Come Out (1966)
Bullet scored paraphernalia lie scattered in these dangerous wastes, evoking sculpture by Giacometti, Moore, Serra. Live and spent fire litter the surrounding landscape, creating an indelible image of the playfulness of destruction. The soundtrack invokes a roll of Iraqi place names, some of which are immediately recognizable to us through countless news dispatches from Iraqi wars.

Sublime Proximity:
In conversation with Richard Mosse
Interview by Aaron Schuman
Aperture Magazine, Issue 203 Summer 2011

Over the course of the last seven years, Irish photographer Richard Mosse has photographed postwar ruins in the former Yugoslavia, cities devastated by earthquake in Iran, Pakistan, and Haiti, the occupied palaces of Saddam Hussein, airport emergency training simulators, the rusting wreckage of remote air disasters, nomadic rebels in the Congolese jungle, and more. Reading through his catalog of subject matter, one could easily assume that Mosse is an inveterate photojournalist in the most traditional sense, chasing hard facts in order to illustrate breaking news. Yet through his work—generally photographed in large format and presented large scale, with a penchant for the staggering, the allusive, the historical, and the Sublime—Mosse is revealed as a practitioner intent on challenging the orthodoxies of documentary photography, in particular the contexts, imperatives, and “responsibilities” that are often both assumed by and imposed upon the documentary genre, and indeed upon the photographic medium as a whole. —A.S.

Aaron Schuman: How did you first become interested in photography?

Richard Mosse: I come from a family of artists. My grandfather was a sculptor, my uncle is a painter, and my mother studied at Cooper Union under Hans Haacke, so becoming an artist was very natural. My parents are potters, and photography seemed like a kind of antidote to that. Its light-sensitive simulation is at a far remove from ceramics so I took to it at an early age. Shards of pottery that were formed from earth by hand will outlive us all, unlike photographs, which will perish in the sunlight that they once traced. Photography allowed me to be an artist without working in anyone’s shadow. That’s especially the case in Ireland where the medium is not so celebrated, in spite of seminal work by Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Donovan Wylie, and others.

Initially I was drawn to cinema as a teenager, and became obsessed with the French New Wave. But I found the military-style hierarchy of working in a film crew unsatisfying, so gave up filmmaking and concentrated on my degree in English literature. I dug deeper into a career in academia, getting a Masters in Cultural Studies at a left-field institution called the London Consortium—a research body formed in the interstices between the University of London, Tate, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), and the Architectural Association. Studying there gave me the freedom to integrate my own photographs into a written examination of the postwar Balkan landscape, and things evolved from there.

AS: How did that academic experience influence your subsequent pursuit of photography?

RM: I think it’s important that photography is cut through with other disciplines and a wider understanding of the world. Though I loved spending my days in the university’s library, a life in academia seemed removed from lived experience. I wanted to be a maker rather than a critic, a producer rather than a consumer. Photography is an engagement with the world of things, and it has given me a genuine pretext to travel widely and experience what James Joyce called “good warm life.” I’m most excited when there’s an elision of the critical and the creative in my work, so I haven’t discarded my academic foundations. Instead I try to build on them.

AS: The first time we corresponded, in 2003, you quoted Sol LeWitt: “When words such as painting and sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition, thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond limitations.” You then wrote: “Yet I‘ve always insisted on using photography. I think something is about to shift.” Has this “shift” occurred yet—for you, or for photography in general?

RM: At the time I wrote that I was working at Art Monthly, a British art magazine. I wasn’t yet fully practicing as an artist. I was the listings editor, consuming gallery press releases all day long—the best art education possible. Sol LeWitt’s statement now seems slightly tautological. Perhaps a better quote to answer your question might be from Robert Adams: “Photographers have generally been held to a different set of responsibilities than have painters and sculptors, chiefly because of the widespread supposition the photographers want to and can give us objective Truth: the word ‘documentary’ has abetted the prejudice. But does a photographer really have less right to arrange life into a composition, into form, than a painter or sculptor?”

