that you’ve seen the pictures of. We could sometimes see the groups of refugees sort of corralling in the hills in the middle of the night and they would come down and the human traffickers would launch them. Sometimes in very dangerous conditions, they really risked their lives, these poor refugees and they would each pay like 500 Euros to go.
How much time did you spend in any given camp before setting to make the picture?
A fair amount—Moria is the camp I returned to several times. This is Moria in snow. It’s very rare to get snow on Lesbos. I made that two weeks ago actually, and I made this [the photo below] a year before. This is on a hotter day obviously. It describes things differently. Everything’s much warmer temperature. You could see these people, they’re literally sleeping in the gutters here. Shockingly squalid conditions. For most of 2016, people couldn’t go in and out, so it became a prison, and it’s built like a prison. As a result, the refugees start to protest, and on two occasions, they burnt the camp down. So this is pre-burn, and the other one is post-burn.
Did your understanding or thoughts about the crisis change over the course of working on this series?
To make a really good, deep documentary project, you need to be immersed. It takes a lot of scratching at the surface and there’s some narratives that you can’t really begin to get your head around until you’ve been on the scene for at least a year. Some people get under the surface faster. The thing about the refugee crisis particularly is it’s so schizophrenic, dislocated and intercontinental.
What was it like for you using this kind of camera for the opposite of its intended purpose?
It was a nightmare technically. It’s a house of cards constantly threatening to break down. The camera itself has no buttons, knobs, levers, anything. It’s just a camera. You have to plug it into a laptop. So imagine, you have this really hokey user interface and the decisive moment was ten minutes ago. We’ve evolved the technology with the help of the people who made the camera. We realized instead of going around with the laptop, we could work with a Panasonic Toughpad and Velcro it to the back of the camera. Even then it’s super glitchy because when you plug the camera in, it sounds like a freezer because the way they get the image is by cooling the sensor to -50 Kelvin (-550 Fahrenheit). It’s working really hard to get that sensor cooled, and it’s taking about three minutes to get cold enough to image. You have so many moving parts. There’s invariably problems along the way.
What was the feeling when you first started working on Heat Maps and you saw this body of work coming together?
It was pretty exciting, but it was a struggle to really understand. It takes a long time. You’ve got to keep knocking your head against the wall before you really learn how to do it correctly and see it’s potential. I feel I have a little ways to go before I finish these Heat Maps.
Brecht had this idea of alienation effect, Verfremdungseffekt, and that’s what I’m trying to play with here. I want to put the viewer into an unfamiliar space so that they can see fresh, to see again without all the baggage of the mainstream media.