The Amazon rain forest has been deforested to a devastating degree. A new series of haunting aerial photographs show just how much.
Photographer Richard Mosse, who has previously captured the refugee crisis in Europe and the effects of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, turned his lens to Brazil’s Arc of Fire, an area of rain forest that has been ravaged by agribusiness, mining, and farming. The images are part of a new series called Tristes Tropiques, an exhibition on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York April 8 through May 15. The project merges documentary photography and contemporary art through the use of multispectral images and haunting color treatments that show the effect of human activity on the environment unlike you’ve seen before.
In 2019, flames surged across the Amazon, burning more than 3,500 square miles of land. Unlike fires in the Australia or California, where forests are naturally more prone to ignition in dry seasons, people either accidentally or purposefully started 99% of these fires to clear the land for agriculture, according to Alberto Setzer, a senior scientist at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). In September of 2019, Mosse went down to Brazil to try to understand it. He knew those viral photos of the forest aflame didn’t tell the whole story.
Mosse bought a consumer-grade multisensor camera, which has 10 lenses to capture invisible light like infrared. These kinds of cameras are often used by farmers, those in agribusiness, and miners to survey for minerals and fertile farmland, according to Mosse. Of course, he’s using the camera for a different purpose: to survey the devastation. He got the camera by pretending to be a farmer.
Snapping the images was no easy feat. Mosse had to either get permission from the people using the land, like illegal miners, or work around them. “Usually I try to get permission and that involves engaging these environmental criminals and befriending them,” says Mosse. When he couldn’t get permission? He flew the drone on an autopilot route anyway. “As a journalist we have to gather data in other ways and in that case I simply fly my drone,” he recalls. But he says that sometimes the land owners would “get really pissed,” and his drone, which seemed to be constantly running out of batteries, would automatically fly back to him and reveal his location. “That was terrifying,” he recalls. Even so, Mosse plans to return this summer to see how the landscape has changed.
Mosse’s camera captured 10 simultaneous images per second (one per lens) while flying between 10 and 50 miles per hour depending on the altitude and image capture size. The camera itself took small-scale photographs, ranging from 5 to 50 square meters. When Mosse returned to his New York studio, he and his studio manager processed the whopping 298,000 images into colorful composite maps, which depicted 0.6 square miles to about 6 square miles in total size.
The final images are striking. Unlike a topographic map, you can’t take the colors literally in this series—they have a different meaning depending on which map you’re looking at, and are an aesthetic tool to “disarm the viewer,” according to Mosse. The green foliage we typically see in rain forest imagery is gone; in its place are high-pigment colors that bring the contrast of agricultural tracks, trees, and waterways to the forefront. Mosse’s color use forces the viewer to consider the devastation in a new way.
Take Burnt Pantanal I and II. The maps plume with rich violet and oxblood reds depicting foliage. In contrast, greens, blues, and browns show the forest’s decay, and black shows the final death of plant life. Look closely at the image of the Subterranean Fire, Pantanal, and you’ll notice a tiny white truck on the road at the very bottom, with some people nearby. It’s a team of guys pumping water to fight underground burn through root systems—an impossible task when seen at scale.
According to Mosse, Tristes Tropiques melds the two tentpoles of his practice—documentary photography and contemporary art. Documentary photography establishes a testimonial. It’s a witness. “I’ve seen these processes, and I want you to see them,” he says. “I don’t think you’re going to go to illegal mining towns. I want to show you what it looks like and what the process we are responsible for are doing to the environment quite simply.” Contemporary art expands that perception. “It has a power to find the limits of human articulation and human perceptions and make visible what exists outside of our abilities to articulate through language,” Mosse says. For him, this is particularly salient with big issues like climate change, a process that is hard for people to perceive. “With contemporary art you have this ability to reveal the unseen,” Mosse says, “to make the unseen visible.”