Richard Mosse Photos of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest
Former photojournalist-turned-artist Richard Mosse used infrared light to explore the long-standing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and thermal radiation to highlight migrants’ journeys to Europe. Mosse is extremely good at using technology creatively to highlight complex social issues and his latest work, with multispectral imagery in the Amazon rainforest, is no less haunting.
Using the same technology that agriculture and forestry companies use to monitor the region, it creates otherworldly images to spread awareness of the extent of damage to the Amazon Basin. Images of the rainforest fire have been widely seen in recent years. In an interview with Vice World, Mosse described the region as a war zone. The policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – including rapid deforestation to expand agribusiness and mining – exacerbated the 2019 wildfires. Mosse’s images also show less obvious forms of damage, from the pollution from the effects of monoculture, or the practice of repeatedly cultivating a single crop on the same land.
His work helps us understand the multi-level destruction that is happening now, even though the numbers related to the climate crisis and deforestation are difficult to grasp. Mosse’s technicolor landscapes are the definition of surreal, and these beautiful images are a warning that we will lose this huge, diverse ecosystem if we are not more careful. BuzzFeed News emailed Richard Mosse to discuss his process.
How long have you worked in the Amazon? And how did this project come about?
In the summer of 2019, there was a turning point in reports of Amazon rainforest deforestation. For a while, the world’s attention was drawn to this ongoing environmental disaster. I wanted to try and focus my own lens on it, but I was immediately struck by the difficulties faced by any photographer or storyteller trying to convey such vast atmospheric processes.
In a recent article, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Climate change is invisible, in everyday political consciousness, because it occurs on a scale too vast in time and space to be seen with the naked eye and because that it concerns imperceptible phenomena such as atmospheric composition. It was really the starting point for me. I am fascinated by the limits of human language and perception and have tried to solve this visibility problem by using camera technologies that see invisible forms of light, which literally and metaphorically “make the invisible visible”, in the words of Solnit.
It was no easy task in the Amazon, where deforestation is occurring on a devastating scale. Almost everywhere I went the landscape was being razed to the ground for agribusiness and rivers ravaged by mines and dams. The scale and complexity of these processes taking place in time and space are extremely difficult to articulate with a modest camera. I have struggled to find a suitable tool that allows me to communicate these urgent environmental stories adequately.
Deforestation, for example, is a process that takes years. This entire cycle releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane while destroying one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. It is not easy to show. The destruction of the rainforest is happening everywhere, in several countries, willfully carried out by millions of people. This is certainly visible, but the processes that occur on the earth itself can be very difficult to describe.
Thinking about all of this and struggling to describe it, I discovered that scientists who analyze changes in the environment use certain remote sensing cameras carried by satellites in space. These special cameras are multisensor arrays that image solar energy reflected from the Earth’s surface below. Each sensor picks up a different wavelength or band of reflected light. These tapes carry huge amounts of useful information about health and environmental stress.
During this time, I learned that remote sensing multispectral cameras are widely used in agro-industry and by mining companies to exploit the environment more profitably. So we could say that this camera technology is at the heart of the whole story as it is used by scientists to help us fully understand the scale and impact of the problem while being a tool for the agri-food and mining industries, responsible for this systematic destruction. . I am fascinated when I find a medium that is, in a way, an agent in the subject that I am trying to describe, not least because it is tailor-made to clearly represent the changes in the landscape in a powerful way.
The camera I could afford was a small 10 band multispectral camera designed for the agro-industry to help farmers understand which crops are under stress and need special attention. This camera was designed for drone use. I attached it to a drone and, with great difficulty, learned to automatically fly the camera to environmental crime sites across Brazil.[Operation] Arc of Fire ”, a kind of first line of deforestation and illegal activities that stretches thousands of kilometers from the Pantanal [region] to the west by the states of Mato Grosso, Amazonas and Pará. According to a recent MapBiomas report, 99% of deforestation in Brazil results from illegal activities. These crimes are happening openly; you come across a large number of them while driving. Environmental crime and deforestation in the Amazon have been normalized, and my goal is to highlight and communicate these crimes in order, in Rebecca Solnit’s words, to “render unacceptable what has long been accepted”.
The images combine different bands of multispectral reflectance data to create electric colors; yet, articulated on such detailed organic landscapes, the resulting images seem very fragile. This work conveys frangible organic matter dominated by the extractive violence of man. They are living maps, showing signs of life, but evoke wasting, tipping points and ecocide.
Your work is presented in galleries but deals very directly with human crises. What audience are you trying to reach?
Galleries are a blank canvas for the creative expression of an artist. This artist is free to create political, transgressive, academic, ambitious, opaque, dry, allusive, critical or as crazy works of art as he wishes. You don’t get these freedoms as a photographer working with magazines or newspapers, which have tight deadlines and restrictive orthodoxies in terms of narrative visual language, as well as certain codes. Your work is often used to illustrate a writer’s text, which can be limiting. So I prefer to show my work in art galleries because it allows me to speak freely and hopefully new powerful ways.
If work hits the moment, these conversations can become very important. It all starts with gallery exhibitions, where you are free to create something entirely new. I know the art market has a bad reputation, but many art collectors I know are very serious about supporting artists who take risks and speak the truth in original ways.
What inspires your work?
Throughout my practice, I have sought ways to push the boundaries of documentary forms to bring to life urgent, global stories that may have been exhausted in mainstream news media. I start with photographic imaging technologies, but I also take literature as a starting point or develop my ideas with references to a selection of related texts or novels. This project emerges in some ways from the masterpiece of anthropological study and travel writing by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Sad tropics. My last project, Entering, was greatly inspired by JM Coetzee Waiting for the barbarians, Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar steppeand Franz Kafka The castle. And previous works, Infra and The Enclave, were inspired by Joseph Conrad’s short story Heart of darkness.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a photographer?
I guess it should be Samuel Beckett’s “Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better”. I find my own failures and dead ends to be very generous as an artist. As a documentary photographer, a great tip comes from ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky: “You miss all the shots you don’t take.”