Where LeWitt uses the word traditions, Adams says responsibilities. How much more limiting are your traditions when they are saturated with a moral imperative? The photographer is expected to be “responsible,” but responsible to whom? Documentary photographers whose work bears some relation to photojournalism are particularly constrained. Their expressive arteries have been hardened by years of World Press Photo Awards and the shadow of the intrepid photojournalist sporting a scarf and a Leica. Where would we be if Robert Frank had hidden his Leica in a scarf?

AS: So do you see your work as part of an evolution of photojournalism? And if so, when you find yourself at a hotel bar in Baghdad or Beirut, surrounded by traditional photojournalists, what discussions take place? I know that you’ve got the dusty, weathered boots . . . surely you must have a scarf and a Leica in your wardrobe somewhere as well?

RM: I found myself in Haiti this spring, shooting for a news magazine. It was my first editorial commission, and I ended up back at the hotel bar each night deeply confused, trying to reconcile my instincts with what I felt was expected of me by the editors. Two photojournalists—Jake Price and Scout Tufankjian—rallied to my side. They pointed out that the editors only wanted me to do exactly what I do; they wouldn’t have hired me otherwise. It was so simple, but I couldn’t see that without their help. I find working alongside photojournalists can be very inspiring. They work incredibly hard and are deeply committed. They also make excellent drinking partners.

AS: How do you decide upon your subject matter—is it driven by research and theory, which then leads to a search for the physical manifestations of your underlying idea in the real world, or vice versa? Friedrich was. I’m not so sure that we’re always honest with ourselves about this fascination.

RM: The thing that strikes me about a lot of aftermath photography is the moral high ground that the photographers often take. Their journey into darkness becomes a kind of “performance of the ethical”; witnessing the catastrophe becomes an act of piety, of noblesse oblige, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. I would imagine that most aftermath photography is really just an artist’s quest to find meaning and authenticity through extreme tourism. I’m reminded of the poète maudit, the Romantic antihero who will go to the ends of the earth and transgress all moral boundaries for the ultimate aesthetic experience. This irresponsible, self-destructive rogue was best embodied in the crapulent, wayward lives of artists like Arthur Rimbaud or Paul Gauguin. The “responsibilities” that Robert Adams complained about, abetted by the documentary, seem to preclude the maudit in photography.

AS: Is the notion of “spectacle” important to you?

RM: Last summer I found myself trespassing in an abandoned, war-damaged hotel near Dubrovnik. I tinkered about this Brutalist ruin with my camera, finding various Yugoslav relics from 1991, the year that the hotel became a front line in the fighting between Serb snipers and Croat militias. Then, as I was making my way through the wreckage, I noticed a modern cruise ship anchored in the nearby waters. This huge luxury vessel mirrored the hotel in form; the parallel between the two vast structures was uncanny, and I began to think about their relationship. Placed alongside each other, what sort of dialogue did they open up? The cruise ship, I reasoned, is an unmoored signifier of globalization par excellence, its tourists comfortably numb within their air-conditioned matrix, blissfully ignorant of the traces of war facing them on the cliff. The ruined hotel, on the other hand, spoke of local tribal enmities, of painful regional memories, of conflict and war. I meandered to the conclusion that perhaps war is the only remaining hurdle standing in the way of global amnesia; perhaps war is the only thing that redeems historical narratives in the face of this leveling of identity.

These thoughts followed me back to New York, where I developed the rolls of film that I’d shot in Croatia. On my contact sheets I discovered one image depicting shattered mirrored steps, broken beer bottles, fake flowers, and a hangman’s noose on a dusty ballroom floor. This photograph seemed to mock my fallacious theory about war, memory and the consequences of globalization. I’d dreamed that the evocative ruin represented an alternative to the society of the spectacle—that I’d trespassed in the forbidden wreckage of the real. I flattered that afternoon’s adventure as some sort of original transgression of the spectacular. But the souvenir document that I’d returned with reminded me that the hotel’s bombed-out ballrooms were also the occasional haunt of local ravers. International DJs come with smoke machines and strobe lights and use the place as an exotic live venue, appropriating its authentic war remnants as a stage for hipsters to celebrate their alienation.

I was reminded of Guy Debord’s words. The spectacle, he writes, “is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory.”