In Richard Mosse’s series, Heat Maps and Incoming, refugees in camps and staging grounds are rendered as ghostly black-and-white apparitions. These surreal monochromatic landscapes and portraits aren’t the product of a filter or careful retouching; they’re generated by a military-grade surveillance camera that’s officially considered a weapon of war.
Mosse is known for his highly technical photographs that invite people to see the evidence of human atrocities anew. He shot his 2011 Infra series, which documents war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on infrared film that renders chlorophyll–aka the pigment that makes plants green–as bright magenta. The film was was originally invented in the 1940s to help the military spot people in dense vegetation. The seemingly benign pink fields, which look like fine art, are actually the product of technology intended for government surveillance.
Mosse takes a similar approach with his most recent work, but ups the ante by using a sophisticated tool developed for modern warfare.
A wildlife photographer initially introduced Mosse to the thermal imaging camera, which is capable of detecting human bodies over 18 miles away. Developed for surveillance by a company that also makes cruise missiles and drones, the camera is intended to be connected to weapons systems to help track targets.
“The camera is sanctioned as a weapon under international law, and falls under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR),” Mosse writes in “Transmigration of The Souls,” an introductory essay to a forthcoming book about his work. “To carry the camera across international borders without an official certificate of export clearance is regarded as the crime of weapons smuggling.”
Unlike a typical lens, which is glass, this one is made from germanium, a rare earth mineral. The 50-pound camera is about as far from a point-and-shoot as you can get, in terms of how the device is operated. It’s intended to be stationed in a single spot and operated remotely by a laptop. Mosse and his team had to hack the camera to use it for his documentary purposes. They worked with the camera’s designer to develop a way to focus and zoom the device using an X-Box controller, built a custom steady cam, and ordered special batteries to enable field work.
The camera’s monochromatic images–which show different heat levels–reduce subjects down to biological functions. You can’t see their personality, how they dress, or their skin color; you can only see that they’re human beings. This paradox–humans made more human by abstracting and mediating their image through heat signals–invited close inspection. Mosse was attracted to the irony in the images, that a “coldly brutal” camera could create something that could be appreciated for its aesthetic value.
“We are portrayed as vulnerable organisms, corporeally incandescent, our mortality foregrounded. Before this device, we are ciphers,” Mosse continues. “Even at close range, the camera is unable to perceive that vehicle of emotional communication, the eye’s pupils. Instead, it represents the eyes as viscous black jelly. The usual signals of human empathy are turned on their head. We are left confused, alienated, the world feels suddenly unfamiliar, new.”
Mosse is reappropriating a military technology most of us haven’t heard of to produce images unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It’s a potent comment on the crisis of human displacement, its causes, and its effects.
“We were trying to work the technology against itself, to brush it against the grain,” Mosse writes. “But we weren’t attempting to rescue this apparatus from its sinister purpose. Rather, we were trying to enter into its logic–the logic of proprietary government authorities–to foreground this technology of discipline and regulation, and to create a work of art that reveals it.”
We’ve been inundated with photographs–of crowded refugee camps, of boats packed to the gills with people on dangerous journeys, and of countless shots of people who have been injured or killed in the process–to the point that we’re numb. Mosse’s photos re-open our eyes to the aftermath of war, while also revealing the complex technology that governments use to wage it.